Tuesday, August 31, 2010

WPIAL Preview: AAA

Last season, we picked up the WPIAL torch during the fall and rattled off some posts about local high school football. We're not insiders or experts, but we do love high school football, particularly in Western Pennsylvania. We're going to try to make a post or two every week to keep readers updated on WPIAL games. Unlike the NFL, we obviously won't be able to follow things as closely since the games aren't televised and we pretty much have to rely on the limited scores and stats that we get from reading the paper. We organized our previews by our predicted order of finish.

Triple A football begins and ends with two schools: Thomas Jefferson and West Allegheny. In the past 13 seasons, TJ and West A have won 9 championships between the two schools. To pick anyone other than these two schools as favorites for the AAA crown would be about as stupid as the Post-Gazette still employing Bob Smizik. 

The PIAA redrew the district classifications last year, so there was some movement of teams throughout WPIAL.

 McGuffey (Big Eight Conference)
South Park (Big Eight Conference)
Kittanning (Greater Allegheny Conference)
Hollidaysburg (Keystone Conference)


Big Eight Conference

Thomas Jefferson
TJ has been the cream of the crop in AAA for the better part of the past decade. Chartiers Valley has the talent to give them a run this year, but picking against TJ is just plain dumb. They haven't lost a conference game in 5 years.

Chartiers Valley
Their quarterback returns after missing half the season last year due to injury. With a ton of starters returning, CV has the talent and experience to challenge TJ for the conference crown. The October 8th game against TJ will decide who wins the conference.

They're nowhere near as good as TJ or CV, but when looking at the rest of the conference, Trinity is head and shoulders better than the rest.

Belle Vernon
The Leopards made the playoffs last year, and should have enough talent this season to make another run at the playoffs. 

The Highlanders finished 3rd in their conference in AA last year, and probably won't fare too well against the improved competition in AAA. However, West Mifflin and Elizabeth Forward both graduated a lot of key players, so McGuffey might be able to make a run at the playoffs.

West Mifflin
When looking at the last 3 teams in the conference, West Mifflin is clearly the best seeing as they lost the least amount of players to graduation.

Elizabeth Forward
They won one conference game last year and graduated their top 2 rushers and top 3 passers. They'll be a bottom-dweller this year unless they can find some playmakers amongst the underclassmen.

South Park
Moving up to a new class is tough. It's even harder when you were just mediocre in your prior class. South Park went 4-5 last year in AA, and odds are they will struggle in their first year in AAA competition.

Greater Allegheny Conference

Mars and Franklin Regional have battled neck in neck for the conference title the last few seasons. With Franklin Regional gone to the Keystone Conference, the Greater Allegheny crown is the Fighting Planets to lose.

Hampton shocked the AAA world with a run to the Semi-Finals last season. This year, with a bunch of players returning, it's not unthinkable that they can finish 2nd in this conference. They're not quite as good as Mars, but Knoch will give them a run for 2nd place and the coveted home playoff game.

Knoch isn't quite as good as Mars, but they return a lot of starters and will challenge for the #2 spot in the conference. This conference is very split, the top 3 teams clearly being the class of the league while the bottom 4 will battle it out for the last playoff spot.

The Golden Rams had a terrible season last year, getting blown out of the water in all but 1 of their games. Considering their entire team graduated the year prior, last year's results shouldn't have been that shocking. The program has a good tradition and should turn things around this year and get back into the playoffs.

Even though they're moving up from AA, they return a decent group of starters from a team that went to the playoffs last year. In a conference with 3 elite teams and "everyone else" (which features 2 teams that  were 1-9 last year and another AA jumper), Kittanning will probably compete for that last playoff spot.

Their only win last year came against Highlands. They probably won't fare much better this year, but at least there are two AA converts on the schedule.

A transplant from AA, Valley will struggle in a top-heavy conference. They weren't very good in AA last year, only posting a 3-7 record, and don't return many starters. Not exactly the formula for success.

Keystone Conference

Uniontown became the first team from the Keystone Conference to win a WPIAL playoff game in 10 years. Does this make them the default favorite in this conference? No. However, they return enough players from that team to have a solid season.

Franklin Regional
The transfer from the Greater Allegheny Conference means that the Keystone Conference's playoff losing streak will finally come to somewhat of a halt. Franklin Regional won the WPIAL crown a few years back and has a great tradition. In another conference, this might have been a down year, but they're easily one of the top teams in the Keystone Conference this season.

Greensburg Salem
The Post-Gazette's pick to win the conference. However, they stumbled in the playoffs last season and with the addition of Franklin Regional to the conference, we feel that their stranglehold on the conference will come to an end.

Ringgold returns a slew of starters from last season and could be competitive in this conference. That really isn't saying much as this is definitely the weakest conference in AAA. However, there should be an exciting playoff race between Ringgold, Laurel Highlands, and Derry for the last playoff spot.

Laurel Highlands
Laurel Highlands is a decent team, by Keystone Conference standards. They will be competitive for a playoff spot this season, but don't put any bets on them making it past the first round.

Derry went 3-7 last year, but return a lot of starters and could challenge for the last playoff spot with some luck. They do have a new QB and RB, which may hurt them early in the season, but they're still clearly better than Hollidaysburg and Albert Gallatin.

New to AAA this year, Hollidaysburg wasn't very good in their district last year, so their first year in WPIAL competition probably won't go very well.

Albert Gallatin
We probably couldn't tell you anything about this school. We don't even know where it's located. We do know they're not very good at football.

Parkway Conference

West Allegheny
The defending AAA champions return a lot of starters, including star running back Mike Caputo. The Parkway Conference is the best conference in AAA and West A will be challenged, but we still think they're the best team here.

The best player in AAA, maybe in all of WPIAL, is RB Rushel Shell. Shell led all of WPIAL in rushing yards last season, but will have to play behind a completely revamped Offensive Line.

New Castle
With 12 starters coming back, including their quarterback, New Castle is poised to make a run. This is the best conference in AAA so don't be surprised if all 4 teams that make the playoffs made deep runs.

