What can rugby learn from football; and vice versa?

Ok, so this post is based entirely on the play that got Le’Veon Bell knocked out of yesterday’s defeat to the Baltimore Ravens, but I think there are wider issues that are all too evident both from what actually happened, but also from how the NFL treated the situation.

NFL rules are explicit: you lose your helmet, the play is dead.  Years ago, players were fracturing their skulls and dying.  The solution was helmets.  Then helmets became weapons.  If you haven’t already read “League of Denial” you should.  Not least because it clears up a lot of misunderstanding about the role of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the demise of Mike Webster, one of our greatest ever players.  It also tells you exactly how Mike’s life fell apart because of head trauma.  It’s disturbing, upsetting and utterly compelling.  In so far as it is relevant to this post, however, it details the use of helmets in the NFL.

I will immediately acknowledge that if you were to google “helmet to helmet” the chances are you will find out about one of James Harrison’s greatest hits, or perhaps Ryan Clark slamming into Willis McGahee a couple of years ago.  I doubt either man has ever been the same.  Seriously.  Ryan Clark thinks he’s a talk show host.

So, it’s fair to say that the Steelers have had a role to play in the history of the brutal helmet to helmet hit.  BUT…it’s illegal now, and we all know that it is.

So what excuses does Courtney Upshaw have for this?

http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000289541/article/pittsburgh-steelers-leveon-bell-examined-for-concussion

He went helmet first into Le’Veon Bell’s head.  He might have been trying to hit the ball loose, probably the only play that the Ravens had left by the time Bell made it to inches away from the goal-line, but he didn’t hit the ball, he hit Bell in the head.  He concussed Bell, who was, by all accounts, unconscious when he “scored” the TD that was waved off.

Firstly, and I addressed this point this morning, what advantage does Le’Veon Bell get from having his helmet knocked off WHILE HE IS DIVING FOR THE LINE?  You can’t freeze a play like this at the point his helmet comes off like you could if he lost it at the line of scrimmage on a 10 yard carry in his own half.  He was mid-play, had his helmet knocked off by an illegal hit and then they took the TD away from him.

In addition to losing Bell, we lost the TD and the surprise element that we would have had with our 2 point conversion attempt.  As I noted earlier, Jerricho Cotchery is our “safe pair of hands” at WR this season, but he ended up with the TD, so was inevitable that Jerricho would be doubled for our 2 point attempt.  Instead Ben had to throw to Emmanuel Sanders who had dropped four passes in the game.  He couldn’t make the play and we lost.

For all Joe Flacco’s comments (and I think he reflected on the situation with Tomlin’s “accidental obstruction” with some humor), the play that really should be drawing everyone’s attention today, as Trib columist Dejan Kovacevic has emphasized, is Upshaw’s hit on Bell.

The issue of concussions is becoming more prevalent back home in the UK and Ireland in the sport of rugby.  A series of articles, pioneered by Scotsman columnist Tom English, have highlighted the issue.  Here is one good example, about Irish star Brian O’Driscoll.  Another by former English star Lewis Moody is also worth reading.

Clearly, rugby and football are sports that have developed as collision sports over recent years.  The CTE issue in the NFL goes back to the 1970s, probably much further.  In rugby, the onset of professionalism in the game has seen players get bigger and quicker and as a result, the game has become more brutal.

One notable difference between the two is, of course, the use of helmets.  Rugby players used to wear shoulder pads for a brief period in the 1990s, but that seems to have disappeared.  Most these days would wear little more than McDavid hexpads, much like basketball players.  The point here, however, is that in the same situation as Courtney Upshaw found himself last night, no rugby player would have acted as Upshaw did.  They would have still tried to make a play, but it would have involved using their arms to either hold back the runner or to dislodge the ball.

The comparisons between rugby and football do not really extend far beyond the shape of the ball and the size of the players, but it seems that, with concussion an issue of growing concern in both sports, some lessons could be learned on either side.

Reasons to be thankful?

Another close game against the Ravens, but this time we come out on the losing side of the deal.  It could have been different – Suisham mis-timed a field goal attempt in the first half (it looked like a ridiculously bad fake attempt on first view), even though it was a 50 yarder, and then Emmanuel Sanders couldn’t hold on to Ben’s pass for the 2 point conversion after Heath had taken us to the 1 and Jerricho had brought us back to within 2 of our great rival.  I say great, but man do I hate the Ravens.  I know I’m not from Pittsburgh and I don’t have the same perspective as those of you who are or are long-tenured fans, but there is just something so despicable about them.

