Rashard Mendenhall

2011 NFL Season: Trends, Ends, and Bends (Week 3)

When does a season really take shape? Is it in the beginning when surprising teams get off to hot starts? Is it when elite teams hit their stride and begin to pile drive the competition? Or is it late in the season when the scramble for playoff position is at full tilt? Each season is different, but I think I can say there are some things I know about the 2011 season.

  1. The Buffalo Bills are for realfinally. I’ve liked this team for several years now and they’ve been a disappointment. This team has more confidence, better offensive coaching (Chan Gailey), and more playmakers at key positions. Can they outlast the Patriots and Jets? I think they’ll have to beat one or both of them on the road to make the playoffs.
  2. The Minnesota Vikings are a mess. The entire team is playing the second half of games as if they are expecting the worst. And their fans are doing the same thing. In the first half of games this season, the Vikings have outscored the Chargers, Buccaneers and Lions by a combined score of 54-7. The second half of games has been a merciless parade of broken tackles, three-and-outs, “too smart” playcalling, and sloppy play. Leslie Frazier bears full responsibility for this. The team has the talent. He has to get inside his player’s heads and clear out the cobwebs.
  3. The Atlanta Falcons are overrated…and so is Matt Ryan. Guys who are mediocre outdoors and on the road are mediocre, period. When Michael Turner is unable to get off on the ground, the Falcons have trouble scoring and winning. Roddy White could have won that game yesterday. It’s not all on Matt when they lose, but it’s not all on him when they win — and they can’t seem to win consistently outdoors and on the road.
  4. However, the luck of the Bucs is due to run out soon. For the second consecutive week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won big games vs. conference opponents that harbor dreams of making a post-season splash. For the second consecutive week, Bucs QB Josh Freeman has thrown an interception in the end zone. That has to stop. Focus up young man and take what the defense gives you!!
  5. Cam Newton can win games. The Panthers played in a virtual monsoon for part of their game vs. Jacksonville. The Panthers have issues on their offensive line and only one professional wide receiver. Still, Newton has found a way to provide leadership and stability. For a team playing without Thomas Davis and John Beason, getting off the field on 3rd down is going to be a stiff challenge. Carolina has the toughest schedule in the entire league this season and it will get much more difficult as the year progresses.
  6. Running Mike Martz’ system requires mental toughness. I don’t believe there is a coordinator in the league that puts more pressure on his QB’s than Martz. Whether it’s calling protections with limited blocking, reading blitzes, calling audibles or making accurate and timely throws, Martz’ demands may just be too high for Jay Cutler and this group of Bears.
  7. Why did the Vikings run the ball with Toby Gerhart on 4th down vs. the Lions? Why???????
  8. The Steelers have a +/- turnover ratio of -9. This team doesn’t have the overall talent to play at that level. If that number doesn’t change, the Steelers are going to miss the playoffs. Between Roethlisberger’s fumbles, interception and missed field goal, Pittsburgh lost roughly 19 points. A game that might have been a blowout, especially given that starter Kerry Collins was knocked out, wound up as a tightly contested game that I will remember for Pierre Garcon’s dropped touchdowns as much as anything else.
  9. Before this season, the Steelers have ranked in the bottom half of turnover ratio only 6 times since 1988. Each time, they’ve missed the playoffs. This morning…they rank dead last in a league of 32 teams.
  10. The Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2004. That was a long time ago. What’s missing? The power running of Corey Dillon. Even before Dillon, the Pats could rely on Antowain Smith to get short yardage conversions, maintain possession and keep defenses honest. Dillon, of course, was particularly valuable in the Red Zone. When the Patriots lose, it’s because they’re throwing a few too many passes against teams that either have a slew of good DBs or they have a good pass rush or both (Bills ’11, Jets ’10, Ravens ’09, Saints ’09, Giants ’07). They don’t lose often, but when they do — that’s why.
