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Tomlin Report - Defending First Place

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The Steelers are in the driver's seat in the AFC North, maintaining a one-game lead over the Ravens with four games remaining. Pittsburgh prepares for a visit from the 2-10 Bengals on Sunday.

Cincinnati Bengals (2-10) at Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3)

at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA / Sunday, December 12 – 1:00 PM on CBS

Steelers: 9-3, first place AFC North / Favorite: Steelers by 9


Bengals: Lost to Saints 34-30 in Cincinnati

· Cincinnati was in the game until a costly mistake, something that has been far too common of late, gave New Orleans a path to a game-winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining.

· Of course, the Bengals also started the game with a mistake. A running into the kicker call turned a short punt by New Orleans into a long field goal and a 3-0 deficit. Cincinnati would tie on a later drive with a 29-yard field goal by newly-signed kicker Clint Stitser.

· That tie score was short-lived, however, as three plays later, Saints RB Chris Ivory gashed Cincinnati’s defense for a 55-yard touchdown run and a 10-3 New Orleans lead.

· A 45-yard pass interference call helped Cincinnati sneak into the redzone on the ensuing drive, but they were forced the settle for a 23-yard field goal

· The Bengals would push into the redzone on their next drive as well, but turned the ball over as RB Cedric Benson was stuffed on a fourth-and-one at the New Orleans five-yard line. Cincinnati made three trips into the redzone in the first half and came away with only six points.

· A field goal by New Orleans kicker Garrett Hartley gave the Saints a 13-6 halftime lead.

· The Saints would increase that lead to 20-6 on the opening drive of the second half thanks to a one-yard plunge by Ivory.

· A five-yard answering touchdown pass from QB Carson Palmer to WR Terrell Owens swung momentum back in Cincinnati’s favor. Owens led the team in catches (six), but only produced 47 yards on the day.

· An interception by safety Reggie Nelson gave the ball back to the Bengals, who capitalized with a one-yard touchdown run by RB Cedric Benson, bringing Cincinnati within one point.

· Unfortunately, the defense again had trouble stopping the big play. Just three plays after Cinci’s touchdown, Saints QB Drew Brees hit WR Robert Meachem for a 52-yard touchdown, putting New Orleans up 27-19.

· Cincinnati refused to go quietly and pushed its way downfield en route Benson’s second touchdown of the day, a four-yarder. The Bengals tied the game at 27-all with a two-point conversion (Palmer to rookie TE Jermaine Gresham). Benson finished with just 49 yards on 19 carries, but did score two touchdowns.

· The Bengals defense picked up a 15-yard sack on third down of the Saints next drive and the resulting punt was returned past midfield. The excellent field position set up a 47-yard field goal by Stitser, giving Cincinnati its first lead of the game with four minutes remaining.

· New Orleans pushed its way into the endzone before stalling out. Rather than go for the game-tying field goal immediately, the Saints offense lined up on fourth-and-two in an effort to coax a defensive player offsides. It worked. Bengals defensive lineman Pat Sims jumped, giving New Orleans a free first down. On the next play, Brees found Marques Colston in the endzone for the game-winning touchdown with under a minute remaining.

· The Bengals couldn’t answer and the game ended 34-30 in favor of the Saints. It was Cincinnati’s ninth-straight loss.

Steelers: Beat the Ravens 13-10 in Baltimore

· In one of the best games of the season, a clutch play from Troy Polamalu helped Pittsburgh even the series against the Ravens and claim first place in the AFC North.

· Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, already hobbled with a foot injury, added a broken nose to his list of ailments early in the game but pressed on and continued playing.

· Defense ruled the day early, until a 61-yard bomb from Ravens QB Joe Flacco to WR Anquan Boldin broke the stymie. The two would hook up again for a fourteen-yard score to give Baltimore a 7-0 lead.

· From there, it was all defense again until halftime meaning that the 7-0 lead would stand until the third quarter.

· Pittsburgh switched to a no-huddle offense in the second half and it paid immediate dividends, setting up a 45-yard field by kicker Shaun Suisham (who was also acting as the team’s punter due to an earlier injury to Daniel Sepulveda.

· Baltimore forced its way into the redzone on the following drive, but had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff, once again putting the Ravens up by seven points.

