Monday, October 26, 2009

Reigning Super Bowl champs dethrone comeback king Favre

"Yo, Brett Favre. I'm really happy for you, and imma let you finish, but the Steelers are one of the best football teams of all time."

The bigger they are the harder they fall. And comeback king Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings certainly fell a long way in terms of fan and commentator expectations as well as season predictions after their first loss of the season Sunday.

The loss came courtesy of reigning Super Bowl champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a big wakeup call for the Vikings and a huge confidence boost for the Steelers. The Vikings came to the field 6-0, but the truth is their record is built largely on wins over abysmal teams like the Cleveland Browns (1-6), Detroit Lions (1-5), and Saint Louis Rams (0-7). In fact, the only really tough team the Vikings have faced this year is the Steelers, and we know how that ended.

The Steelers led the game with a Ben Roethlisberger touchdown to wide receiver Santonio Holmes... or it would've been a touchdown but for a pass interference call against Heath Miller. Pittsburgh settled for 3 points courtesy of a 39-yard Jeff Reed field goal.

The teams each scored a touchdown before heading into half time, Pittsburgh leading 10-7.

Thanks to some fast footwork by running back Rashard Mendenhall and a 15-yard face mask penalty against Minnesota, starting to play rough since they weren't getting their way, the Steelers were looking good early in the third quarter. Another Mendenhall run was followed by a QB keep for two yards by Roethlisberger, who, in a low blow, was speared as he ran out of bounds by Vikings' cornerback Benny Sapp. Sapp got a personal foul and the Steelers got added motivation on the field to 'protect this house' from Minnesota, who, at that point appeared willing to play dirty to attempt win at any cost. The drive ended in another Steelers field goal. 13-7.

The Vikings answered with a field goal of their own, 13-10.

The next Pittsburgh drive, a 45-yard Holmes run, put them on the Vikings' nine-yard line. Unfortunately, all Holmes' effort appeared to be for naught as Minnesota recovered a Mendenhall fumble on the next play at the four-yard line. Steelers fans had now watched two would-be touchdowns slip through our fingers; the Holmes penalty-negated touchdown and now this.

A relentless sports optimist, I found solace in something wide receiver Hines Ward had said last week in an interview on local Pittsburgh radio station, 96.1's morning Freak Show. [Podcast "Hines Ward Calls the Show" from Oct. 20 available here: ] In the interview, the DJ's talked about a touchdown he should've had against the Cleveland Browns, but for some poor reffing. The always smiling, always composed Ward's response? "Oh well. I'll get it back somewhere down the line."

That in mind, I knew if the Steelers put in all that work for two touchdowns we didn't get in this game, we would get them back.

The next Vikings' drive lead them to the red zone and to a called-back touchdown on a tripping call against Minnesota's Jeff Dugan. The next play was a Favre sack by Brett Keisel (in a nod to one fan's sign "Our Brett is better than your Brett") for a 15-yard loss and fumble. Lamar Woodley recovered the ball at the 23-yard line and returned it 77 yards for a touchdown. Fumbles taketh the ball away from us and fumbles giveth it back.

Quick to reroute any Steelers' momentum, the Vikings ran the resulting kickoff back for a touchdown, closing Minnesota's point deficit to a one field goal difference. 20-17.

The Steelers' next drive didn't earn them any points, due in part to a Roethlisberger fumble which, thankfully, rolled out of bounds. Now the Vikings once again had the ball with only minutes remaining. I knew, however, thanks to Ward's mantra, the Steelers were still owed their due.

1:15 remaining in the game: Vikings' second down with three yards to go on the 19-yard line, linebacker Keyaron Fox intercepted a Favre pass and ran 82 yards giving the Steelers a touchdown, giving the Vikings their first loss of the season, and making all things even in this game's karma.

Though safety Troy Polamalu returned to the Steelers last week, he was not 100% until this game. With his return, Pittsburgh's steel curtain defense is once again showing why they are consistently one of the best in the NFL. The game was won by two defensive touchdowns. The Steelers' offense looked strong, but our defense was stronger and it won the day.

It appears the Vikings and Favre aren't the unstoppable force so many thought they were, and they are going to need to examine their game more critically and play more carefully in the future if they are to continue racking up the wins and points they couldn't pull off against the Steelers.