  11. The Giants’ Victor Cruz really is that good. I know most people have never heard of this guy, but if you live in New York, you must remember his breakout performance in last year’s pre-season game vs. the New York Jets. Yeah, it was pre-season. Yeah, it was a year ago. But, Cruz showcased the savvy, strength, agility, and speed against the Eagles that he did against the Jets. He never saw the light of day behind Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon. The Giants were DEEEEEEEEEEEP at wide receiver. Cruz is just one more high-quality player at the position.
  12. Big men with bad feet. Antonio Gates. This is going to be an ongoing problem isn’t it?
  13. James Harrison is a strong man. If anyone threw Dallas Clark around like that on the street, the police would have been called hours ago.
  14. I don’t care much for Mike Shanahan. I think he definitely knows what he’s doing. Two rings bear that out. Still, I thought Washington has the pieces in place to make a run last year. The best player on that offense, when his hands cooperate, is Fred Davis. The best player on that defense, once he masters that scheme, is Brian Orakpo. That’s not a bad tandem to build around.
  15. So let me get this straight. Some people think the Eagles would be better off with a guy who couldn’t beat the lowly Seattle Seahawks. If Tarvaris Jackson can beat Kolb (as a Seahawk) and Warner (as a Viking), maybe he knows something about the Cardinals that even Ken Whisenhunt doesn’t know.
  16. Andy Dalton and Cam Newton are both 1-2, sort of. Guess what. Andy Dalton has been credited with a win he didn’t deserve. In Week 1, the Bengals beat the Browns, but Dalton was knocked from the game with his team trailing 14-13 at halftime. Dalton didn’t return to the game. The Bengals won under the leadership of Bruce Gradkowski. Dalton is 0-2 in his other starts and mustered all of 8 points vs. the San Francisco 49ers. I’m not sold.
  17. I was wrong about Matt Schaub. Maybe I don’t watch enough Texans games…maybe I do. It seems to me that Schaub almost always manages to put up big numbers (thanks to Andre Johnson and a Shanahan-based offensive system), but never does enough to win the big game. Week 1 wins at home vs. the Colts are not big wins, especially if the game is played in Houston as it was in 2010. On the road vs. the Saints — make me a believer! Couldn’t get it done. At home vs. the Ravens in ’10 — make a believer! Couldn’t get it done. Winnable games with a playoff spot on the line in 2010 — make a believer!! Couldn’t get it done!!!
  18. If your name is Matt, I’m not feeling you, unless…. Matt Hasselbeck, Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, Matt Cassel! No thanks. Matthew Stafford! I’m buying that guy. He’s a baller. If he ever begins to go by Matt Stafford, we’re done. Matt’s come up short almost all the time. Hasselbeck is the only Matt to even win a playoff game. As highly regarded as these players are, you’d think they were setting the world on fire. Let’s put this in perspective…the four Matt’s have been in the league for a combined total of 28 years and have amassed a combined post-season record of 5-9.
  19. I was for the Raiders before I was against them. The Raiders swept the otherwise powerful AFC West in 2010. While the national media continues its infatuation with the San Diego Super Chargers and the Kansas City Chiefs, the Silver & Black have quietly emerged as the team to beat once again in this division. Oakland is poised to make the post-season in 2011 if they can remain focused and out of the 9-7 morass that will get dicey if they face a tie-breaker with the Bills in late December.
  20. All I know about the Jets rush defense is that they are not nearly as good as Rex Ryan would have you believe. Call it The Kris Jenkins Effect. In last year’s Super Bowl, we saw a bit of the Cullen Jenkins Effect. Of course, it was overshadowed by the B.J. Raji Effect, but nonetheless, the Jenkins men cast a large shadow in the trenches. The Jets have been without Kris Jenkins off and on for much of the past 2 years. They have been their most formidable with Jenkins, but now it’s all catching up with them.
  • 27 – 121 – 1
  • 27 – 112
  • 32 – 234 – 4