· Borrowing a play from New Orleans’ playbook earlier in the day, Pittsburgh caught a Ravens defender offsides on a fourth-and-one attempt. The drive was extended by that free first down but the Steelers came up just short in the redzone, leading to a 19-yard field goal by Suisham and cutting the deficit to four points at 10-6.

· Defense ruled for a third stint in the fourth quarter before Troy Polamalu made what may be one of the signature plays of Pittsburgh’s season. Polamalu came clean on a blitz, stripping QB Joe Flacco of the ball. A recovery and short return gave the Steelers offense the ball inside the Ravens ten-yard line.

· After a heady play to get rid of the ball and prevent a sack on the first play of the drive, Big Ben hit RB Isaac Redman with a short pass and Redzone Redman did the rest, plowing his way into the endzone for a nine-yard touchdown and giving Pittsburgh a 13-10 lead with less than three minutes remaining.

· The Ravens failed to convert a fourth down on the following drive, giving Pittsburgh a win and first place in the division.

· Ben Roethlisberger finished with 253 yards on 22-of-38 passing with one touchdown and one interception. WR Mike Wallace led all receivers with five catches for 76 yards.

· LB James Farrior, CB Ike Taylor, DE Ziggy Hood, and SS Troy Polamalu all registered sacks in the game, with Polamalu’s also causing a fumble.

· Farrior led the team with seven total tackles.


A Look Around the AFC North

Baltimore (8-4) losing to Pittsburgh was huge, as it took away a valuable head-to-head tiebreaker and has the Ravens staring at a wild card spot instead of a division crown. After the loss, WR Derrick Mason was vocal about an offense that isn’t getting it done, saying it’s “like the Bad News Bears at times.” That offense took a hit on Sunday with an injury to TE Todd Heap that will likely keep the reliable pass-catcher on the sidelines this week.

For Week 14, it’s back to primetime football for the Ravens as they square off against the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football.

Cleveland (5-7) needed a 23-yard field goal by Phil Dawson on the final play of the game to edge Miami in a 13-10 squeaker. QB Jake Delhomme finished the game without a turnover (!), but not for lack of trying. Late in the contest, Delhomme fired a pass straight to a defensive back that simply dropped the ball. The defender had a clear path to the endzone which means, if he catches it, Miami rings up a game-winning defensive touchdown. For the sake of the present and future, the Browns should be hoping that rookie Colt McCoy recovers soon from his ankle sprain.

Regardless of who starts, they’ll be squaring off against a very-friendly Buffalo Bills defense this Sunday.

THE PATH TO THE PLAYOFFS - AFC Playoff Picture as of 12/7/10

Division Leaders: New England Patriots (10-2), Pittsburgh Steelers (9-3), Kansas City Chiefs (8-4), Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5)

Wild Cards: New York Jets (9-3), Baltimore Ravens (8-4)

In the Hunt: Oakland Raiders (6-6), San Diego Chargers (6-6), Indianapolis Colts (6-6), Miami Dolphins (6-6), Houston Texans (5-7), Tennessee Titans (5-7), Cleveland Browns (5-7)

This year’s playoff race features two top-heavy divisions (North and East) and two divisions still relatively up for grabs (West and South). We’re still a week or two away from any semi-reasonable clinching scenarios (save one), so here are a few notes on how the playoff chase is shaping up.

First, the one exception in terms of clinching scenarios: if New England wins (or ties) this week, they clinch a spot in the playoffs. With a 10-2 record and a head-to-head tiebreaker over Pittsburgh, New England is the odds-on favorite to claim the #1 seed and home-field advantage.

Pittsburgh’s win over Baltimore took away the Ravens’ crucial head-to-head tiebreaker. Now, the Steelers are one game up in the division, boast a better division record than Baltimore (a solid tiebreaker), and have an easier final stretch than the Ravens. As such, they have the inside-track in claiming the #2 seed in the conference which would give the banged-up Steelers a much-needed bye week and a home game to start the playoffs.

Kansas City has a two-game lead in the AFC West, but still has a game each against rivals Oakland and San Diego. Of the two, Oakland is their biggest threat as the Raiders won their earlier meeting and swept San Diego in their own series. Because of that sweep and a poor division record, San Diego would need to leapfrog both Kansas City and Oakland by a full win to earn a division crown or wild card spot (though the wild card spot is much less likely).