Honestly, the last playoff spot could be won by any of 3 teams. The Tigers return their starting QB from last season and will be a very dangerous team this season.

Another talented team that could probably finish 3rd in another conference may get left out of the playoffs because of the depth of the Parkway Conference.

The Bridgers are another team, like Blackhawk, that might get left out of the playoffs because of the stellar competition in this conference. They have a talented team that could pull an upset or two, but at the end of the day, we feel like they'll come up short of the playoffs.

After going 0-9 last season and only scoring 77 points the whole season (while giving up over 300), Moon will likely struggle again in this very deep conference. We highly doubt they'll go winless again, but they still aren't as good as some of the other teams in the Parkway.

Central Valley
No one really knows what to expect from Central Valley this season. The combination of Center and Monaca school districts. Both were competitive in Class AA and A respectively. However, with the move up to AAA, it's anyone's guess as to how they will fare this season.

Preseason Top 8
1. West Allegheny
2. Thomas Jefferson
3. Chartiers Valley
4. Hopewell
5. New Castle
6. Mars
7. Hampton
8. Montour

Predicted WPIAL AAA Champion

Thomas Jefferson Jaguars

Monday, August 30, 2010

2010 Preview: Oakland Raiders

2009 Record: 5-11

2009 Rankings:
Total Offense - 31
Run Offense - 21
Pass Offense - 29
Scoring Offense - 31
Total Defense - 26
Run Defense - 29
Pass Defense - 7
Scoring Defense - 23

For a team that has made its mark by making boneheaded decisions in the offseason over the past decade, Oakland actually made some intelligent moves this year. Bringing in Jason Campbell from Washington to run the offense will be a huge improvement over the slacker Jamarcus Russell. Oakland's best receiver remains tight end Zach Miller. The wide receivers leave a lot to be desired, and the unit is still trying to bring last year's #1, Darius Heyward-Bey, up to NFL standards. To think, if Oakland had been smart and drafted Michael Crabtree, they might actually be considered a threat in this division.

The offense will have to live and die by the running game, which features two talented but injury-prone backs. Darren McFadden will enter the season as the #1 back, but he still hasn't shown the explosiveness that he displayed at Arkansas. Michael Bush is nursing an injury as we head into the season and is a bruising runner that could deliver big time behind the right O-line. Oakland's O-line still has holes and definitely needs some help, which they haven't given it recently in the draft. However, they're not the worst unit in the league either and do a decent job run-blocking.

On defense, Nnamdi Asomugha is one of the best corners in the league. The rest of Oakland's secondary isn't great, but with a shutdown guy like Asomugha on one side of the field, it really limits what plays the opposing offense can call. Richard Seymour, once he finally agreed to play football, was an absolute monster on the defensive line for the Raiders. With the addition of tackling machine Rolondo McClain (LB-Alabama) to the middle of the defense, the Raiders now have pieces to build around at all 3 levels of defense. 

At the end of the day, Oakland will probably fare much the same as they did last year. Four of their 5 wins came against teams that finished with .500 or better records (Philly, Cincy, Pittsburgh, Denver). However, they lost 3 games to teams who picked in the top 10 in the draft (Kansas City, Washington, Cleveland). Oakland has the talent to beat teams that are better than them, but also the lack of talent to blow games to teams that they should beat. As a Steelers fan, it pains me to say that Oakland might actually be good in a few years, but if they keep having offseasons like this one, a winning season might not be far away.

Ian's Prediction: 6-10

Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Little Ponies: Steelers Lose


The big story coming into this game was Dennis Dixon seeing playing time with the first team. In a strange turn of national programming, FOX snatched up the Sunday night game so that NBC could show the Emmy Awards. FOX usually covers NFC games, and shows it right off the start, going right after the Tebow vs. Ben storyline. The game being on FOX also meant that we had to tolerate Joe Buck and Troy Aikman the whole night.

Tomlin drops a great quote in the pregame: "The standard is the standard regardless of circumstance. The 11 on the field represent us."

Sepulveda tries to place one near the sideline on the kickoff but kicks it out of bounds giving Denver the ball at the 40. To make matters worse, Keenan Lewis, starting for Bryant McFadden, gets flagged for a late hit out of bounds on the second play from scrimmage, giving Denver great field position inside the 30. The Steelers don't stop beating themselves, taking a roughing the passer penalty on 3rd down. The Steelers stack it up on the first two plays from inside the 5. Denver spreads it out on 3rd and goal and runs a draw play to LenDale "Towel Stomper" White who plows in for the score.


Antonio Brown takes the kickoff from 5 yards deep almost out to the 20.

On the first play, Ben fires one to Wallace on a post, who makes a few moves upfield and takes it all the way down inside Denver's 35. Raise Some, who didn't actually break his arm this week (lest you believe Mark Madden and the morons at TIOPS), gets 2 calls, making a nice cutback and rumbling into the secondary on the second. Ben overthrows two passes on the next set of downs, bringing out the kick team.


The Steelers force another 3rd down, but Denver picks it up through the air on a quick-hitch. FOX shows a rainbow, almost tempting us to start calling the Denver the My Little Ponies. LeBeau calls up a few blitz plays, and the Ponies fail to convert on 3rd down.

Antonio Brown makes a rookie mistake and fields the punt inside the 5. He gets stacked up at the 3, starting the offense in a hole.

The Steelers show some good interior blocking and move the ball 10 yards on 2 carries to give the offense some breathing room. Two quick-hitters to Hines later, it's another first down. Arians busts out the hypocycloid set, and Ben hits Emmanuel Sanders with a nice pass to his back shoulder.

Second Quarter

Dennis "the Menace" Dixon comes in to start the second quarter. DTM gets pressured on a bootleg and takes off for a solid gain on first down. DTM stands in the pocket on 3rd down, but his pass to Wallace gets tipped at the line. Sepulveda pins the Little Ponies inside the 10.

The Ponies try to go downtown on 2nd down, and Gaffney drops the ball. The refs don't blow the whistle and Harrison picks up the ball, rumbling down the sideline. Kyle Orton tries to make a tackle and stays down after the play. Really Kyle? Going nose-to-nose with Harrison in a preseason game? Not a smart move. The refs conference and change the call on the field to incomplete (which was the right call). Brady Quinn comes in and gets destroyed by Ike on a corner blitz on 3rd down.

