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Tomlin Report - Thursday Must-See TV

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The playoff-bound Steelers have a short week as they prepare for the 2-12 Carolina Panthers, who come to town on Thursday on the heels of a victory over Arizona. No word on the availability of safety Troy Polamalu, although tight end Heath Miller is expected back in the line-up.

Carolina Panthers (2-12) at Pittsburgh Steelers 10-4

Heinz Field, Pittsburgh; Thursday Dec. 23, 8:20 PM; NFL Network, KDKA-TV (in Pgh); Steelers: first place AFC North, favored by 13.5

LAST WEEK


Panthers: Beat the Cardinals 19-12 in Carolina

· Carolina prevailed in a matchup between two of the NFL’s worst teams starting two rookie quarterbacks.

· After holding Arizona to the a three-and-out, the Panthers churned out rushing yards on offense, pushing the ball to the ten-yard line before settling for a 28-yard field goal by John Kasay.

· A second stalled drive by the Cardinals led to another scoring opportunity for Carolina, who combined their rushing attack with a few opportunistic pass plays to, once again, drive into the redzone. However, for the second time in a row, they were forced to settle for a field goal (29 yards) and a 6-0 lead.

· The two teams traded drives to start the second quarter before Arizona made the game’s first mistake. S Sherrod Martin picked off Arizona QB John Skelton, giving the ball to the Panthers offense in the redzone.

· One play later, rookie QB Jimmy Clausen found TE Jeff King for a 16-yard touchdown, putting the one-win Panthers up 13-0. Clausen finished the day 13-of-19 for 141 yards and a touchdown.

· Arizona finally got a crack at Carolina’s redzone shortly before halftime, but came away with a 23-yard Jay Feely field goal leaving the Panthers up by ten.

· The Cardinals attempted an onsides kick to open the second half, but Carolina recovered and turned the short field into a 24-yard field goal, taking a 16-3 lead.

· After a series of failed drives, Kasay would add his fourth field goal of the game, from 43-yards out, to put the Panthers up by 16 with a quarter to play.

· Carolina looked to put the game away by forcing a three-and-out and driving into Arizona territory in the fourth, but a fumble by RB Jonathan Stewart ended the scoring chance. Stewart led the team with 27 carries for 137 yards.

· Arizona took that turnover and turned it into a touchdown when RB Tim Hightower caught a pass, fumbled it, and watched as WR Steve Breaston recovered the ball in the endzone for six. Arizona failed on the two-point conversion however, leaving the score 19-9.

· The Cardinals tacked on a field goal late to end the scoring but another failed onsides-kick allowed the Panthers to run out the clock for their second win of 2010.

· CB Captain Munnerlyn led the team with seven total tackles.

Steelers: Lost to the Jets 22-17 in Pittsburgh

·
The Steelers always seemed to be one play away in a very close game between two playoff teams.

· Pittsburgh started in a 7-0 hole early as Jets return-man Brad Smith took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.

· Neither team was able to get going until the second quarter, when the Steelers offense embarked on a 16-play drive ending with a nine-yard bullet from QB Ben Roethlisberger to TE Matt Spaeth, tying the game at 7-7. Roethlisberger finished 23-of-44 for 264 yards and that one touchdown.

· The two teams would leave the second quarter tied at 10-all thanks to field goals by New York’s Nick Folk (25 yards) and Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham (42 yards).

· Pittsburgh took the lead on the first drive of the second half thanks to the rushing prowess of RB Rashard Mendenhall, who capped the drive off with a two-yard touchdown that put the Steelers up 17-10. Mendenhall had one of his best games of the season, racking up 100 yards on 17 carries.

· New York tied things up again on the very next drive, though, executing a brilliant fake that left QB Mark Sanchez free to jaunt into the endzone for a seven-yard touchdown.

· The Jets took the lead on their next drive with a 34-yard field goal and pinned the Steelers at their own three-yard line on the drive after that.

· On the first play of the ensuing drive, DE Jason Taylor broke through the line, tackling RB Mewelde Moore on a draw play leading to a safety, putting New York up 22-17.