In last year’s AFC Championship Game, Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall pounded the Jets for 121 yards on 27 time consuming carries.  The Jets were unable to overcome the Steelers running game and were forced to retool for this year. A week ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars crawled into town led by Luke McCown. En route to a 32-3 blowout, Maurice Jones-Drew was still able to scratch out 88 yards on 18 carries. The team ran for 112 yards on 27 carries in a losing effort. The writing was on the wall. Yesterday, the Raiders dispensed with any notion that the New York Jets have a stout run defense. Darren McFadden bought space in Rex’s head like a desperate shoe salesman with a web cam and a penchant for panty hose. 171 yards later, the Jets are looking for a new story to tell. They are not the bullies of the AFC. They weren’t at the end of last season and they are not at the beginning of this season. Rex has work to do and so do the men in the trenches. Kris Jenkins is not walking through that door.

On to the next.

Super Bowl XLV: The Day After

Just a few random thoughts that I had during the game and after the game:

Nick Collins Scores for Green Bay

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2010 NFL Season: AFC Championship Recap

Steelers 24, New York Jets 19.


What worked:

  1. Heath Miller’s return to the lineup had a tremendous impact on the running and passing game of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Miller has been lauded as one of the elite tight ends in league circles for several years.  Sunday night was one of his most impressive games to date.  NFL Network’s Solomon Wilcots put the spotlight on Miller twice on two separate run plays.  On the first, Miller drove Jets inside linebacker (and leading tackler) David Harris a full seven yards down the field.  Miller locked up on Harris, inside the shoulders, and put him on skates.  Rashard Mendenhall could have carried a dozen eggs through that hole without incident.  On the second highlight, Miller blocks another Jets linebacker, Bryan Thomas, right into the endzone.  Miller seems to be the only player who is playing through the whistle.  A play that started on the four or five yard line ends with Miller tossing Thomas on his rear end towards the back of the end zone.  Miller was targeted a team-high 4 times in the passing game.  Ben Roethlisberger missed him for an easy touchdown in the first quarter, but Heath Miller cemented his contribution on the ground.
  2. Bruce Arians.  Few Steelers fans have called for the “head” of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as often as I have.  We routinely lament Arians’ lack of imagination in the Red Zone; his infusion of finesse into our beloved Steelers scheme; his reluctance to use a fullback in situations that clearly call for a lead blocker; and, perhaps worst of all, his tenure with the Browns (usually an automatic disqualifier).  If I slam him when the team fails to do what it’s supposed to do, I have to give him some love when they exceed expectations.  Arians (likely influenced by head coach Mike Tomlin) went to the run when it mattered most.  It’s a little known fact that Arians also leaned on the run in the Super Bowl vs. the Arizona Cardinals in order to buy some time for his weary defense.  His efforts shortened the game and facilitated the ability of the Steelers to close that game out without allowing too much time for Kurt Warner to engineer a comeback. Scott-Kemoeatu-Pouncey/Legurski-Foster-Essex-Adams and the tight end triumvirate of Miller, Johnson & Spaeth beat the Jets front-7 to a pulp.  No play epitomize the effectiveness of this approach more than Rashard Mendenhall’s run to close out the first quarter.  The Steelers new, fast mini-bus delivered a crushing blow to Jets safety Eric Smith.
  3. Ben Roethlisberger.  Statistically, Sunday’s game was as bad as it gets.  Roethlisberger’s passer rating at the end of the game was 35.2.  Yet, he played a great game against a great defense.  The Jets defense, coached by Rex Ryan, had put the smack down on Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the weeks preceding their trip to Pittsburgh.  10-19, 121 yards, 2 interceptions and 0 touchdowns.  That’s ugly.  It’s worth noting that Roethlisberger was inches away from completing 2 touchdown passes in this game, too.  He missed a wide open throw to Heath Miller early and, Mendenhall slipped in the flat with only Antonio “I HOLD, I Don’t TACKLE” Cromartie in his path.  Roethlisberger’s game was punctuated by a sweet flip pass to Mendenhall; a huge 12-yard rush while facing 3rd-and-12 on that historic first drive; a touchdown run; and a few big throws to Miller and Brown on the game’s final drive.
  4. Special Teams.  The Steelers won the “hidden yardage” battle against the Jets on Sunday.  Pittsburgh punted once and swarmed all over Brad Smith and Jerricho Cotchery consistently.  This area of the game was decisive for the Jets in Week 15.  Brad Smith took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.  This time, the Steelers special teams out-kicked, out-returned, and out-covered the Jets.  Mike Westoff is one of the best in the business, but his charges were not up to the job in the AFC Championship Game.
  5. Rashard Mendenhall.  He did it all.  Without his performance in the first half, the Steelers might well be at home with 30 other teams in this league.  Instead, Rashard cranked out 121 yards on 27 carries.  His day also included a touchdown in which he placed the ball over the goal line while wearing Bart Scott like a pair of too-tight shorts.  Mendenhall ran hard; caught passes out of the backfield; and, did not turn the ball over.  He gets the Game Ball.