Dixon gets sacked on 3rd down but gets a second chance on a Denver penalty, giving us a first down. Dixon completes his first pass to Wallace on a slant, getting us to a 3rd and 2. Since we know that's a passing down, no one should have been surprised when DTM went to the air, hitting David Johnson out of the backfield to move the sticks. Off a great play-action, DTM rolls out and tries to force one to Spaeth in the back of the end zone with a guy in his face. Some Little Pony jumps up and makes a nice interception, toeing the sideline to stay in.

The Steelers give Denver another break with a personal foul penalty. Orton makes a nice throw on an out-route to Eddie Royal to convert a 3rd down. Keenan Lewis picks up another personal foul penalty, his 2nd and the Steelers 4th of the game. Coach pulls Lewis from the game and give him a well-deserved talking to. The Steelers get a break on an offensive pass interference call. Denver tacks on 3.


With 2:35 left on the clock, there appears to be a great opportunity for Dennis to run the 2-minute offense. However, both tackles take false start penalties, setting up a 1st and 20. Dixon takes a smacking on 3rd down while firing a throw to Mike Wallace on the sideline. Wallace can't pull it down in-bounds and it's punt city.

Willie Gay makes his first good play in 2 seasons, making a great play on the ball for an interception to turn things around, giving the Steelers the ball back with a minute and a half to play.

Moore makes a nice run on a draw to get close to the 50. DTM hurries things up and fires one to Spaeth over the middle. Moore pulls in a nice catch to move the troops inside the 30 with 40 seconds to go. After a smart throw-away, DTM hits Antonio Brown on a shallow cross who blazes across the field to the sideline, getting the first down and getting out of bounds. Trai Essex blows a block on a spin move and Dixon gets sacked on first down. Dennis stands in on 2nd down and gets an out-route jumped and taken back to the house.


The Steelers kneel it out to end the half. 


Third Quarter

DTM comes back out to start the 3rd quarter and moves us down the field with passes to Moore and Ward to pick up first downs. Then it's DTM time. He rolls out and uses his feet to get by a defender then takes off in the open field, moving the ball all the way down to the 26. A 3rd down holding penalty puts us on the fringe of field goal range, but DTM almost converts it, firing a ball between 2 defenders to Tyler Grisham who makes a great diving catch to get us into a 4th and 1. After a timeout, the Steelers line up in a power-I to go for it. I love seeing a fullback in there and agree with the decision to go for it, but absolutely hated the play call. Arians decides to call a play action and roll Dennis out, where he is surrounded by 30000 ponies who bring him down well behind the line of scrimmage. Gag city.

If you weren't through vomiting over the 4th down play call, Denver puts God's Own Warrior Tim Tebow into the game, giving Joe Buck and Troy Aikman the opportunity to fawn all over him all over again. GOWTT can't convert a 3rd down to a wide open receiver, and it's punt time.

Lord Byron comes into the game and doesn't do anything. Punt.

GOWTT completes 2 passes against the Steelers JV defense then Denver goes to the ground to move the ball inside the 20. Two tipped passes later, it's field goal time.


A Defensive Pass Interference call gives Leftwich his first 1st down of the game. Dwyer almost gets blown up in the backfield but runs between 2 defenders and rattles off a nice run down the sideline out to  midfield.

Fourth Quarter

Byron gets sacked when Denver sends more blitzers than we have linemen, then Dwyer gets stuffed on a draw play on 3rd and long. Punt.

Crezdon Butler shows up and jumps a route, picking off Tebow and almost taking it back to the house, just barely stepping out of bounds on the 5.

Arians tries to call an inside slant on 1st and goal, a play that just begs to be a pick-6, but luckily it falls to the turf after Battle gets lit up. They finally decide to pound the rock, and Dwyer bounces one to the outside, taking it in for his first touchdown.


Just when you think things might turn around, My Little Ponies run a pitch play and Renauld Williams overruns the gap, allowing the Pony to scamper all the way down to the 5. GOWTT throws a touchdown pass that gives the choirs of Seraphim boners.


Homestead Charlie comes in for his first action of the preseason. Dwyer powers up the middle for 17 tough yards where he just keeps moving his legs and moving the pile. On the next play, he gets around the corner and gets out in the open field to move the Steelers down to the 35. Charlie makes a great pass down the sideline to Justin Vincent on a scramble, then gets a bonus on a roughing the passer penalty. Homestead Charlie fires one to Antonio Brown across the middle for the score to get the game back to 10.


Brady Quinn comes in for Denver. Renauld Williams atones for his earlier missed tackle by sacking Quinn on 3rd down, forcing a punt.

Batch gets smoked, but stands in to complete the pass out to Emmanuel Sanders for a solid gain. On the next play, someone made the wrong read as Batch throws a come-back route but both receivers run fly routes, leaving only a defensive back to catch the pass and take it back to the end zone.


The Steelers go into run-out-the-clock mode, running 3 times.

Thanks to a good return and some penalties, Denver gets the ball inside the 10 with a minute and a half to go. Rather than do the classy thing and just take a knee, McDaniels decides to try to punch it in and run up the score. The JV defense stands strong on 3 running plays, keeping My Little Ponies out of the end zone.

Game Over. 

McDaniels is a douchebag for running plays there.

Players of the Game
Offensive Game Ball: Maurkice Pouncey
Defensive Game Ball: Willie Gay

Honorable Mentions:
Ben Roethlisberger
Jonathan Dwyer
Crezdon Butler
Lawrence Timmons
Mike Wallace
Antonio Brown
Ike Taylor

Mr. Yuck Sticker of the Game

Once again, far too many on the Steelers. 4 Personal Foul penalties against the first team defense is just unacceptable. The Steelers need to settle down and just play ball. Coach made a good move benching Keenan Lewis after his second personal foul penalty, but the defense needs to play more disciplined.