· Pittsburgh pushed the ball to the Jets 10-yard line with a few seconds left in the game, but their final two pass attempts didn’t connect and the Jets left Pittsburgh with a win.

· LB James Farrior registered the team’s only sack. LB Lawrence Timmons led the team with thirteen total tackles.

· Pittsburgh converted 65% of its third down attempts on offense.

BEHIND ENEMY LINES: A Look Around the AFC North

Baltimore (10-4) will almost certainly be a playoff contender after a big win over the New Orleans Saints, even though the team has not officially clinched yet. It’s all about the division from here on out, as Baltimore draws a possible spoiler in Cleveland this week before finishing against a Bengals team that finally snapped its losing streak.

After a season full of questions about the identity of the team’s offense, Baltimore finally went back to the formula that worked so well for them last season: feed Ray Rice. Rice exploded against the Saints for 153 rushing yards, 80 receiving yards, and two touchdowns. With the Ravens set to face two shoddy defenses in the final two weeks, Rice should become the team’s focus going forward.

Cleveland (5-9) allowed Cincinnati to sneak out to a two-score lead that they were never able to overcome as they lost their second-straight game against two-win teams (the first being Buffalo). Rookie QB Colt McCoy was efficient, RB Peyton Hillis was average, and the Browns’ run defense was abysmal, giving up 190 yards between opposing rushers Cedric Benson and Bernard Scott. The pass defense as also a concern, as they failed to put pressure on Carson Palmer who has struggled all season against average pass-rushing teams.

All the same, Cleveland will need to wake up before the final two weeks, where they play a major role in the AFC North title race. They’ll square off against Baltimore in week 16 before finishing the season in Pittsburgh. Of course, if Pittsburgh cleans up against Carolina and Cleveland knocks off Baltimore, that game against Pittsburgh will be meaningless for their rivals.

Cincinnati (3-11) won for the first time since September, snapping its ten-game losing streak against the Browns, but it came with a small price. The Bengals lost WR Terrell Owens for the remainder of the season (two games) with a torn meniscus. With T.O. out, though, the Bengals finally got back to running the ball like they did last season. The banged-up Bengals still have a role to play this year as they’ll draw playoff-hopeful San Diego this week before finishing against Baltimore.

One negative about snapping that win streak is that it takes Cincinnati further from the first overall pick of the 2011 draft (they’d own the third pick if the season ended today). The team’s quarterback situation is up in the air, with some experts suggesting they should draft one (Andrew Luck or Cam Newton, if either are available) and almost all agreeing that current QB Carson Palmer is not playing up to his salary (11.5 million next year). Though no member of the Bengals organization has approached Palmer about the possibility of taking a pay cut, a source told ESPN’s James Walker that there is little chance of the former franchise-favorite taking one.

THE PATH TO THE PLAYOFFS: AFC Playoff Picture as of 12/20/10

Division Leaders: New England Patriots (12-2; clinched playoff berth), Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4; clinched playoff berth), Kansas City Chiefs (9-5), Indianapolis Colts (8-6)

Wild Cards: Baltimore Ravens (10-4), New York Jets (10-4)

In the Hunt: San Diego Chargers (8-6), Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6), Oakland Raiders (7-7)

Despite Sunday’s loss, Pittsburgh clinched a playoff berth thanks to the complicated “strength of victory” formula. Though Pittsburgh and Baltimore are once again tied at the top of the AFC North, the Steelers control their own destiny. If they win out, they clinch the division and the AFC’s second seed, which comes with a first-round bye. They can clinch that second seed as early as this week with a win on Thursday coupled with a Ravens loss. They are no longer in contention for the AFC’s top seed and overall home-field advantage.

The New England Patriots have already clinched a playoff berth and can clinch the AFC East, a first-round bye, and home-field advantage as the AFC’s top seed with a win or a Jets loss.

Kansas City still sits in the driver’s seat of the AFC West, by virtue of a one-game lead over the San Diego Chargers. If Kansas City wins out, they win the division. If they win out and both the Steelers and Ravens finish 0-2, they’ll grab the second seed and a first-round bye. The Chiefs can clinch the division this week with a win and a Chargers loss.