As for Pittsburgh, they finally have Reed back to being the reliable kicker they knew he was, Polamalu back in the ranks of the defense, and Willie Parker back from injury to deepen our line of running backs. We have re-solidified the team that won the Super Bowl last year, but which, this season, had been missing a few crucial pieces due to injury or just having fluke off-weeks. We were missing some puzzle pieces in the form of key players until Sunday's game, and now that they're back, the picture is complete.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Misadventures of the Washington Redskins

So the way sports work is that someone has to win and someone has to lose... but if it were possible for both teams to lose, Sunday's Washington Redskins versus Kansas City Chiefs would be a shining example of this. I actually went to the game at DC's FedEx field, and can report that when Shakespeare wrote "Never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo", it was because he hadn't lived to see this game.

I'm pretty sure neither team even made it past the fifty-yard line until about six minutes remained in the first quarter. In the end, Kansas City pulled off a 14-6 victory, but, frankly, I'm surprised there were any points on the scoreboard for either side. All points scored by both sides were the result of field goals because neither team possessed the ability to score a touchdown or even come close. Oh, and +2 for the Chiefs on a safety.

Highlights of the game? ...scratch that. Lowlights would be more appropriate. Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell lead a desperate drive at the close of the first half, comprised of the majority of the abysmal 89 yards he threw in the game. From about the 40-yard line on fourth down, they had to decide whether to attempt what would be about a 55-yard field goal, or to go for a touchdown. In another spectacle of poor decision-making, the Skins went for it. It resulted in an interception by Chiefs' cornerback Brandon Flowers with no time on the clock. And, of course, they didn't get any points out of it either. The boo that erupted from Skins fans filled the stadium for what was probably at least 10 seconds, and what, to the team, must have seemed to last an eternity. The score? 0-3, Chiefs leading.

Skins Coach and fan scapegoat Jim Zorn benched Campbell to start the second half and continued through the end of the game with backup Todd Collins. His name sounds like a mixed drink, and, honestly, Washington fans would've been better served with a glass of the hard stuff than by this QB.

Zorn claims to have made the replacement decision at some point in the second quarter, but I think he did it to appease fans who were filing out in droves after the halftime boo-fest. Collins had an early flourish in his first drive of the third quarter, completing a long pass and taking the team within field goal range. This allowed the Skins easy access to 3 points and finally got them on the board, tying the game 3-3.

Through a series of equally unimpressive plays by each side, the Chiefs found themselves ahead 12-6. With a little over 9:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali sacked Collins in the end zone for a two-point safety. 14-6. And that score would stick the rest of the game. The desperate Skins even attempted an on-side kick from their own half as a last ditch attempt to come back with only seconds remaining in the game. Like almost everything else either team attempted, this too, failed. The Chiefs took a knee to burn the remaining seconds off the clock, and took their first win of the season.

After the game, Zorn was stripped of his play calling abilities, Campbell stripped of his confidence, the Redskins stripped of their dignity, and the fans stripped of their patience with all of the above.

The Redskins have now lost to the 0-19 Detroit Lions (who are bad beyond criticism... suffice to say "bless their hearts...") and the 0-10 Kansas City Chiefs. The team is just surrounded in failure, having even played every single game this season against teams who have yet to win a single game since the season start... winless, that is, until they play the Skins, which has given most of these teams their first win of the season.

Specializing in Pittsburgh sports knowledge, I can't profess to know how the Skins franchise should fix this. I don't think, however, it should be remedied with finger pointing and replacing productive changes to the game with the blame game. Everyone hits a rough patch and you can criticize and switch some things up, but you don't abandon hope. The way to dig yourself out of a hole in sports is to have faith and rally around and build on the positive. Skins fans recently had to have paper bags taken away from them at one of the games when they were planning to wear them on their heads as a symbol of their embarrassment. These same fans, no longer "Horny for Zorny" and instead hit with a case of ED as far as love for their second season coach goes, are calling far and wide for Zorn to resign or be fired.

The difference between winners and losers is that winners don't give up. You can constructively criticize your team, coaches, and players, but you don't turn on them. You don't threaten to wear paper bags to a game as a fan. You don't strip your head coach of play calling ability. You don't remove your QB and replace him mid-game to appease booing fans. You find a way to work with what you have, rather than belittling, minimizing, or sidelining it. You stand by your team, you stand up for them, and you can stand and voice your opinion if you do it constructively. And you keep standing.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Victory march of the Penguins

Jordan Staal celebrates his goal against the Ottawa Senators by high fiving teammates with this tacky but completely accurate piece of fan gear.

Last year's Stanley Cup Champions are proving they are now more experienced and confident than ever, cruising to a 5-1 record. Adding their Monday night strong 4-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators to an impressive list of wins, the Pittsburgh Penguins are tied with the New York Rangers for the best record in the NHL.

