Oct 22, 2012, 2:25 PM EDT
Steelers at Cincinnati
By Michele Tafoya
STEELERS MISSING STARS
The Steelers’ win in Cincinnati on Sunday Night may turn out to be a turning point in their season. It was Pittsburgh’s first win on the road and first division game.
But what made the win all the more remarkable was how the Steelers overcame significant injuries and found their way to victory.
Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh’s two top running backs, were inactive. Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey, arguably the best center in the NFL, didn’t suit up. Starting RT Marcus Gilbert was out. And Troy Polamalu, the team’s defensive x-factor, was sidelined again with a calf injury.
That’s quite a cast of missing persons.
Before the game I asked safety Ryan Clark about how Polamalu’s absence might affect his game.
He told me Polamalu not being on the field expands Clark’s role — not so much mentally. But, he said “As far as the physicality of the position, it puts me in the box more and I have to blitz more and do some things Troy normally does.”
But there’s a domino effect, Clark said. By moving closer to the line of scrimmage, “It takes me out of the middle,” the LSU product told me. “So the guy moving into the middle isn’t as good as the guy that’s normally there, and clearly I can’t do the things Troy does.”
“So it takes a little away from your defense,” the Pro Bowler added. “But it also gives us unpredictability — but not as much as when Troy is in there.”
Coaches will always preach, “Next man up,” and in this case the back-ups came up big.
Bengals second-year quarterback Andy Dalton is a timing quarterback. He throws the ball on time, and sometimes that works beautifully.
Before the game, Clark told me how the Steelers would try to defend Cincinnati’s passing game.
“We have to try to disrupt the receivers: make them have to take extra steps; put hands on them; delay their routes even a little bit,” Clark said.
“We’re gonna try to give them different looks and also be physical. Maybe that’ll give us opportunities to get some pressure and sacks on Dalton.”
Dalton is only part of the Bengals passing equation. Another major factor is A.J. Dalton, the superb wide receiver out of Georgia.
“A.J. is slightly built but can catch any ball that’s near him,” Clark raved.
“Maybe he doesn’t get the respect that guys like Larry Fitzgerald get because he doesn’t have the years yet,” the Louisiana native went on. “But If you watch the film, there are guys covering him front and back and he’s making catches over them and all around.”
“I think he’s top right now,” Clark concluded.
NOT PERFECT, BUT BURFICT
The story of Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict is worth repeating.
A stellar defender at Arizona State, Burfict was looking forward to being a high draft pick last April.
But his combine performance was less than impressive.
And at Burfict’s pro day, Marvin Lewis asked him to run. Burfict refused, saying he had been advised by his agent not to run.
After Lewis chewed the youngster out, Burfict asked for the coach’s phone number. Later, he would write an apology note to Lewis saying he should have run for him.
That note made a difference. And Lewis also recalled how at the pro day, Burfict stayed around to cheer on his teammates after he was through with his own audition.
Lewis concluded that if Burfict went undrafted, the Bengals would sign him, and that’s what happened.
Since coming to Cincinnati, Burfict has been a model player.
I spoke with him after the Bengals Friday practice.
Burfict told me he credits his smarter play and newfound discipline to the coaching he’s received from Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Burfict’s respect for his coaches is evident. “I’m being coached really tough, and I don’t want to mess up.”
Turns out not getting drafted was a blessing in disguise for Burfict. It humbled me before I got (to the NFL). It brought me down to earth,” he said.
Now Burfict just wants to play well and let people know “I’m not a bad person on or off the field.”
He’s off to a fine start.
WHAT’S IN YOUR HELMET?
There’s no bigger issue in the NFL right now than reducing head injuries, and what Pittsburgh LB James Harrison has inside his helmet may be a first step toward protecting players.
Harrison told me he’s suffered concussion-like symptoms around ten times during his NFL career. And after he broke his orbital bone last season he was searching for some added security.
Protecting Harrison now is a military-grade Kevlar-composite lining in his helmet. Harrison is now a spokesman for the product which takes the force of a hit and disperses it to lessen its impact.
The hard-hitting Harrison told me that since he’s been wearing the padding he has not experienced the light-headedness or “stars” that he used to feel after a hit.
And he says there’s “no way” he’d play without the protective lining now.
THE PHRASE THAT PAYS
Speaking of reducing head injuries…
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin created the phrase, “Don’t use the head, don’t hit the head,” to help his players easily remember how to stay away from penalties while also avoiding potential head injuries.
Clark proudly admits he’s taken that motto to heart, and head.
“I’ve been doing well this year,” the eleven year veteran told me. “I’m maturing. I just turned 33 last Friday, so I feel very mature now,” he said with a smile.
“But more than the safety it’s about penalizing your team,” Clark went on. “I’ve been making hits and the ball is jarring loose and we haven’t been penalized.”
So why not do that one hundred percent of the time?
“Honestly,” Clark asserted, “if I’m ever in the position to where I think trying to make the safer hit or the hit that’s within the rules may cost us a play, then I’m going to play it like I always play it.”
“But,” he added, “if I have time to measure it out where I can make the hit correctly then I’m gonna do it.”
SPEAKING OF SAFETY
I’ve reported previously on the Impact Indicator, made by BattleSports Science.
Several players in the NFL endorse it, including Bengals running back Benjarvus Green Ellis.
The chinstrap is designed to alert him if he’s taken a hit that could result in a concussion. If he takes a hit that exceeds a pre-set level of impact, a green light on the chinstrap would turn red.
Green Ellis told me he hasn’t had a concussion that he knows of; but he said me his Mom was always concerned about the safety of the game.
He wants to communicate to parents that the Impact Indicator is one way they can monitor their child’s safety. His hope is that with some peace-of-mind, more parents will give their kids the opportunity to play football.
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- Norv Turner isn’t sure any quarterback would have won in Cleveland last year
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