I don’t like the Bengals, but the decade in which I’ve really been following the Steelers (thanks in part to my buddy Doug from WashPA, but thanks also to the t-shirt I had as an 8 year old in Edinburgh, Scotland) they’ve just been kinda crappy.  I can’t really feel much except sympathy for the Browns.  They really do suck.  But the Ravens…dude…I just hate them.

Anyway, the game started slowly from an offensive perspective and our special teams let us down on more than one occasion, but we really got going in the second half.  Ben is still, for my money, one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the league – and I don’t mean a fantasy QB, I mean a real QB who you want on your side when the game comes down to the crucial stages – and he really showed it with drive after drive.

Leveon Bell was pretty good as well.  He should have had 2 TDs except for a dumb “no helmet” call that brought us back to the 1 yard line – the play that was eventually finished by Cotchery.  I know these rules are in place to protect players from themselves (and each other) but Bell dived, got clattered by a helmet-to-helmet hit, his helmet came off MID-DIVE, then he scored…and was knocked out.  What exactly could Bell do to protect himself on that play?  The rules need to have a bit more room for interpretation here.

The crucial aspect of this situation was that after Cotchery caught the TD pass it immediately ruled him out as the target for the 2 point conversion.  He is perhaps our safest pair of hands at the moment.  I’d listen to an argument for Heath, or indeed Bell (concussed out of contention for the play, of course).  Sanders is lightning fast but not our most reliable receiver – much as I love a Sanders being on the Steelers, I have to admit that.  Brown is our spectacular play guy, but I think we really wanted to be looking to Heath or Cotchery on a 2 point conversion.  Sanders wasn’t far away of course, but “wasn’t far away” doesn’t win games against the Ravens.  Or tie them.  But you know what I mean.

So, 5-7.  It’s not horrible, but it puts us back on the edge of a horrible situation: mediocrity.  Say what you will about 0-16 but it brings you a number 1 overall pick.  Equally, 9-7 probably brings you a wild card spot. To reach 9-7 now we’re going to have to win in Green Bay, probably against Aaron Rodgers.  The Packers looked HORRIBLE against Detroit, who we, of course, played very well against.  The difference between Matt Flynn and Aaron Rodgers is huge.  I think we can get to Rodgers, but his decision making is so superior to Flynn’s that we will need to make sure we cover ourselves.

Of course, we still have the Dolphins and the Bengals to get through first.  I look forward to seeing what Ike Taylor, hopelessly overmatched by Smith last night, can do against his old buddy Mike Wallace.

What is perhaps more likely, at this point, is something in between.  Like 7-9.  Which does nothing for you.  It’s already too late to tank for a higher draft pick.  The Houston Texans, probably the worst team in the NFL at the moment (who would have predicted that a few months ago?), look to have the worst record in their sights.  What we can perhaps seriously think about is trading some of our excess baggage to move up in the draft.  I’ve already suggested that we could survive without Maurkice Pouncey, so I’m now going to add LaMarr Woodley to the mix.  Jason Worilds was really good yesterday, just as he was the week before.  If we can somehow come up with an offer to keep Worilds (who will undoubtedly be drawing admiring glances from teams with cap space) this summer, then LaMarr is surplus to requirements.  Indeed, as our fourth highest paid player, I would suggest that Woodley could be surplus to requirements in any case.

There is so much to be happy about as a Steelers fan at the moment, but also great cause for concern, particularly when you look to the future.  Some big decisions have to be made…and soon.

The Pouncey Conundrum

With the upcoming offseason will come a number of very difficult decisions for the management of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  As noted in multiple sources, we are in a little bit of trouble with regard to the 2014 salary cap – as yet unknown.  In addition to the numerous free agents in the current squad, there are a number of player who are earning way more than their production demands.  These will have to be dealt with.  Then there is the problem of possible extensions ahead of 2015’s free agency and perhaps our marquee 2015 free agent – Maurkice Pouncey.