Perhaps most impressively, the Pens' season record comes as a result of a 4-0 record on the road.

Goalie Marc Andre Fleury has said he isnt nervous this year like he used to be, just focused. The result is only 15 goals against in 6 games.

Team Captain, hockey wunderkind, Mario Lemieux protege, and my boyfriend (no, I haven't told him yet...) Sidney Crosby has turned his one weakness - faceoffs - into a strength. His 63.2% success rate puts him sixth best in the NHL.

In addition, Crosby has been putting points on the scoreboard, and he isnt the only one. One of the Pens' strengths is how many players they have who get the puck in the net. Tyler Kennedy (who scored 2 goals against Ottowa in last night's game), Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Bill Guerin, Matt Cooke, Ruslan Fedotenko are part of a long list of players who have scored this season. Even defensemen Sergei Gonchar, Mark Eaton, and Alex Goligoski have contributed goals. There is basically no player an opponent can afford to discount, because all are so effectively used as goal scoring weapons.

They retained the vast majority of the players who helped them to a Stanley Cup victory last year, and as a result they are more functional as a unit than ever. They read each other and work together beautifully and it shows. There isn't one player leading the others, such as Alex Ovechkin of the Capitals. Instead, the would-be heroes Malkin and Crosby are humble, crediting their teammates with every bit of the team's and their own success in every interview, and passing to teammates with better angles for shots on goal, rather than trying to make the goals themselves. This is part of the reason for the long list of team goal scorers, and part of the reason for the long list of wins.

On the ice the Pens are all intricately aware of where each other are. They have been through the emotional highs and lows. They've gone as far as you can get in the NHL, and they've won. This year they appear poised to do it again as they have taken all their raw talent and fine tuned it into a well oiled machine.

While it is still early in the season and there are many games yet to go, the Penguins look as energetic, determined, and fierce as last year, but with a more polished game and confident - but not cocky - attitude. There is nothing to add but keep up the good work.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

NFL goes titty pink

If amidst the clashing bodies, helmets, and pads on the field you noticed flashes of pink, you weren't just seeing things. When I first saw the pink shoes on one of the Steelers' players, I thought it was pretty ballsy of the guy, and I respected him for doing it because not many men have the guts to wear pink... and he was just asking to be tackled in those.

When I noticed that the pink shoes graced the feet of many players on the field, I had even more respect for what I belatedly realized they were doing. And not only were they wearing pink shoes, but pink gloves, pink sweat bands, pink towels... even the padding on the goal posts was pink. On the sidelines the coaches and players were wearing baseball caps with pink brims. The cheerleaders had pink pom-poms. And it was all for October: Breast Cancer Awareness Month, as part of a campaign the NFL names "A Crucial Catch".

The NFL is partnering with the American Cancer Society (ACS) in a campaign focused on the importance of annual screenings for early breast cancer detection.

Even the NFL's official merchandise site has gone pink in support of the cause; fusing old fan favorites and some new specifically themed items with the symbolic color, and donating a portion of the proceeds to the ACS.

Breast cancer is the 7th largest cause of death for women in the United States; killing over 40,000 women in 2005 alone. I have never seen the NFL, nor any profit organization, tackle any charitable cause this directly and in such a multi-faceted array of means reaching so many; actively making it a part of the games, thus allowing it to be a constant focus and reminder; in every photo taken, on every television, in all the video replays... pink is everywhere, in every shot. It couldn't be ignored.

I applaud the NFL for their in-your-face tactics in the way that it was integrated in so many ways into the games. Especially commendable is that the football is a game where, with very few exceptions, men play, men coach, men ref, men own the teams, and men call all the shots. Women are the pretty things that prance up and down the sidelines in skimpy outfits. That they took a disease which 99% of the time affects women, and made it the center of their efforts this weekend in all their games and spent considerable funds doing it, deserves a standing ovation.

Further, millions watch football every week, many of whom never think much about charity, breast cancer, or those types of causes or concerns. That the NFL is drilling into a huge and largely untapped resource in its football fans is invaluable to breast cancer research, screening, and treatment funding and awareness. Truly, there is no better team the breast cancer foundations could have on their side than one with such a wide reach to such a wide array of people; the NFL.