Next stop?  Dallas.  “Can’t wait!!!!”

2010 NFL Season: Championship Weekend

There is no need to be complex about the games on tap for this afternoon.  These teams all know one another.  They all play tough, physical games.  Today’s contests should be no different and should come down to the wire.

Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears.

I am sure that I like Jay Cutler, the QB, much more than most people.  I think he can do most of the things that Aaron Rodgers can do, but I don’t believe he does them as artfully or as consistently.  That should be the difference.  Packers 27, Bears 23.

Greg Jennings: One-Fourth of the League's Most Explosive WR Corps

New York Jets vs. Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Jets are doing something very wise this week.  They have been quiet in the days leading up to today.  They have not sought to manufacture tension or animosity.  They’ve needed this time to rebuild their emotional reserves following 2 games vs. heated rivals in New England and Indianapolis.  I think the Jets will that energy against a healthy defense featuring the league’s most dynamic player in Troy Polamalu.  The Steelers also bring the league’s #2 offense over the second half of the season.  I like the Steelers to finish what they started in the 2nd half against Baltimore where they outscored the Ravens 24-3.  I know everyone expects a close game, but I have a feeling that Pittsburgh may have tapped into something that really works.  When is the last time anyone outscored the Ravens by 3 touchdowns in a half?  Steelers 38, Jets 13.

Rashard Mendenhall: Ground and Pound

Note: Roethlisberger is 9-2 in playoff games.  The losses? 1)  A 41-17 blowout loss in the 2004 AFC Championship Game, at home vs. the New England Patriots during his rookie season.  2) A 2007 Division Round Game vs. the Jacksonville Jaguars at home.  The Steelers played without Willie Parker (the league’s leading rusher through Week 16 that season) and Aaron Smith.  The Jags won on a gutsy 4th-and-2 draw play by David Garrard.  The league later admitted to missing the hold that kept Steelers DT Casey Hampton from crushing Garrard.  That’s it. 

Note 2: According to Cold Hard Football Facts, the Defensive Hog Index is one stat that tends to track well with predicting post-season winners.  How did it work last season?  Not so great.  The number 1 ranking Green Bay Packers were knocked off in an offensive firestorm out in the Arizona desert.  What’s the deal in 2010?  The Steelers ranked #1, the Jets are #4, the Bears are #6, and the Packers are #10.

2009 NFL Season: The Steel Curtain Falls

Playoff races are heating up around the NFL.  In Pittsburgh, playoff hopes are as icy as Lake Erie in December.  The Steelers have lost five games in a row, including a Thursday night shocker at the hands of the Cleveland Browns.  Things are so bad in Pittsburgh that Brady Quinn completed a mere 6 of 19 passes for 90 yards — and people blamed the DEFENSE.  This was unthinkable after the Steelers flexed their muscles at Invesco Field at Mile High in Denver back in November.  Times have changed.  Pittsburgh is miles away from that victory and is in turmoil following a series of redundant, irritatingly close losses to the dregs of the NFL.

According to Mark Kaboly, the Steelers are unaware of what is wrong with the team.  They do not have solutions and are earnestly looking for answers.   His article in the Pittsburgh Tribune featured quotes from players like Casey Hampton, Hines Ward and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer.  None of them seem to know what the problem has been with this team.  Kaboly does a solid job of listing many of the issues, but he doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. AP’s Allan Robinson had the same experience in speaking with Chris Kemoeatu and James Farrior.  There is no one single problem and no one single solution.  Some problems can be fixed in 2009.  Some will take time.  The confusion is in the complexity.  So here goes…Top 10 Reasons Why the Steelers Are STILL Losing:

Is Troy Polamalu's Injury the Real Reason?