Early in the first quarter of our season opener against Tennessee, right guard David DeCastro attempted a cut block on the Titans nose tackle.  The cut block has become a hugely controversial play given the low trajectory of the blocking player which can cause serious injury to the targeted player.  Houston Texans Linebacker Brian Cushing has suffered two serious injuries in two consecutive seasons thanks to cut blocks, a play that the Texans use a great deal themselves.

Instead of taking out the opposing NT, DeCastro’s 316lb frame plowed into Maurkice Pouncey’s right knee, tearing the three-time pro-bowl center’s ACL and MCL.

Pouncey was replaced by Kelvin Beachum in the short term, but the team moved quickly and signed veteran Fernando Velasco who was, coincidentally, released by the Titans on 31 August, only a few days before Pouncey went down.  Velasco had started 16 games the previous season with the Titans, 13 at center.

Since coming in and making his debut in week 2 against Cincinnati, Velasco has been very good.  I don’t get to see every Steelers game, living in Houston, but in those I have seen, including the Ravens game which I was actually at, I’ve been struck by the lack of apparent drop-off from our pro-bowler to our free agent replacement.

After his injury, some reports (notably Scott Brown on ESPN.com, 9/9/13) cited Pouncey as “arguably the top center in the NFL”.  In his Sunday column for the Trib, Dejan Kovacevic noted that Pro Football Focus had graded Pouncey as the 12th best center in 2012.

Pouncey is coming into the final year of his rookie contract.  He’s earning $2,527,875 this season and is scheduled to make $2,829,000 next season.  I think it’s fair to expect that Maurkice is going to expect a pay raise when he comes to renegotiating his deal.  More importantly, it’s probably fair that he should get one.  Three pro-bowl appearances in three NFL seasons tells you how good he has been.  The question is what can Pouncey reasonably expect?

Ryan Kalil earns $8,186,000 this season; Nick Mangold $7,153,286; Max Unger $6,458,750; Scott Wells $6,375,000; Chris Myers $6,250,000.

Pouncey has been fairly durable.  He had missed three regular season games but he suffered an ankle sprain which caused him to miss the 2011 Superbowl defeat to Green Bay, where Doug Legursky played center.  He plays arguably the toughest position in football.  The center has to read the opposing defense, snap the ball (accurately!) and block.  The speed that some of the behemoths who play defensive line across the NFL make these last two tasks particularly onerous.  Let’s not overlook the constant physical trauma that these players go through, evidenced by the compelling and disturbing “League of Denial”, either.

The question of whether or not we should renew Pouncey’s deal is tied up in the relative value of Velasco, rightly or wrongly.  Velasco is earning $522,352.  That’s nearly $100,000 less than LaRod Stephens-Howling.  Have his performances been a notable drop off from Pouncey?  You’d struggle to convince many that they have.  Behind the Steel Curtain suggested that the team might improve without Pouncey, even prior to Velasco’s first game.

The key to me is money.  Given our ridiculous salary cap situation next season, as I noted in an earlier blog some sources have us left with a spare $63k, it might not be a terrible idea to trade Pouncey.  He has significant value to a franchise in need of a franchise center.  Pouncey is likely to demand, and probably deserves, a significantly better deal than his rookie contract.  Ryan Kalil is getting $49M over six years at Carolina (although only $750,000 this season) and just under half of that is guaranteed.  Kalil is also a three-time pro-bowler.  Will Pouncey demand the same sort of money?  Perhaps.

If we decide to roll with Velasco next season, then the question becomes what should we do about Maurkice?  He has a year remaining on his rookie deal and unless we are incredibly creative with our salary structure, we just can’t afford to keep him on a Ryan Kalil-type deal.

My view?  Time to let Pouncey further his career somewhere else.  Thanks for everything, Maurkice, but there are other positions where we need to try and improve our quality.  Perhaps by trading him we can free up some space to sign a free agent, or perhaps even bring in a draft pick to try and set us up for the 2014 season.

For what it’s worth, Pouncey is not the only player currently under contract who I would be happy for us to shed, but that is a topic for another post.

The Steelers and the playoff push

After what one might almost call a classic Pittsburgh Steelers win last weekend over the Detroit Lions, we now find ourselves tied for second in the AFC North and only a game out of the AFC wild card spot.

