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Six Points... on the win over the Rams

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Ike Taylor not earning a selection to the AFC Pro Bowl roster is criminal, considering he's been one of the best cornerbacks in the league this season, but the fact that the national media doesn't even realize he was snubbed is even worse. That and more in this week's Six Points.

Brandon Lloyd could name at least one player that should have been a Pro Bowler. That’d be cornerback Ike Taylor, who held the Ram’s top receiving threat to three catches for 29 yards. What’s more, those three catches came on TWELVE targets, meaning nine passes intended for Lloyd fell incomplete. Considering his quarterback, Kellen Clemens, only had six incompletions to the rest of his offense, that’s a fairly significant number.

Really, I’m not sure what’s more unbelievable to me: that Ike wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl or that so-called national experts didn’t even realize he was snubbed. I’ve read more than a handful of “snub lists” since the rosters were announced, and not one of them so much as mentioned Ike. Everyone’s go-to snub seemed to be Cleveland’s Joe Haden, who is having a fine season, but not nearly as fine as Ike.

If you’re a fan of basic numbers, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Mark Kaboly has them. He’s been charting Ike’s success all season, and tweeted that the corner is giving up on 2.7 receptions and 30.8 yards per game to opposing wideouts. In addition, he has allowed only two touchdowns all season.

If you’re a fan of advanced numbers, the stat-geeks at Football Outsiders have them. They gave us football-nerds a late Christmas present on Monday, sharing their early charting numbers for cornerbacks. Lo and behold, Ike Taylor ranks third on their list in success rate, which is exactly what it sounds like – success in either preventing the pass or limiting a completion to a minimal gain. Ike Taylor’s 70% success rate on 72 targets is behind only Jabari Greer (New Orleans; 71%) and Darrelle Revis (New York; 73%).

Taylor’s 4.9 yards per pass allowed ranks 7th according to their numbers, despite the fact that Ike is challenged with longer attempts than about 75% of the other corners represented. Oddly enough, FO (who is almost always pretty good) doesn’t so much as mention Ike in their cursory observations. They essentially talk around him, discussing Revis and Greer and then jumping to talk about #’s 4-6 on their list.

When you look back at the tape, with these numbers in mind, his performances look even better. Taylor is like Revis in that he shadows a player instead of playing a certain side of the field, something that isn’t too common among cornerbacks. That player is almost always the team’s top receiving threat, which means his per-game averages and success rate look even better, because the level of competition is consistently higher than that of other corners.

What Ike lacks is fantasy football numbers. If you were to go to an NFL stats list and sort by interceptions, it’s likely that he’s not on the first page (he has two this season). Unfortunately, the Pro Bowl is now less about recognition of great play and more about popularity and fantasy numbers. Despite his great play, Ike loses in the latter two areas.

It’s not truly a surprise, though. The Pro Bowl has been moving in this direction for years. How else do you explain the appearances of Brian Urlacher, Dwight Freeney, and Champ Bailey on these rosters? That’s name-recognition at work. Phillip Rivers’ selection as the AFC’s third quarterback? That’s all about fantasy numbers.

A number of writers have pointed to fan-voting as the issue, as the fans currently make up a third of the vote. They’re a problem, but what about the players, who make up another third? Do you really think your average NFC player is that well-informed about who deserves a shot to play on an AFC roster, and vice versa? I imagine more than a few players take their time and do their homework with their selections, as they would want the same done for them when selecting what is essentially an award in their profession (I imagine there are fans that take it seriously as well). But I don’t doubt that more than a few players mail in their selections and fly through looking for familiar names while looking at stats pages.

In short, I can somewhat understand why Ike Taylor didn’t make the roster, even though he’s in the midst of his finest season. He’s not flashy and doesn’t put up numbers in what is essentially a popularity contest.

But with the lack of recognition as a snub by national writers, you have to figure his chances at an All-Pro nod are non-existent, as the All-Pro roster is elected by a panel of football writers, not fans or players.

Honestly, it’s a recognition he deserves.

The Steelers need to start dressing an extra offensive lineman on game days. Let’s face it, the current group of lineman is not durable. There have been two instances in the last two seasons where the Steelers have been down to their last healthy body at the position, including a game earlier this year where an already injured Marcus Gilbert had to go back in because the team had nobody left.

Mike Tomlin already insisted that if third-string center Trai Essex went down in Saturday’s contest, Doug Legursky would have stepped back in, despite a shoulder injury. With Legursky already slated to miss this week’s game, would that have been a wise decision?

Max Starks, the team’s left tackle, suffered a season-ending neck injury last season. Legursky, who has played guard and center, has been injured multiple times this season. Maurkice Pouncey continues to battle ankle injuries dating from last season. Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert have both dealt with injuries this season.

That’s just the starters. Essex, Jonathan Scott, and Chris Kemoeatu aren’t that reliable from an injury perspective and Willie Colon, who was originally slated to start at right tackle, hasn’t made it past the first game in the last two seasons.