The Colts are now on top in the AFC South after knocking off Jacksonville over the weekend and control their own destiny. If Indianapolis wins out, they win the division by virtue of a common-games tiebreaker over Jacksonville. They cannot clinch this week however, due to the nuances of the tie-breaking system (Jacksonville can still pass them up).

As for the wild cards, both New York and Baltimore sit at 10-4 and, while they haven’t clinched a playoff berth yet, they are very close to doing so. Each team can guarantee a spot in the postseason if one of the following scenarios occurs: a win OR a Chiefs loss and Chargers win OR a loss by either the Colts or the Jaguars. Each team also has a scenario Pittsburgh doesn’t, as both have outside shots at the top seed in the conference and home-field advantage. New York would need to win out, have the Patriots lose out, and have either the Ravens drop a game or Pittsburgh win out to clinch the first seed. The Ravens need a bit more, as their trip to the top seed will require them to win out, have the Steelers drop at least one game, and have the Jets win out and the Patriots lose out.

San Diego is still in the hunt for the AFC West and would own a tiebreaker against the Chiefs should the two finish tied. As it is, they’ll need to win out and have Kansas City drop at least one game OR win one of their final two and hope the Chiefs lose both their contests.

Jacksonville is tied with the Colts atop the AFC South but will need the Colts to drop at least one game to make the playoffs and will have to win out to win the division.

Oakland is in position to shake up the bottom of the AFC playoff picture if it catches a few breaks. The Raiders will square off against the Colts this week before finishing the season at Kansas City. If Oakland manages to tie for the division lead in the AFC West at the end of the season, they will make the playoffs by virtue of what is, for now, a flawless division record (5-0). Obviously, for that to happen, they’ll have to win out (which would take care of Kansas City) and hope that the Chargers drop one of their last two contests.

MIKE LIKED…

The security of clinching a playoff spot, though he did say he didn’t like how it unfolded (qualifying after a loss) because “you feel like you are crawling on your belly.”

STEELERS INJURY UPDATE

WR Arnaz Battle suffered shoulder and rib contusions in Sunday’s game and could be characterized as QUESTIONABLE thanks to the short week.

DE Steve McLendon is PROBABLE to return to action after sitting out last week with a stinger injury.

Tomlin anticipates that TE Heath Miller will be able to return after missing the Jets game with a concussion. He will have to be symptom free over the next few days and pass post-concussion tests to be cleared for sure, but given recent history (with Spaeth’s concussion), Miller’s activity is anywhere from QUESTIONABLE to PROBABLE.

S Troy Polamalu was an unknown at the time of the conference and his status should clear up as the week progresses. As it is, he’ll be somewhere between QUESTIONABLE and DOUTFUL for Thursday.

PANTHERS INJURY UPDATE

CB Chris Gamble was inactive for Sunday’s win with a hamstring injury and will likely be QUESTIONABLE to play at Pittsburgh after a short week.

MAIN STORYLINE FOR THURSDAY

Can Pittsburgh clean up its business, win against two teams it should beat in the final two weeks, and seal up a first-round bye so that its key players can get healthy?

PANTHERS TO WATCH

QB Jimmy Clausen; RBs Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson; WR Steve Smith; LT Jordan Gross; C Ryan Kalil; DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy; MLB Jon Beason; CBs Chris Gamble, Richard Marshall, and Captain Munnerlyn; SS Charles Godfrey; FS Sherrod Martin

LOCAL CONNECTIONS

· Head coach John Fox coached with the Steelers from 1989-91 following a stint with Pitt from 1986-88.

· QB Brian St. Pierre was a member of the Steelers from 2004-05 and 2006-07.

· OG C.J. Davis and OT Rob Petitti both played for Pitt. Davis is from Moon.

· DT Ed Johnson played at Penn State.