The 0-4 start to the season, which included a narrow loss to the Tennessee Titans alongside slightly less-narrow defeats to the Chicago Bears and the Minnesota Vikings before two “thrilling” (read: narrow) wins over the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens (which marked my own first ever game at Heinz Field).  The 2-4 record was clearly a lot better than 0-4, but the gaping holes across the squad were becoming all-too evident.

The seemingly annual baffling loss to the Oakland Raiders, compounded by giving up an NFL record touchdown mere seconds into the game to Terrelle Pryor was followed by a resounding hammering from New England.

At that point I, along with I suspect many other Steelers fans, was ready to throw in the towel.  “Mail in the rest of the season, get out young players some game experience and prepare for the draft and free agency to put us in a strong position for 2014” was my own view on the way forward for the team.  Then we went and won two in a row against Buffalo and Detroit and things started to look a bit rosier.

Suddenly, planning for next season took a backseat to “wait a second, we could actually make the playoffs here!”

Our remaining games are at the Browns, at the Ravens, the Dolphins, the Bengals, at the Packers and the Browns again, this time at Heinz.

The chances are that Aaron Rodgers will be back by December 22nd, when we head to Green Bay, an entirely different prospect from facing Scott Tolzien or Seneca Wallace or Matt Flynn or Brett Favre.  The Packers are currently 5-5, one game back of Detroit and Chicago in what is still a very winnable NFC North (unless you’re Minnesota).  That aside, we actually have a very good shot of winning most of our remaining games.

In recent seasons, 9-7 is the worst record that an AFC North team has finished with and still made the playoffs.  Cincinnati did it in 2011 and Baltimore did it in 2009.  Last time we made the playoffs through the wild card, we lost in the wild card game to Denver (let’s not go there), but the time before that was 2005.  Things worked out a bit better that time.

So, if we assume that 9-7 will be good enough – the strength of the AFC West means that all teams have a shot at the playoffs, but the likelihood of either Kansas or Denver taking the first wild card slot with a very strong record means that only the second wild card slot is available for the six teams who are all sitting on 4-6 at the moment, like the Steelers – then we can only afford to lose one more game.  The New York Jets hold the slot at the moment with a 5-5 record, an identical record to Miami.

If we do make the playoffs, we of course have a chance to go all the way.  Not a very big chance, of course, but to end up 9-7 from a 0-4 start…or a 2-6 mid-season record for that matter… shows the sort of late-season form that is the hallmark of teams that have surprised the league to win the Superbowl.

It wasn’t just the fact that the team was losing and, in the case of the visit to New England at least, losing badly that drew so much concern.  It was that the team looks thoroughly unprepared for next season.  Among the coaching staff, serious questions have been asked about the ability of Mike Tomlin, Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley to build a winning team.  Some critics note that Tomlin’s Superbowl was won with Bill Cowher’s team – but of course our most recent Superbowl appearance was with a team that had spent significant time under Tomlin.  LeBeau had looked bereft of ideas a few games ago, although two impressive defensive performances have drawn comments inclusive of the phrase “the old magic”.  Haley, deeply, DEEPLY unpopular thanks largely to the fact that he replaced Bruce Arians (last season’s AP coach of the year) not to mention his confrontational style that has proven as unpopular with Ben as it did with Kurt Warner, has seen the offense improve this season, but there is significant debate as to whether or not this is thanks to him or Ben.

There are significant problems on the playing front as well.  It is fair to say that the salary structure for the 2014-2015 season is what you might call “a bit of a mess”.  We owe the following players the following amounts of money:

Ben Roethlisberger $17,895,000

Troy Polamalu $10,887,500

Ike Taylor $10,454,166

LaMarr Woodley $13,590,000

Heath Miller $9,466,500

Lawrence Timmons $11,816,260

Antonio Brown $8,470,000

That is quite a lot of money being owed to not-all-that-many players.  Bleacher Report, via overthecap.com, reckoned that we would have about $63,000 to spare under the 2014 cap.  So who can we get rid of, or rather, who would we want to get rid of?