In the AFC South, Jacksonville has a one-game lead over Indianapolis and two-game lead over Houston and Tennessee. The Jags split the Tennessee series and have a win-in-hand against Houston and Indianapolis.

Cleveland’s playoff fate primarily resides in a faint hope of a wild card spot, likely coming at the expense of Baltimore. In that wild card race, the Jets’ superior record puts them in favorable position to earn one of the two spots, meaning that Cleveland or any team that runs the table (but loses the division) in the West or South would need a late-season collapse by Baltimore (a 1-3 or 0-4 finish) to steal the other wild card spot.


Claiming a road victory against a tough division opponent in what may have been the team’s most important game of the season.


P Daniel Sepulveda sustained an ACL tear in his planting leg in the first half of Sunday’s game. He will be placed on IR, ending his season. Typically, an ACL injury comes with a lengthy recovery period, meaning this injury could affect his availability for next season’s training camp.

RT Flozell Adams suffered what coach Tomlin referred to as a “mild high ankle sprain.” He is characterized as QUESTIONABLE this week. If he can’t go, Trai Essex will start at right tackle.

QB Ben Roethlisberger had surgery to repair his broken nose on Monday and will wear a clear face shield on his helmet this week. He finished the game against Baltimore with the broken nose and previously-listed broken foot and is PROBABLE to play this weekend.

TE Heath Miller left Sunday’s game with a concussion and Tomlin wasn’t too optimistic about his availability at this point in the week. Miller will have to pass the usual battery of post-concussion tests and is DOUBTFUL against the Bengals.

His likely replacement, TE Matt Spaeth, should be good to go after be cleared medically following his own concussion that sidelined him for the past two games. He’ll be PROBABLE for this week.

S Troy Polamalu (ankle) will continue to be limited in practice but remains a pretty safe bet to play and play well each week. He’s PROBABLE.

DE Aaron Smith is showing signs of progress as he begins to lift weights again after sustaining a triceps injury earlier in the season. He may be able to get back on the field in time for the playoffs as the team hoped, but is definitely OUT for this week.


To fill the void left by the injury to Daniel Sepulveda, Pittsburgh signed punter Jeremy Kapinos on Tuesday. Kapinos performed spot duty for Indianapolis earlier this season and was Green Bay’s starting punter for all of 2009. Kapinos punted collegiately at Penn State.

“He’s a guy that met the criteria that we’re looking for to be quite honest with you,” said Tomlin. “He’s got league experience. He’s kicked in games this year, and he’s no stranger to the elements as we know that may be a factor for us moving forward.”


Cincinnati’s only injury of note at this point in the week involves rookie CB Brandon Ghee (groin) who is listed as QUESTIONABLE for Sunday.


Can Pittsburgh show some dominance and put a 2-10 Cincinnati team away early or will the Bengals be able to hang around like they did in the teams’ earlier meeting?


QB Carson Palmer; WRs Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco, and Jordan Shipley; RBs Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott, and Brian Leonard; TE Jermaine Gresham; DEs Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers, and Michael Johnson; DT Geno Atkins; LBs Rey Maualuga, Dhani Jones, and Keith Rivers; CBs Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph; SS Reggie Nelson


· Head coach Marvin Lewis is a McDonald, PA native. Lewis coached at Pitt from 1990-91 and served as the Steelers’ linebackers coach from 1992-95.

· Defensive line coach Jay Hayes is originally from South Fayette, PA and was the Steelers’ special teams coach from 1999-2001.

· His younger brother, Jonathan Hayes, played tight end for the Steelers from 1994-96 and now coaches the tight ends for the Bengals.

· Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was the Steelers’ wide receivers coach from 1999-2000.


“When you look at how the Cincinnati Bengals are different, they have sustained a significant number of injuries in their defensive line over the course of the season. I would imagine that they would be pleasantly surprised by the talent and skill of their young players that they have on their defensive line. This young man rush rotation that they have has been pretty impressive over the last several weeks. We’re going to have our work cut out for us there with young guys like Carlos Dunlap, a rookie out of Florida. I think he leads them in sacks. Man, he’s come on like gangbusters. They’re playing Robert Geathers inside in rush situations. He’s highly athletic and a big matchup problem for guards. Geno Atkins, a young under tackle-like guy out of Georgia, is another guy that’s being very disruptive on the inside for them. And of course Michael Johnson, who is a second or third-year man out of Georgia Tech, is the other end. Those four young guys come in during passing situations and are really rushing well together.”
– On the Bengals injury-plagued defensive line. Curiously, he didn’t mention DT Pat Sims, whose fourth-down jump offsides resulted in a game-winning touchdown by New Orleans last week.