Final Thoughts
  • Too many mental errors tonight, the Steelers just didn't look ready to play.
  • Emmanuel Sanders needs to come back to the ball on his hitch routes. The INT could have been prevented if Sanders comes back for that ball. He ran the hitch then stopped instead of keeping his inside position on the defensive back.
  • Never feels good to lose a game, but remember, this was just preseason. 
  • Waaay too many penalties tonight.
  • Steelers Quarterbacks took a pounding tonight. We need to protect them better.
  • Maurkice Pouncey is a beast. If you watched his hand work tonight, they're incredibly fast. Consider, this was Pouncey's first game against a 3-4 defensive front. Most of the pressure tonight was from the outside, Pouncey did a solid job up the middle.
  • Good to see Willie Gay get a pick. Hope he plays like that in the regular season.
  • Crezdon Butler and Anthony Madison both had really good games. Chances are only one of them make the roster though.
  • Hopefully Potsie is okay. He took a helmet-to-bare head hit after losing his lid.
  • The Steelers have to cut the roster down to 75 players by Wednesday.
  • Short week before our next game on Thursday night against Carolina.

Gameday: Denver Broncos

8:00 pm
Invesco Field at Mile High

What to Watch For:

1. Offensive Line. Speculation has been flying this week that center Justin Hartwig isn't going to make the final roster cut. Why? Because first round pick Maurkice Pouncey has been an absolute monster. The Steelers O-line still has a long way to go to become one of the elite lines in the league, but they have looked better with each game. The starting 5 seem to be more or less figured out at this point: Starks, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Essex, Adams. However, guys like Jonathan Scott, Tony Hills, and Kraig Urbik are battling for roster spots. The young guys have looked good so far this year, but that has been against 2nd and 3rd team defenses. It would be nice to see some of them thrown in there against first team competition to see how they fare.

2. Wide Receivers. Conventional wisdom is that the Steelers will keep 6 wide receivers. We've been ecstatic over what we've seen from Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown so far in the preseason. We're looking for even more from them tonight as they continue to grow into their roles in the offense.

3. Playing time with the first team. The third preseason game is usually the one where the starters see extended playing time, sometimes into the second half. Given the Steelers current situation at quarterback and the position battles elsewhere, it will be interesting to see how many reps certain players get with the first team. Tomlin has already said that Dennis Dixon will get to take some reps with the first team offense.

4. Safeties. With Ryan Clark out, this will be an excellent opportunity to see what Will Allen and Ryan Mundy can bring to the table. As we saw last year, the safety position is one of the most important on the defense. Knowing that we have capable backups in the secondary will go a long way to helping this defense.

5. Outside linebacker. Jason Worlids played a decent first game, but no one has separated themselves from the competition for the #3 OLB position yet. The Steelers will definitely keep Worlids on the roster, as he was their #2 draft pick this year. However, between Thaddeus Gibson and Patrick Bailey, the competition is still on for who will become the top backup at OLB.

Like the first two preseason games, they were basically exhibitions. The young guys showed some good stuff and the coaches got to see a lot of the take a lot of reps. But now it's big game time. The Steelers will have to make their first roster cut after this week's game. This might be the final audition for some players. Also, the starters generally play at least half of the game in the third preseason game, giving it the feel of a regular season game. Along the same lines, our Behind Enemy Lines guest this week brought his regular season form, not shying away from bashing the Steelers in his answers. Solid. But don't expect us not to bash back.

This week's guest is Ian from Bronco Talk. Don't like their responses? Job them on Twitter: @BroncoTalk

1. Both teams have two games under their belt. The Steelers are 2-0 and the Broncos are 0-2. However, as we all know, preseason records don't really mean much. Detroit went 4-0 before their 0-16 season. Obviously, winning isn't nearly as important as seeing the young players develop and not having any key injuries. That being said, what are you looking for out of the Broncos for this game to be considered a "success"?

Getting to see the number one Denver Broncos' offense matched up against the number one Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. The Broncos top offense has been incendiary against the Detroit Lions and the Cincinnati Bengals defense in the last two weeks. Kyle Orton looks prolific, as does Jabar Gaffney, Eddie Royal, Marquez Branson and anyone the Broncos decide to stick at running back. It will be very interesting to see this Denver offense matched up for three quarters against a stellar Pittsburgh defense.

Our first string defense is something to look at, but with all of the injuries and the Steelers debating between Dennis Dixon and Bryron Chamberlin it's the same-old, same-old. The Broncos defense, due to injuries and the preseason schedule has yet to be tested, truly in this preseason. They still don't look like they're going to get a true test until week three in the regular season.

2. Denver's defense took a big hit when Elvis Dumervil went down for the season. Has anyone shown the potential to step up and replace him so far in the preseason? How do you feel about the state of Denver's defense heading into the season?

No one can replace Elvis Dumervil except Dumervil. Yes, he was a monster last season, however, Josh McDaniels runs a system. As did the Broncos in every season Dumervil was successful. So take that for what it is; was it Denver's blindside success because of the system or did Denver have a blindside rush because its defense?

You want the low down on Dumervil? The man is a freak, he's expected to be replaced by a first round draft pick in Robert Ayers (who was the definition of disappointment last season) and a player (who was another first round draft pick) Jarvis Moss who has been a disappointment his entire career and even contemplated retirement last preseason. That's how much the Broncos care who is rushing in as the ROLB. Dumervil won't be missed, he will remain on the 53 man roster, play sometime in November/December and contribute nothing ultimately to the Broncos overall.

Denver's defense however, they're in good shape, you've got too many super fly brothers on that side of the ball to count out. Jamal Williams and you're screwed, put D.J. Williams behind him and follow that up with a secondary that includes Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins and Andre Goodman-- that spells good night my friend. Someone's going to get to the quarterback, I don't care who it is.  

3. Denver traded away a lot to draft Tim Tebow. Is it true that, like Superman being closer to the sun, he'll play better in Denver because it's closer to heaven?

Tim Tebow is a non factor for the Broncos this season (at worst). I hope, from the depths of my heart, that there are actual packages in place for Tebow, because the man will not be denied a touchdown... However, in Denver, the guy's a third string quarterback. A prolific one at that, but he's still a third-stringer. Prolific or not he knows his role and will fill it.