We have Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Worilds becoming Unrestricted Free Agents.  I’m a big fan of Sanders (largely because I love there being a Sanders Steelers jersey that isn’t personalized) and the fact that we decided to match New England’s offer for him this past summer suggests we might try to hang on to him.  I think Cotchery has earned another contract, but I’m okay with any of the rest of that list leaving.  Keisel has been a great player for us, but 34 is very old for a Defensive End.  This is a JJ Watt/Cameron Jordan league now and Keisel’s dynamism is on the slide.  There are quite a few prospects waiting in the 2014 NFL draft who could fit in at DE, led by Jadeveon Clowney, although our recent run of form has probably dropped us into the low first round of the draft and most commentators have Clowney going long before the draft reaches double figures.

Some UFA’s currently in the squad make more sense to target as potential returning players, particularly Fernando Velasco, who has been hugely impressive since Maurkice Pouncey went down early in the season.  In fact, you could make a good case that we’ve scarcely missed Pouncey at all.  Back in September, SteelersDepot.com suggested that Pouncey’s unfortunate knee injury might prevent us from extending his deal – Pouncey’s rookie deal was more than likely going to be a 2014 priority for the team, now, however…  Let’s just say there will be certain demands that a three-year-three-pro-bowl player is going to have.

Meanwhile, Velasco is 28 and, to me, well worth another deal.  The question is whether or not Velasco’s form has made Pouncey replaceable…or, more significantly, tradeable.  How likely is this?  I don’t know.  The Steelers are loyal to the point of regression and Pouncey has been perhaps our most successful draft pick since…well…maybe 2005 when we picked Heath Miller or even 2004 when a certain Miami, OH quarterback joined the organization.

Our recent draft history has not been outstanding.  The one that really sticks in the mind, particularly given the rapid decline of our Linebackers was in 2010, when we selected Jason Worilds despite Sean Lee still being available.  Worilds has recent commented that he prefers to play at Left Outside Linebacker, which of course is where you find LaMarr Woodley.  Woodley is one player who I would certainly not be too sad to see depart Pittsburgh.  Nothing against him personally (that would be silly given I don’t even know him), but he is getting an awful lot of money for not an awful lot of production.  This season he has 19 solo tackles, 14 assisted tackles and 5 sacks.  That is currently (before the Cleveland game) good enough for eleventh on the team.  Hang on…how many guys play defense?  Lawrence Timmons has 54 solo tackles, 29 assisted  Of course, he only has one sack.  That perhaps tells you a lot about the way our D is set up.  Woodley is our sack leader.  He’s only 12th out of all LBs in sacks, but the sixth highest paid OLB in the league.  He had a sack a game in 5/6 of our first games (none against the Vikings).  Is it harsh to say that Woodley is not producing?  I don’t think so.

However, it is not a given that we will be able to rebuild in the 2014 draft.  Not necessarily because of a lack of talent, but at least partially because we are a LONG way from the 1974 draft, or even the days that we used to get three long-tenured players out of any given draft class.

There are plenty of good free agents on the market this offseason, notably those in positions where the Steelers have need.  I am quite intrigued by LeVeon Bell, but there are guys like Maurice Jones-Drew and Ben Tate on the market.  Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham from the 49ers, along with Eric Decker and Jeremy “if he comes back healthy” Maclin make for an interesting group of WRs.  The list of available linemen, offensive and defensive, is extensive, as is the list of available linebackers.  We of course have to balance the needs we perceive that we have alongside the ability of any given player to actually fill them.  Signing, say, Jonathan Vilma, who can no longer stay healthy, would perhaps not be the right move if we decide to look at the free agent linebacker market.  Perhaps the most intriguing OLB on the market this offseason is Jason Worilds?

Arguably our greatest need, particularly if we let Ryan Clark move into the ESPN studio, where his mind has frequently seemed to be in recent months, and if we decide that Ike Taylor, as deadly as he is when shutting down AJ Green, is no longer worth the money we are scheduled to pay him, will be at defensive back.  Again, there is availability, but the number of truly elite defensive backs in the league is considerably lower than you might think.

I often wonder how long after a Superbowl win you should wait until your team is competitive again.  Players often jump ship after winning a ring and the brutal nature of the NFL means that player durability is as low as it ever was.  Consequently, dynasties seem to be a thing of the past – but is it not reasonable to expect that a competent organisation (which the Steelers clearly are, current coaching issues aside) should be able to keep a team in playoff contention even with a Superbowl hangover in mind.  We failed to make the playoffs last season.  If we fail to do so this season, then it seems reasonable to me that we should be back in playoff contention soon after.  Right now, I just don’t know.