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2009 NFL Season: Steelers Smother Broncos, 28-10

Like I said when they were 2-0, 3-0, 4-0, and 5-0, and 6-0…” I’m not buyin!”

The Broncos deserve a great deal of credit for beginning the season at 5-0.  In the past two weeks, this solid team of newly-acquainted veterans has lost to the two teams that battled in the conference championship game in 2008.  There is no shame in that, but it is clear that Denver has some work to do.  The offense is mediocre and we know its not because of Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal.  They have played in a high-powered explosive offense before.  The problem may not be Josh McDaniels either.  He knows something about “matriculating the ball up and down the field.”  Even Brandon Stokely has been part of an elite offensive unit.  So who hasn’t been there and done that?

The man who threw 3 interceptions tonite against a team that refused to allow any men in orange jerseys to run the ball: Kyle Orton.

Frankly, I think the Broncos are on the verge of a collapse until they do some things differently.  I thought they were fortunate to beat the Chargers in San Diego.  For all of their success on defense, that game boiled down to a couple of returns by Eddie Royal.  Only the 2007 Bears and Devin Hester can live that way.  This Broncos team simply isn’t cut that way.  The offense managed 3 points tonite — and that was due to Troy Polamalu’s defense on teammate William Gay.  APTOPIX Steelers Broncos Football

Denver has to score more.  They have to get Tony Scheffler involved in the offense.  They have to get their running game untracked.  If they don’t, that undersized defense will be forced to stay on the field as much as they did tonite.  That defense can’t do it.  The success of the defense is predicated on the speed of the front 7 and the savvy of the secondary.  That formula was inverted tonite.  The demise of the Broncos was due to the fatigue of the front 7 and the “experience” of the secondary.  The Steelers made Champ Bailey look older than Ty Law.  Did you see the hurdle?

The Broncos don’t have to collapse, they just have to adjust.  I like the Chargers to find a way to win this division.

As for the Steelers, the offense is powerful but sloppy.  Roethlisberger plays like he knows he is playing with house money.  He plays as if he is unconcerned with the consequences of his actions.  The Steelers defense is so ferocious that he is seldom taxed the way another passer might be by miscues.  The Steelers could have scored 40 points if they did not turn the ball over.  Rashard Mendenhall was spared the disgrace of a goal line fumble in the 4th quarter.  And it wasn’t because he didn’t actually fumble — he did.  The referees were probably still trying to make up for that blown call when Jerome Bettis called the coin toss in overtime vs. the Lions.  Ben Roethlisberger had two turnovers: a blind-side fumble and a goal line interception.  Both turnovers were committed when the Steelers were moving the ball with ease.  The second half was a relative walk in the park.  Bruce Arians appeared to have surrendered the play-calling to Ben as the team ran effortlessly without huddling.

Note 1:  It was interesting to hear the announcers talk at the beginning of the 2nd half about how Denver’s frequent movement on defense was causing the Steelers to run the clock down to the final seconds.  That was not the case.  The Steelers were entirely in control based on the change in tempo.  Roethlisberger took his time looking over the defense to maximize the quality of his pre-snap reads.  There was no need to rush.  The no-huddle limited defensive substitutions.  Roethlisberger took his time.  Game over.

Note 2:  When Troy Polamalu is healthy, he makes plays all over the field.  In the 4th quarter of this game (with about 9 minutes remaining), Polamalu stuffed a first down in the backfield with the Broncos pinned down in the own end.  On the very next play, Kyle Orton tried to get some breathing room and the ball was intercepted by Polamalu about 20 yards downfield.

Note 3:  The only guy who really gets open down field against Ike Taylor is Randy Moss (and he needs Tom Brady on the field).  If you don’t have Randy Moss, don’t bother.

If Rashard Mendenhall can secure the ball, this team is going back to where they came from.  Right now, the Colts, Bengals and Steelers (in that order) look to be the class of the AFC.  I don’t know where to put the Patriots.  It’s been so long since they played a quality opponent with a two-dimensional offense.