4. Any under-the-radar players that you think will be big surprises this year?

Jabar Gaffney. Seriously, get laughed at in the 7th round in your Fantasy Football drafts when you draft him, who cares. Knowshon Moreno is pretty much on everyone's radar now, but the guy's set to kill and if you want to laugh at Kyle Orton, just look at his preseason stats. Going into Pittsburgh, the kid has had like seven possessions and scored on at least five of them...

All scary picks I know, but the value is there. Make the Broncos your sleepers and I'm serious.

On top of that there's always Eddie Royal, who I don't have a ton of faith in, but he's ultimately the most talented out of everyone I just pointed out earlier. 

5. Any other final thoughts?

Pittsburgh, they're the worst fans to see in a bar, because they're the most ignorant. They know the Steelers and don't know much else. They cheer and are basically ignorant to anything else.

That being said, I respect that.

I'll be watching the game at home in Manhattan for that exact reason. I don't have the muscle to punch a Steeler's fan's nose in.

That's all.

You've got a choice Byron Leftwhich or Dennis Dixon, there ain't a damn one of you who would draft either in Fantasy Football. Pray to the football Gods that your defense can overachieve until Ben Roethlisberger gets out of his suspension, because once Big Ben is out you won't have a worry in the world. 

He's got a point here. We wouldn't draft Lord Byron or DTM in a fantasy league. But last time we checked, fantasy football was exactly that, fantasy. We don't need a Top 5 fantasy quarterback. All we need is a quarterback that wins games. Last time we checked, a 7-6 win counted just as much as a 42-10 win. It doesn't matter how you do it, just as long as you win the game.

Also, we're not quite sure what he means by hoping that our defense can overachieve. The Steelers were 5th in Total Defense last season, and we've added depth to that unit. Plus, getting Polamalu and Aaron Smith back will be a huge improvement to a defense that was already a Top 5 unit. Interesting that he goes on a rant about how Steelers fans are ignorant about other teams, then shows an utter misunderstanding of the Steelers defense.

Go Steelers!

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Last season, we picked up the WPIAL torch during the fall and rattled off some posts about local high school football. We're not insiders or experts, but we do love high school football, particularly in Western Pennsylvania. We're going to try to make a post or two every week to keep readers updated on WPIAL games. Unlike the NFL, we obviously won't be able to follow things as closely since the games aren't televised and we pretty much have to rely on the limited scores and stats that we get from reading the paper. We organized our previews by our predicted order of finish.

Quad-A football is a unique animal. In most conferences, there are 2 elite teams and everyone else fighting for the last two playoff spots. Last season, 3 teams got into the playoffs with losing records in conference play (Plum, Baldwin, North Hills). Four teams made the playoffs with overall records well below .500: Plum (3-7), Latrobe (4-6), Penn-Trafford (3-7), Baldwin (2-8). The top two spots in most Quad-A conferences are pretty much a lock, and the rest of the field will battle it out for the rest of the playoff spots. In our opinion, there are really 8 elite teams in Quad-A this year, and everyone else is just battling for position behind them.

The PIAA redrew the district classifications last year, so there was some movement of teams throughout WPIAL.

New to Quad-A: Altoona (Big East Conference), Erie McDowell (Northern Seven)

The Departed: none

Big East Conference

Woodland Hills
Woody High is the defending Quad-A champion. If they don't find their way back to Heinz Field this year, it will be a huge disappointment. They're clearly the class of the Big East.

Central Catholic
They're probably the only team in the Big East that could challenge Woody High. This is a down year for the conference, and the September 24th game at the Wolvarena will decide the conference crown.

Making the playoffs in a 6-team conference isn't really saying too much. Plum was 3-7 last year, but their 2-3 conference record was enough to get them into the playoffs. They're no where near Woody High or Central, but Penn Hills is slated for a down year, giving Plum the opportunity to compete for the #3 spot in the conference.

Penn Hills
Even in a down year, Penn Hills is still better than the other 3 team in this conference. Kiski hasn't won more than 1 conference game in 4 years. Fox Chapel went winless last year. Penn Hills will still make the playoffs and be a tough out in the first round.

Fox Chapel
Why? No reason. Teams moving into WPIAL have traditionally struggled, and Altoona isn't exactly coming off a stellar year. Fox Chapel could give Penn Hills a run for the last playoff spot, but ultimately fall short.

Kiski Area
Another 1-win conference season for Kiski really isn't hard to imagine. They're nowhere near as talented as the top teams, but should at least be able to beat newcomer Altoona.

They went 2-8 last season in PIAA District 6, which doesn't bode well for their transition into WPIAL. They'll be lucky to win a game in this conference. If they do, it'll come early in the year when they get Fox Chapel and Kiski back-to-back.

Foothills Conference

If anyone other than the Gators is the favorite to win the Foothills Conference, then someone has reached a level of crazy we don't even want to know. We don't have to know anything about how many players graduated or the talent they have. Gateway will win the conference and collapse in the playoffs. No big shocker there.

They have been, and still are, the only real contenders to Gateway's stranglehold on the conference. Their Coach retired after last season and with a new man at the helm, their offense will likely go through a bit of an adjustment period. They're still better than everyone else and are headed for their annual season finale showdown with Gateway for the conference title.

Norwin finished last season with an overall record of 5-5, but a weak 2-4 performance in conference play caused them to miss the playoffs. They could have gotten in by beating Penn-Trafford in the final week of the season, but lost that game and the playoff spot. They return enough talent this season to make a solid run at the playoffs and avenge their loss to Penn-Trafford.

They finished 4th in the conference last year and have their quarterback and running back returning. That should be enough to carry them into the playoffs once again.

Not sure what to make of either Latrobe or Hempfield. Latrobe finished 3rd in the conference last season but had a horrendous point differential. No surprise, they got beat by North Allegheny in the first round of the playoffs. This year, they'll battle Penn-Trafford, Norwin, and Hempfield for the last two playoff spots.