ACCORDING TO TOMLIN

“That one got away from us. I am cautious about how I use that phrase because I don’t want to devalue accountability in terms of what we could have done to change the outcome of that game. We didn’t make the sufficient plays particularly at the end to be victorious. We’ve been in those kinds of games quite a bit this year and usually we found a way to make a play or two, to step out of the stadium victorious. We didn’t and the Jets did.”
– On the team’s loss against the Jets. Tomlin compared it to the team’s first game against Baltimore in Week 4, where the team seemed to be a play away from victory.

“For us this week preparing for Thursday night action, we acknowledge that Thursday night football is a quick turnaround particularly for a veteran football team… We have to preserve our guys in as many ways as we can because quite honestly working on this kind of week, you have to acknowledge that it’s advantage Carolina Panthers. They are a younger team than we are. Physically they are capable of bouncing back faster, no question. So we have to prepare and prepare extremely smart, and put our veteran outfit in the best position we can to play effective football on Thursday night.” – Discussing the difficulties of preparing to play on a short week.

“Ben was trying to hit Emmanuel Sanders in the back of the end zone. Of course Spaeth came into the line of vision and made a play on the football or attempted to make a play on the football. But that is not uncommon under those situations or circumstances when you are talking about a short field in the redzone and the ball doesn’t come out on time. Zones overlap, routes overlap, and it gets hairy and it did in that instance.” – Talking about the next-to-last play of the game. Big Ben appeared to have Sanders in the back of the endzone for a possible touchdown, but Spaeth crossed in front of the young wideout to make a play on the ball. He failed to come down with it and one play later, the game was over.

“They probably had more of a commitment to running it then some other opponents had under the circumstances. I didn’t think they were gutting us by any stretch. I think their longest was 11 yards from the line of scrimmage. But they exhibited the patience that others hadn’t under similar conditions so they were able to find some rhythm and get a play or two.” – When asked why the Jets were more effective than other teams in running the ball against the Steelers. This week’s matchup against Carolina brings to a town a team that nearly ran the ball twice as much as it passed against Arizona on Sunday.

“I hadn’t had an opportunity to have an in depth discussion with him in terms of what transpired. My only comment to the officiating crew is that the confrontation happened in our backfield, in our huddle area and we have a right to our huddle area.  That was my concern regarding the confrontation.  I didn’t see the confrontation. I don’t know the minute details about how it unfolded but I did see the location and that was of concern to me.” – On the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty assessed to Flozell Adams for striking Darrelle Revis after a play. That was part of a strange day of officiating which saw quite a few missed calls for both teams and a few instances where the flags simply fell out of the officials’ pockets.

LOOK FOR…

A pretty easy day for the Steelers as Carolina’s run-heavy offense plays right into Pittsburgh’s greatest strength: run defense.

SPLASH TALK

“I try not to put a positive or negative spin on anything. I just try to see it for what it is. Yesterday was a loss. There were some good things in it. Just like last week it was a win but there were some bad things in it. I think part of being a championship caliber outfit is taking the emotions out of your performances and simply evaluate what you are looking at and being accountable for it.”
– When asked if losing clouds any positives that he might otherwise draw from the game.

“Jason Taylor was in the three-technique. He was in the B-gap. He is a unique get-off player for a person that plays in the B-gap. He’s got unique short area quicks and initial get-off. He probably recognized the formation and potentially the play. He had an awesome get-off on the play. We weren’t able to cut him off with our center or backside tackle. He slipped in behind the pulling guard and was very disruptive in tackling our runner from behind in the endzone for a safety.” – Discussing what happened on the play that resulted in a safety for the Jets.

THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMM…

Mike Wallace achieved the first 1,000-yard season of his career on Sunday, sitting at 1,048 yards with two games to play. What’s amazing about that feat is that he’s amassed that total on just 53 receptions. Those numbers were a bit more common in the 70’s and 80’s with teams and receivers utilizing deeper routes more often. Since 1990, only six players (including Wallace) have crossed the 1,000-yard mark in a full season with less than 55 receptions. The last person to do it was Denver’s Ashley Lelie in 2004.

Of course, there’s one thing I failed to mention… another one of those six players is also playing this year. Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson also broke the 1,000-yard mark this season, but has done it on just 45 catches.

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