Closing Note:  Last season, in Week 9, the Steelers played on the road against a team with a new “genius” coach that was oaded with veterans in the secondary, a young quarterback who had yet to throw an interception, a dynamic running game, apass-catching tight end, .  Ben Roethlisberger was knocked out of that game by the Washington Redskins, but Jason Campbell threw his first interceptions of the season.  The Redskins, like the Broncos, struggled mightily to score and lost 23-6.

2009 NFL Season: A Look Back at Week 7

So, how’d I do?

After going 5-8 last week, it couldn’t get any worse could it.  Let me get this out of the way first.  I was wrong about Miami being able to hang on and beat the Saints.  I was wrong about Chicago at Cincinnati…really, really wrong.  Sorry Cedric.  I was a believer at the end of the preseason.  I just slipped.  Next time you all are in New York to collect rent from the Jets, holler!

I wasn’t perfect this week, but I was better.  Heading into the Monday night game featuring the heavily-favored Eagles vs. the seriously-sedated Redskins, I had a record of 7-5. Let’s get to the good.

The Classics

Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Minnesota Vikings 17. I have maintained two things since the beginning of Brett Favre’s flirtations with the Vikings…that this team is going to be a tough out in the post-season and that if the Vikings play teams that Adrian Peterson does not dominate – teams that force Brett Favre to beat them, he’s not going to do it.  I don’t dislike Favre.  For me it’s simpler than that.  Since 1997, he hasn’t won more than one playoff game in any season.  To play in a Super Bowl, the Vikings will need to win 2 or 3 playoff games.  The Steelers allowed 69 rushing yards to Adrian Peterson and the game was put in the hands of Favre to win or lose.

He threw 51 passes.  The chances of losing increase exponentially for most QBs after 45 passes (at least in the post-season).  Favre, for much of the game, did a masterful job of mixing up plays.  The Vikings attacked short and deep.  There are were a few plays where only good fortune and a very strong sun prevented Percy Harvin from dominating the action.  He is a very impressive young player.   The hamstring injury to Bernard Berrian significantly impacted the game.  Berrian did drop an easy pass, but he was otherwise having his way with William Gay.  Berrian’s speed forced Gay to play off — leaving room for underneath routes.  When Berrian went out of the game, Favre was reduced to throwing to Harvin, Sidney Rice (another great game) and Visanthe Shincoe.

The Steelers still have issues.  Rashard Mendenhall is a fumbler — until proven otherwise.  He’s not a nice back who happens to fumble.  He’s not a young power back with great speed and agility who happens to fumble.  He’s a fumbler.  He is a player who jeopardizes possessions each time he touches the ball.  After his Red Zone fumble yesterday, Coach Mike Tomlin went to former Viking Mewelde Moore to hold down the fort.  Moore, of course, is not a powerful between the tackles runner, but he is not a fumbler.

Adrian Peterson Runs Over Steeler RCB William Gay

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2009 NFL Season: Week 6 Recap

There were some compelling story lines that emerged this week.  The Bengals took a not-so-surprising plunge back to earth after beating the Steelers and Ravens.  The Giants were undressed.  The “Sanchise” took it on the chin 5 times and the Jets found a new way to lose.  The Vikings showed just how tough they’re going to be down the stretch.  (It looks an awful lot like the Saints and Vikings are going to play for the NFC Championship.)  The Eagles did the unthinkable.  With all of these stories, perhaps nothing was more surprising that the rapid and complete demise of the once-proud Tennessee Titans.

Welker_v_Titans

AP Photo - Winslow Townson

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Why the Steelers are Stumbling

The 2009 Pittsburgh Steelers have a record of 1-2 after three weeks.  This Sunday, they face a perennial playoff challenger in the San Diego Chargers.  The Steelers defeated the Chargers twice last season, including in the post-season.  While last season ended with a win over the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl, this season appears to be headed in a different direction.

Many reasons have been offered as to why the Steelers are not performing as they did last year.  Those reasons include the early season injury to strong safety Troy Polamalu; the continuing struggles of the offensive line and running backs; the inability to score touchdowns in the red zone; and, “the Super Bowl hangover.”

I believe that the issues facing the Steelers in 2009 are essentially the same issues that plagued them in 2008.  I think, in many respects, the Pittsburgh Steelers are performing exactly how they performed in 2008.

Here’s why: (more…)