They finished 6th in the league last year, but return enough players that they could be competitive in the race for the last playoff spot. There isn't much that separates these four teams, and Hempfield could just as easily make the playoffs as they could end up in 6th again.

This pick might be the easiest no-brainer of them all. Connellsville hasn't won since Week 1 in 2007. Even if they end the streak this year, they're still in the basement of this conference.

Great Southern Conference

Bethel Park
If you're not picking the Blackhawks to win this conference, you're on acid. Bethel shocked the WPIAL world when they beat nationally ranked Gateway in the title game at Heinz Field two years ago. This is a school that's only lost 3 times in the last 2 seasons.

Mt. Lebanon
The Blue Devils are probably the best challenger to Bethel's reign as conference champions. They have a bunch of players that have either committed to or are being recruited by Division 1 colleges. Mark your calendars for October 15th when they face Bethel.

Upper St Clair
Graduation and transfers diminished the talent on this team, but they still have enough to be competitive. They get the benefit of playing Bethel Park at home, and an upset there followed by a win over rival Mt. Lebanon could spring the Panthers to a conference title. 

Peters Township
Eight starters return from a team that went winless until the final week of the season when they beat Cannon Mac to keep them out of the playoffs. Last season was a good growing experience for the team, and with three weak teams at the bottom of the conference, they could just sneak into that last playoff spot. Peters actually finished last season with a winning record (5-4) but all 4 losses came in conference play.

Six starters return from a team that was one win away from the playoffs. Canon-Mac should be able to beat Baldwin again, leaving them in a showdown with Peters on the last week of the season, once again with a playoff spot on the line. 

This team somehow made the playoffs last year. Despite losing to Cannon-Mac, the Highlanders got lucky when Peters upset Cannon-Mac in the final weekend, giving Baldwin the last playoff spot, despite their 2-8 overall record. Most Quad- A teams that play AAA teams should be favored. Baldwin won't be this season when they face AAA powerhouse Thomas Jefferson. At best, it's another 2-win season for the Highlanders.

Northern Seven Conference

North Allegheny
The defending conference champions should be favored to run the table again. Their only real competition should be rival North Hills, but the addition of Erie McDowell to the conference adds some uncertainty to the race. North Allegheny has won 3 of the last 4 conference titles, and has the talent to win it again.

Seneca Valley
This is a bit of a sleeper pick, but North Hills has the hardest part of their schedule at the end with Erie McDowell, Seneca Valley, and North Allegheny. We're going out on a limb and picking Seneca Valley as a sleeper pick to surprise North Hills and finish second in the conference.

North Hills
They had a lot of players from last year's team graduate, but they're still good enough to finish in the top half of this conference. Many think they might challenge North Allegheny for the conference title, and they're the obvious pick for #2 in the league, but we went out on a limb and picked a sleeper Seneca Valley to edge the Indians.

Erie McDowell
In their first year of official WPIAL competition, we're picking Erie McDowell to make the playoffs. Why? Because they've been playing a WPIAL schedule for the past few seasons and know what to expect when they go into WPIAL arenas and face WPIAL teams. Plus, the other 3 teams aren't very good.

Pine Richland
The Rams have struggled ever since moving up to Quad-A from AAA. However, the other teams in the conference are bad enough that the Rams could push for a playoff spot. Granted, earning a playoff spot in a 7 team conference means you only have to beat 3 teams.

Shaler finished second in the conference last year but lost almost their entire team to graduation. So what does that mean? A likely down year while they reload, giving younger players experience.

A new coach takes over at Butler, but you don't turn things around that quickly. Another year at the bottom for Butler, 

Preseason Top 8
1. Woodland Hills
2. Bethel Park
3. Gateway
4. Central Catholic
5. North Allegheny
6. Mt. Lebanon
7. Upper St Clair
8. McKeesport

Predicted WPIAL AAAA Champion

Woodland Hills Wolverines

2010 Preview: Kansas City Chiefs

2009 Record: 4-12

2009 Rankings:
Total Offense - 25
Run Offense - 11
Pass Offense - 25
Scoring Offense - 23
Total Defense - 30
Run Defense - 31
Pass Defense - 22
Scoring Defense - 29

New England West is continuing their rebuilding process. Last year, Matt Cassel was brought in to be the franchise quarterback. There are still questions around Cassel's ability, but he's way better than any other quarterback on their roster. Brodie Croyle has never won an NFL game, and Pitt products Tyler Palko and Bill Stull round out the roster. Yeah, that pretty much sums up how desperate the Chiefs QB situation is. 

They added talent at running back, bringing in Thomas Jones, who had a successful year with the Jets last year. Jones will be the perfect complement back to Jamaal Charles, who exploded in the second half of last season. Charles is a burner and a great receiver out of the backfield. Jones adds the between-the-tackles talent to pick up the tough yards for Kansas City. One of the most exciting players for the Chiefs is WR Dexter McCluster, who the Chiefs will deploy all over the field to create mismatches with his speed. McCluster has good hands and will probably be used mostly as a slot receiver. However, don't be surprised to see the Chiefs do whatever they can to get the ball in McCluster's hands. This includes use in the return game, reverses, bubble screens, and possibly even a wildcat set thrown in.

The Chiefs defense now enters their second season in the 3-4 alignment. They went from one of the worst pass-rushing teams in 2008 to the middle of the pack in 2009. Penn State product Tamba Hali led the team with 8.5 sacks last year, just 1.5 short of the entire team's total from 2008. Former Patriot Mike Vrabel should start at the other OLB spot, but Andy Studebaker should see time as well. The Chiefs defense is weakest down the middle. From the Nose Tackle through the inside linebackers to the safeties. Drafting Eric Berry (S-Tennessee) will be a huge improvement to the secondary. Berry has All Pro potential, and is an absolute ballhawk in the Ed Reed mold. He'll be an immediate starter, but the other safety position is a huge question mark. At corner, Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr are both young and talented, but still growing into their roles. They're not the best corner tandem in the league, but they are solid and will keep getting better as they enter their third year in the league. Rookie Javier Arenas (Alabama) will be a solid nickel back who will also see time in the return game.