As such, the team should really consider dressing eight linemen each game instead of their usual seven. While it’s always fun to ask who would have been the next player up in an emergency situation (like David Johnson at tackle), it’s not something any of us would particularly like to see.

Antonio Brown is leading the charge for a revamped special teams unit. Brown, who was named the team’s MVP (as voted by players) just a few days after breaking the team’s record for all-purpose yards in a season, is the star of what is easily Pittsburgh’s best special teams unit in the past half-decade or longer.

By no means is it a dominant group and it certainly has its flaws, but it is assuredly a breath of fresh air over the units of years past, where every opposing return was a hold-your-breath moment.

Brown was solid enough to earn a spot in the Pro Bowl as the AFC’s return-man. He provides the steadiness of a Stefan Logan with the big-play threat of an Antwaan Randle El. He has also shown that he’s a willing tackler, as Rams’ punter Donnie Jones can attest. Unfortunately for the group, Brown’s value is a receiver will likely have him off of special teams duties in future campaigns.

On the other side of the field, players like Arnaz Battle, Will Allen, and Curtis Brown (among others) have shored up Pittsburgh’s coverage units. Those days of allowing a return a game seem to be over. The longest kickoff return against the Steelers was 45 yards and the longest punt was 20 yards.

Jeremy Kapinos once again took over for an injured Daniel Sepulveda, but he has clearly progressed from last season – jumping from 41.1 yards per punt in 2010 to 45.0 this year.

The only black mark has been Shaun Suisham, who is making only 75% of his field goals this season. It appears as though the coaching staff doesn’t fully trust him to get the job done when it counts, as fans saw when Tomlin trotted out the punt team (and earned a delay of game) instead of attempting a long field goal against Baltimore. To his credit, he has improved his kickoff distance (even with the five-yard bonus), putting the Steelers in the top-three in that category.

This game only underscored that the Steelers need home dates on their path to the Super Bowl. Sorry, but this isn’t the 2005 team, that embraced the comforts of opposing stadiums on the way to the Super Bowl. This year’s version of the Steelers plays lights out at home, and out cold on the road.

If the Steelers get their way in the final week and are able to lock up a home game (or home-field) and a first-round bye, they have a legitimate shot of making the Super Bowl yet again.

If they’re forced into a wild-card spot which has them playing on the road, they might be able to sneak out with a first-week win, but their overall chances of going all the way are slim.

The Rams are the worst team in the NFL. I had a feeling it would be a massacre, regardless of who started at quarterback for the Steelers. Turns out, I was right.

No pass defense, the league’s worst run defense, the league’s lowest-scoring offense – they’re a hard team to watch. I legitimately feel bad for Steven Jackson, who continues to fight despite the fact that St. Louis can’t field a competitive team around him. Jackson remains one of the league’s best runners and could go down as one of its biggest wasted talents (see also: Joe Thomas in Cleveland).

That said, don’t read too much into what you saw on Saturday. However, there is one thing of note to take out of the win: Pittsburgh did what it needed to do. The Steelers picked up a win, when it mattered, without its full starting cast, and soundly beat an inferior team.

In the spirit of the team awards, announced Thursday, let me share some of my own favorite interviewees. The Pro Football Writers’ Pittsburgh chapter voted on the recipient of this year’s “The Chief Award,” handed out to the Steelers who “best exemplifies the spirit of cooperation with the media.” This year’s recipient was linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior, who earned the recognition for the second time in the last three seasons.

It’s a great choice, as Farrior has always been fair, honest, and forthcoming with the local media. For fun, and to share a little insight into what I do, I’m going to share my own favorite players to talk to – the guys I know I can rely on if I need a quote. Farrior’s a given, so I’ll leave him out for now.

LB Stevenson Sylvester – I first talked to “Sly” early on in his rookie season and was impressed with how well-spoken he was back then. He’s been continuing in the right direction this season. He’s friendly, he’s cooperative, and he’s knowledgeable. Oddly enough, he’s slated to be the heir apparent to Farrior when the latter retires. He could be in line for a Chief award if he becomes a starter.

LB Lawrence Timmons – Timmons has improved as an interviewee since he’s been here, and I think he’s become a little underrated in that area. I have rarely jumped into a group interview with him (I tend to avoid the scrums), but have found him to be solid in a one-on-one setting.

DE Brett Keisel – He’s honest and shares his knowledge with a dash of humor. Always a fun and productive interview.

LT Max Starks – As a writer, I was glad to see him get back in the fold earlier this season. He’s given me some great quotes when I’ve gone to him. Oddly enough, the majority of the team’s offensive linemen are solid interviews.

FS Ryan Clark – Clark occasionally gets a bad rap and doesn’t always see eye to eye with the media – he got into a shouting match with one radio personality in August’s training camp, for instance. However, he is always available and accountable after a game – win or lose – when some players are sprinting to get out of the locker room. He’s always been friendly and fair to me and I have always come out of a one-on-one satisfied with the material he has given me.

That’s just my own personal list, and I could name at least a dozen honorable mentions if given the time (guys like Chris Hoke, etc.).

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