Labriola On

Labriola on Timmons, Lake, 'C'

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • You could hear the enthusiasm in Merril Hoge's voice as he played the clip over and over and over again.
  • Hoge is a former fullback for the Steelers and Bears and now the ESPN analyst who remains the most vocal proponent of running the football amidst a sea of ex-quarterbacks. He does a segment each Monday during the NFL season on SportsCenter, and while I cannot recall how the segment is branded I am familiar enough with it to know it mostly deals with the blocking and tackling aspect of the sport.
  • Last Monday, Dec. 19, the day after the Steelers defeated the Bengals in Cincinnati, Hoge singled out a particular play from that game and turned it into a de facto coaching clinic. It was from the first quarter goal line stand, on a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line on the play immediately following a pass interference penalty called on Artie Burns in the end zone.
  • This is how it was described in the National Football League Game Summary: "1-1-PIT 1: (1:58) J.Hill right guard to PIT 1 for no gain (Timmons)."
  • This is how it looked through binoculars in the second row of the press box at Paul Brown Stadium: Andy Dalton took the snap from under center, turned to his right and handed the ball to Jeremy Hill, who was attacking the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball. Hill, 235 pounds worth, had momentum toward the goal line when all of a sudden he was stopped as though he ran into a brick wall.
  • Replay revealed the brick wall to be Ryan Shazier, and when the play was blown dead the Bengals offense was looking at a second-and-goal from the Steelers 1-yard line.
  • The next morning on SportsCenter, Hoge showed the play from a bunch of different angles. As the end zone view played on the screen, Hoge began reciting things he had been told by Chuck Noll almost 30 years ago. "Look at that," gushed Hoge, as he ran the play forward and then in reverse. "Same foot, same shoulder. Strike a rising blow. Beautiful."
  • The Pro Bowl voting is over, and the results were announced on Dec. 20. Alas, Lawrence Timmons wasn't among the five Steelers selected to the AFC squad, and so as of the initial voting, his number of Pro Bowl appearances will remain at one. But after 16 weeks of this 17-week season, Timmons leads the team in tackles, he's second in interceptions. He has 1.5 sacks, and his eight pressures is tied for second on the team. He also has five passes defensed.
  • "First of all, you have to talk about his availability and/or durability," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Timmons. "This guy has been doing it for a long time. I can't even remember the last time he's missed a game, or if he's missed a game, or even if he's missed a practice for that matter. He's uniquely talented, no doubt, and that's why we took him where we took him in the first round in 2007. But his level of availability is extraordinary over that period of time."
  • The last time Timmons missed a game was in 2009 when he sat out one with an ankle injury and another with a hamstring injury. For a guy with 10 years in the league who has been a full-time starter at inside linebacker for eight of those, that's amazing availability. And as a 30-year-old, Timmons is having one of his best years, and he has been, in my view, the Steelers' best defensive player over the course of this entire season.
  • Since we're on the subject of the defense, the improvement of the young defensive backs – Stephon Tuitt, Artie Burns, Sean Davis – has been a significant component of the unit's development into one that can help a team compete for a championship. Coincidently, the "fire Carnell Lake" fools have crawled back into their holes and adopted radio silence.
  • The idea that any and all failures, that any and all inadequacies are the fault of a coach or coaches who should've planned better/worked harder/known better is baffling. That a coach should be able to turn/teach any athletically inclined person into a great player in a sport at its highest level always has baffled me, because it ignores the intangibles said athletically inclined person must have within him even to have a chance to succeed.
  • And if you think there is some fool-proof way to gauge the presence of such intangibles and then somehow measure them, well, there isn't. There just isn't. People can beat a polygraph machine, and so if you think there aren't twentysomethings capable of looking you in the eye and lying right to your face, you're delusional.
  • Anyway, what happened to the Steelers secondary is the same thing that happened to the Steelers offensive line. After years of trying to get it done with late-round draft choices, other teams' castoffs, and college free agents, the Steelers realized the asset that is Ben Roethlisberger had to be protected and cherished, and so they responded accordingly.
  • Starting in 2010, the Steelers began spending premium draft picks on the position. In the three drafts between 2010-12, the team used two No. 1 picks and two No. 2 picks on offensive linemen. Three of those four picks now make up 60 percent of a unit that has developed into a strength of this team and at least is in the conversation in terms of being the NFL's best. Mike Munchak is a great offensive line coach, yes, but even he needs material.
  • Same thing with the secondary. After years of Curtis Browns and Shaquille Richardsons and Crezdon Butlers, after the Cortez Allen experiment failed, after hitting on Will Gay and Keenan Lewis but then losing one of them to free agency, the Steelers turned to their offensive line philosophy.
  • They started in 2015 by committing three draft picks to the secondary, and then the following spring they upped the ante by using a No. 1 pick on a cornerback and a No. 2 pick on a coverage safety. It was the first time the Steelers had used a No. 1 pick on a cornerback since 1997, and it was about time.
  • One of the issues with the Steelers secondary has been the lack of cornerbacks with ball-skills. Cornerbacks with ball-skills are in sufficient demand throughout the NFL and sufficiently rare throughout college football to qualify as something of an endangered species. But in Artie Burns the Steelers drafted a cornerback with ball-skills, and in Ross Cockrell they found one. In Sean Davis, they have a tall, long, athletic safety who can cover, tackle, make plays in the backfield as well as down-the-field.
  • Burns, Cockrell, and Davis all have improved over the course of this season by being, as Mike Tomlin calls it, "humble enough to accept coaching." That's a testament to them, as well as to the work done by their position coach.
  • It's one thing for a professional football team to employ players with less-than-pristine backgrounds, but singling them out as leaders/examples for the others is a sure path down the tubes. Adam Jones as a defensive captain for the Cincinnati Bengals fits that description perfectly.
  • Jones' antics on the field and rants off it are readily available on the internet, and so if a young player comes to the Bengals and sees this guy with a "C" on the front of his jersey, what's he to surmise about the culture of his team? About what is acceptable? About what is permitted? About how far you can go before you step across the line that leads to unemployment?
  • Players like Jones, like Vontaze Burfict, like Wallace Gilberry get you beat. Eventually. And in the NFL, eventually always seems to happen in December and January.
  • The last time the Steelers played a game against the Ravens at Heinz Field and had Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger available was Nov. 2, 2014. In that game, Le'Veon Bell had 10 carries for 20 yards, plus five catches for 38 yards and a touchdown; Antonio Brown had 11 catches for 144 yards and a 54-yard touchdown; and Ben Roethlisberger completed 25-of-37 (67.6 percent) for 340 yards, with six touchdowns, no interceptions, and a rating of 136.3. The Steelers won, 43-23.
  • Not predicting something similar for Sunday, but if the Steelers snap their four-game losing streak to the Ravens, the performance of those three guys figures to be a reason why.
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