The Chiefs still don't have all the pieces in place to compete for a division title. However, they are a young team with a young coach that should continue to improve this season. They lack a few key pieces to make a run, but the talent is there to build around, and the Chiefs won't be the bottom-feeders of the AFC this year.

Ian's Prediction: 6-10

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Statistical Analysis: 2009 Steelers 3rd Downs

The idea for this post came from reading Blitzburgh Blog's analysis of the Steelers Offensive Line. Solid article by the guys over there that we highly recommend checking out. When we were reading it, our gut told us that we felt like the Steelers "Short Yardage Power Ranking" was a bit inflated because we felt like they passed a lot on 3rd and 2. So we decided to do some digging.

If you've ever looked for a single statistic outside of winning percentage that was a good barometer of how good a team was, then Third Down Conversion Rate is probably your best bet. Last year, 6 of the top 8 teams in 3rd down conversions made the playoffs. Five of those teams won their divisions.

The Steelers were 17th in the league with a conversion rate of 39.4%

If you give the Steelers the benefit of the doubt and add in first downs achieved by penalty, the numbers go up slightly to 41%.

Statistically speaking, the Steelers best 3rd down-and-distance scenario last year was 3rd and 3, which they converted at a 72.7% rate. All of the Steelers 3rd and 3 attempts last year were passing plays, and the Steelers only surrendered 1 sack and had no turnovers at this down and distance.

Let's start with the ugly stuff first.

The Steelers surrendered 23 sacks in their 210 3rd downs last year (10.9%). At about 11%, this means the Steelers were getting sacked about once in every nine attempts on third down. The Steelers averaged about 13.5 3rd down attempts per game, meaning they averaged about 1 1/2 third down sacks per game. Yikes.

Six interceptions were thrown on 3rd down last year, 5 by Ben Roethlisberger and 1 by Dennis Dixon in overtime in Baltimore. At 2.9%, this is a number that we can live with. Over a 16 game season, this means that Ben is only likely to throw a 3rd down INT every 2-3 games. With as much as Ben scrambles and has to make plays under pressure, we'll take that.

Negative plays in the running game were much more of a concern last year. Outside of 3rd & 1 and 3rd & 2 situations, the Steelers only ran the ball 5 times on 3rd downs. They converted on runs on 3rd & 5 and 3rd & 9. They failed on runs on 3rd & 10, 3rd & 13, and 3rd & 18 (as should probably be expected). However, the bigger issue we have here is the negative plays in the 3rd and short situations.

On 3rd and 1 the Steelers had 29 attempts, running the ball 23 times. Of those 23 runs, 14 were successful, a 60.9% conversion rate. Of the 9 failed attempts, the Steelers opted to go for it on 4th down 5 times, succeeding on 4 of the 5 tries.

One of the major issues we see with the Steelers 3rd down data from last year is predictability. We didn't take the time to examine data from any other team (because collecting it would have taken far too long). However, here's some interesting numbers. All year, we said that Bruce Arians thought 3rd and 2 was a passing down, and we wondered why he refused to even run the ball occasionally in those situations. Of the 16 3rd and 2 situations the Steelers faced last year, they ran passing plays on 14, only running the ball twice. Both running plays came against Kansas City, and both failed. The second of the two was the dreadful toss play on 3rd and 2 in overtime. Not only does Arians not mix up his play-calling between run and pass on 3rd down, he also makes dreadful play-calling decisions when he does decide to run the ball.

One of Coach Tomlin's favorite phrases is "body of work." Well, looking at some of these numbers, Bruce Arians' body of work shows that unless it's 3rd and 1, there's a 94.4% chance he's throwing the ball. Many coaches out there, including Bill Belicheat, are renowned for being "numbers guys." Well, if you're a "numbers guy" and are playing the percentages, are you even going to worry about the Steelers running the ball on 3rd and 2 or longer? Probably not.

You would think, given this propensity for not running the ball on 3rd down, that Arians would add in some draw plays, the ideal type of play against a defense that is blitzing from the outside and has a lot of defensive backs on the field. Hell, it's no wonder Ben got sacked 23 times on 3rd down. If I'm an opposing defensive coordinator, I'm bringing the heat on every 3rd down play, regardless of down and distance.

Case in point: the Cleveland game. No matter what the situation, the Browns were bringing the heat and playing press coverage on our receivers. Forcing Ben to either go downfield or our line to block. In the 14 3rd downs in that game, Ben was sacked 5 times. The Steelers only converted 3 times, two of which were on the ground. Of the 11 3rd down plays in which the Steelers called passes, here was the stat line: 5 sacks, 2 completions, 4 incompletions, 1 first down. Wow.

If you've been following us for a while, you know we are heavy criticizers of Bruce Arians' body of work. One of the main problems we have with him is that he is far too predictable in his play-calling. In the make-or-break time of drives, when you're looking at a 3rd down, Bruce is going to the air. Now, we're not advocating for the Steelers to run the ball all the time on 3rd downs. But honestly, how many times have you seen the Steelers run a draw play on 3rd down? Hardly ever, and the numbers back that up. The rarity at which the Steelers run the ball on 3rd and 2 or 3rd and 3 situations is staggering: 2 running plays in 27 attempts (7%). Once again, throwing the ball 93% of the time on 3rd and 2 or 3 isn't exactly the way to out-strategize someone. Defenses know what's coming, and they're going to be gameplanning accordingly.

In conclusion, what would we like to see out of the Steelers this year? For starters, more diversity in their play-calling on 3rd downs. Some draw plays on 3rd and medium (4-7) would be nice. Some more runs on 3rd and 2 would be great. Running plays with a fullback in there would almost make us think we were watching the Pittsburgh Steelers again. Finally, and probably most importantly, cutting down on the negative plays on 3rd down. 23 sacks, 6 interceptions, and 1 fumble mean that there were negative plays on about 1 of every 7 3rd downs the Steelers faced. At 13.5 3rd downs per game, this means we saw about 2 negative plays per game on 3rd down last year. We definitely want to see this cut down.