“They are a 2-9 football team or so, no doubt. But they’ve been in just about every football game. They made us absolutely miserable the last time we played them. This is an AFC North matchup. We expect no different, 60 minutes of football is going to be required.” – Discussing the Cincinnati Bengals, who boast seven one-score losses out of their 10 total defeats this season.

“It was an element of the equation but I wasn’t going to let it be a significant element.  We need a punter.  We have some holder candidates on our football team.  Some guys that have held in NFL football games and are capable. Antwaan Randle El is one of them.  So I was not going to let holding be the determining factor in selecting a punter. I was more interested in the punting.” – When asked if Kapinos’ holding abilities factored into the equation in picking him over other prospective punters. Sepulveda continues to serve as the team’s holder in Baltimore even after his injury.

“We are getting a lot of contribution from young guys and it is funny when you look at the stats sheet after the game and you see guys like Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Isaac Redman and David Johnson catching multiple passes.  It is encouraging, not necessarily comfortable, but encouraging.” – On the young talent making a name for themselves for this year’s Steelers. Wallace and Sanders were the team’s two leading receivers and Redman scored the team’s only touchdown on Sunday. In a later quote, he also threw Ziggy Hood’s name into the mix of impressive young players contributing to the success of the team.

“[Suisham] hit 45-yarder into the wind, but actually it was two yards out of our agreed upon range based on from what happened in pregame. I think the ball was at the 27-yard line, and I was really going to be comfortable when the ball was at the 25-yard line or in. I took a shot at it, and gave the man a competitor’s opportunity. He made the play and that wind was significant at that end of the stadium.” – Discussing the team’s first field goal of the game. Throughout the game, high winds played a factor in kicking situations with gusts reaching as high as 30 MPH.

“It was not a surprise to me that Baltimore did not attempt a field goal at the 48-yard line in that same direction. 45 yards was pushing it.” – On the Ravens decision to forgo a game-tying field goal into the wind (the same direction as the Suisham kick). Baltimore failed to convert on their fourth down chance though, ending their hopes at a win or tie.


Rookie WR Antonio Brown to remain active, as he’s impressed the coaching staff with his abilities as a return man and receiver In fact, he, like fellow rookie Emmanuel Sanders, may have leapfrogged Antwaan Randle El on the team’s receiving depth chart.


“We have a bunch of volunteers and it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to use them.” – On Hines Ward apparently volunteering to serve as the team’s tight end if David Johnson (who was the last tight end left at the time) went down with an in-game injury.

“There is another guy who is I am sure willing to play tight end and he is probably the first place I would go.  He is an awesome athlete.” – On defensive end Brett Kiesel, who returned to action against Baltimore and showed off his catch-and-run skills earlier in the season with a long pick-six.

“He doesn’t get a lot of notoriety because he plays behind Heath Miller, but he is not a back up. He is a starter in waiting as far as we’re concerned. If given the opportunity the standards for him will be Heath-like.” – On TE Matt Spaeth, who missed the last two games with a concussion but is ready to roll this week. If Heath Miller can’t go, Spaeth will start in his place at tight end.


That rout at the hands of New England back in November looks a bit easier to swallow now than it did then. The Patriots have scored 45 points in their last two games, including Monday’s 45-3 win over the New York Jets.

According to Football Outsiders advanced statistics, New England’s offense may be playing better than traditional stats indicate. This year’s Patriots offense is just hair behind the 2007 16-0 version at the same point in their season, which currently ranks as the best offense in the NFL over the last 15 years (by what used to be a fairly wide margin). The 2010 team, which is red hot right now, could end up surpassing the 2007 team though, which faded down the stretch.

Of course, it the Pittsburgh Steelers want another crack at the Super Bowl, they’ll likely have to go through New England to get there. Hmm...

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