NFL teams are also going one step further, holding additional awareness events and fundraisers. The Pittsburgh Steelers are hosting a "Hot Pink" event next Tuesday, Oct. 13. It is to be hosted by Steelers tackle Max Starks and his mother Elleanor and the proceeds benefit breast and cervical cancer screenings for uninsured women in Western Pennsylvania. To learn more about this event, visit: . For non-Steelers fans, to learn more about what your team is doing for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, visit or your team's website.

As for all that pink gear the players and coaches, support staff and cheerleaders are rocking? They're going to continue wearing it throughout October and in the end it will all be auctioned off with proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society and other individual team charities. You can check that out at .

Monday, October 5, 2009

3 out of 4 quarters aint bad

Mendenhall barely escapes the paws of this guy, just as the Steelers barely escaped the evil clutches of the daunting fourth quarter.

So lets say the person you were dating was attractive, smart, and kind, but really doesn't like your sports teams... maybe they're even a fan of a rival team. You, of course, are a rabid sports fanatic. You could ignore it for a while and tell yourself that 3 / 4 ain't bad. But sooner or later, there will come a Sunday afternoon where you're snowed in and forced to watch a game together and you are at each other's throats fighting for the remote and who gets to watch their team's game on the 'good tv' in the living room, if the ref's call was 'bull' or not and whether he should get glasses, and the sexual proclivities of each others' quarterbacks. At some point during the game, you realize 3 / 4 ain't bad, but it ain't gonna cut it all season. Steelers' fans are having this same epiphone.

For the first three quarters of the Steelers' game against the Chargers, they looked every bit the Super Bowl Champions everyone knew they were and believed they would be all season.

Pittsburgh scored touchdowns in their first two drives of the game and continued on their power trip until they lead 28-0 until the last few minutes of the third quarter.

The absence of running back 'Fast' Willie Parker due to turf toe proved to be no obstacle for Pittsburgh. They substituted Rashard Mendenhall, who ran 165 yards in 29 carries; 2 of which resulted in touch downs. Comparatively, Chargers' running back LaDainian Tomlinson had 7 carries and produced only 15 yards against the Steel curtain.

Ben Roethlisberger threw another two touchdowns and 333 yards before all was said and done. Usually when Big Ben puts up stats like that, we also see a correspondingly high number of interceptions, but this game there were none. One of his touchdown throws was to running back Mewelde Moore, who himself later threw a touchdown pass to Heath Miller.

San Diego finally got on the board with little more than 3 minutes remaining in the third quarter. In a fourth quarter 'wtf' moment, the Chargers stripped the ball from the hands of Stefan Logan as he was being tackled on top of a pile of more Charger players, in a play that resulted in a San Diego touchdown. I can't blame this one on the Steelers because neither they, nor the crowd, nor the announcers, nor even the referees really knew what was going on. Game announcers didn't even announce the Charger touchdown and were silent. Viewers were left with the 'it seemed like there should have been a referee whistle somewhere...' feeling. The episode had the makings of one of those where play has clearly ended, but a player will run the ball into the endzone anyway, juuuust in case... Luckily for San Diego, thats exactly what they did. Coach Mike Tomlin's challenge only succeeded in a wasted Steelers' time out.

At this point Pittsburgh once again met with what has proven to be their biggest challenge this season; the fourth quarter. In their last two games against the Chicago Bears and the Cincinnati Bungles [sic], the Steelers have managed to fritter away their leads in the fourth quarter. Yesterday, San Diego quickly scored touchdown after touchdown until they were within one touchdown of Pittsburgh; 28-35.

Thankfully, with the large lead Pittsburgh had built up in the previous 3 quarters, there just wasn't enough time for San Diego to rally. Equally as thankfully, kicker Jeff Reed was on top of his game, making a crucial 46 yard field goal to secure a 10 point lead with less than a minute left in the game. James Harrison locked up the win with a sack and forced fumble which Pittsburgh recovered from the Chargers' final drive.

Still, one has to ask how the Chargers' were able to come back from a 28 point deficit in a game where they were simply getting smashed in every statistic, most notably time of possession, in which Pittsburgh lead by more than 20 minutes.

Now realizing Reed's missed kicks were a problem (that seems to have been resolved), but not the heart of the Steelers' issues, Pittsburgh is going to need to address their fourth quarter shortcomings which have dogged them to only a 2-2 record this season. The Steelers' offense is solid; scoring again and again and securing strong leads which is the only reason they managed to hang on to this week's win. And no Steelers' fan ever thought we'd see the day where our defense has become our problem. Specifically, theyre running out of gas in the fourth quarter. One thing is for sure, if any team can set themselves straight, its the Steelers, who always manage to do whatever they need to win.