The new and hopefully improved offensive line should help make these numbers a bit better, but at the end of the day, the coaches still have to make the right play calls to put the players in position to make the plays to win games.

Go Steelers!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Beating a Dead Horse: Ron Cook

Ron Cook wrote an article today about how JoePa needs to hang it up.

Some people might find this kind of article a bit of a surprise from a local paper that usually fondles the sac of local teams, including Pitt's hated rivals West Virginia.

However, this is Ron Cook we're talking about. Let's look at his track record.

January 2, 2006. On the eve of Penn State's biggest bowl game, Cook penned this gem. He even went as far as to make this assertion:
Doesn't 7-5 seem likely next season?
Or 6-6?
And how did Penn State do in 2006? They finished 9-4 with all 4 losses coming to top-20 teams. Three of the 4 losses came on the road (#4 Notre Dame, #1 Ohio State, #17 Wisconsin). The only home loss was to #5 Michigan. They finished the season by beating #18 Tennessee on New Year's Day in the Outback Bowl.

In that same article, Cook also writes:

Paterno and Hall are kicking themselves for not redshirting Morelli in 2004.

And we all know how that one worked out. Morelli's senior year was filled with people asking why Daryl Clark wasn't getting more playing time.

On the eve of the 2006 season, Cook reminds us that in his esteemed opinion, which has accounted for exactly 0 Division 1 NCAA Football wins in his lifetime, Paterno needs to go. In this article, Cook uses the justification that Penn State is coming off the 5 worst seasons of Paterno's career. Known to Penn State fans as "The Dark Ages," the early 2000s when the team went 5-7, 5-6, 9-4, 3-9, 4-7. But the most eye-opening part of the article came later.
Actually, their [Penn State President Spencer and Athletic Director Curley] mistake was waiting so long to ask [Paterno to resign]. It should have happened at least five years earlier. We'll never know if Penn State would have gone through those abysmal seasons under another coach. The guess here is no.

Really? Losing 1st round picks Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington off the defense in the same year wasn't a big blow? In 1999, the year Cook claims Paterno should have been fired, coming off a #11 ranking and a 24-0 shutout of Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl, the defense averaged 18 points against per game. After losing Brown and Arrington? 24.4 points per game in 2000 and 25.5 points per game in 2001. The 2002 team had 6 players that went in the first 2 rounds of the draft: DT Jimmy Kennedy, DE Michael Haynes, WR Bryant Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, FS Bryan Scott, and DT Anthony Adams. Larry Johnson racked up 2000 yards and 20 TDs in 2002. Two things happened with the 2002 team. First, the Offensive Points Per Game went from 22.5 to 34.3. Second, the Defensive Points Against Per Game went from 25.5 to 17. 5. Then, after losing 6 players in the first 2 rounds of the draft, the offensive PFPG dropped back under 20 to 19.4 and the defensive PAPG went back up over 20 to 21.3.

But let's get back on track here.

After Penn State's best season since 1996, Cook called for Paterno to be fired in January 2006. He droned the same tone before the next season started in September 2006.

So how does he respond after Penn State reaches a New Year's Day Bowl and a 9-4 season? Calling for Paterno's head again in September 2007. Once again the guy who, in Cook's words, has stayed ten years too long, posted a 9-4 season, a Top 25 ranking, and a bowl win (24-17 over Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl). For the record, "Ten years too long" would mean that Cook thinks Paterno should have retired before the 1997 season, when his previous 3 seasons were: 11-2 (beat Texas in Fiesta Bowl), 9-3 (beat Auburn in Outback Bowl), 12-0 (beat Oregon in Rose Bowl).

And then the coup de grace. This article written before the 2008 season. Cook turns his unabashed hate at Paterno towards Penn State fans, actually encouraging them to root against their team. Here's some gems:

Where and when in college football might a 6-6 record be better than 10-3 or 11-2?
That's an easy one.
At Penn State, this season.
A bad year would make it a lot easier to get rid of Joe Paterno.
But it gets even better...

That's why a 6-6 season might be better this season. Not even Paterno's most loyal supporters could back him after that. Many, if not most, already think he has stayed on too long and that the football program needs a new beginning. It's not just the 46 player arrests since 2002 and the embarrassment they caused, especially in a damning ESPN report on "Outside The Lines" earlier this summer. It's that Penn State is a mediocre Big Ten Conference program. It is 32-32 in league games this decade, including 2-6 against Ohio State and an abysmal 0-6 against Michigan.
So be careful what you root for, Penn State fans.
A big season might mean three, four, maybe five more years of Paterno.
Even one more year of Paterno would be one too many.
And where did "rooting for 6-6" get Ron Cook?

To this article after the end of the regular season, one in which Penn State had posted an 11-1 season. That's about as much of a retraction as someone with the logical capacity of Ron Cook can come up with. 

Before the 2009 season, Cook was oddly silent, but couldn't resist comparing Joe Paterno to Bobby Bowden after Bowden was forced out of Florida State last year. That was probably the closest Cook got in the last half-decade to writing a positive article about Paterno. And no, I'm not counting the ones where he said things like "Paterno is the greatest coach of all time but needs to hang it up."

But now, Cook is back at it again. He's back on the "Paterno needs to call it quits" horse.

We're not even going to waste our time with going through Cook's article and tearing it apart. Here's the deal: at this point in his career, Paterno has earned the right to walk away and retire whenever he wants. If he wants to hang it up after this year, so be it. If he wants to hang it up, more power to him. If he wants to keep coaching, we haven't seen anything in the team's performance in recent years that should suggest otherwise.

In the last 5 years, Penn State has gone 11-1, 9-4, 9-4, 11-2, and 11-2. In this time they have finished #3, #25, #25, #8, and #8 in the Coaches Poll and gone 4-1 in Bowl Games. 4 of the 5 bowl games were played in the new year.

Yes, Penn State does have a ridiculously hard schedule this year with road games against 3 top 10 teams: Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio State.

Nevertheless, even if Penn State posts a 9-3 or 8-4 season (hell, even if they go 6-6), we still wouldn't care what JoePa decided to do. In our eyes, he's the greatest coach in College Football history and has earned the right to retire on his terms.