Monday, January 16, 2017

With gutty win, Steelers cement 2016 as a step forward

Le'Veon a prayer. (Photo creds to
By: Joe Smeltzer
As Sunday night's contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs progressed, I started to worry. Obviously, the main reason for my concern was that I love the Steelers and, naturally, wanted like hell for them to win this playoff game. But a secondary reason for my concern was that, should the Steelers fall; what would that give me to talk about as a writer?

If the Steelers season ended in the cold of Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, of course, it would have been disappointing. But I don't believe that it would have been disappointing enough in which I, as an aspiring journalist, would have been able to justifiably rip the 2016 season to shreds. Nor would I be able to praise the Tomlin bunch for a season that went above expectations, as with a loss in the divisional round, Pittsburgh would have been in the same position at the beginning of 2017 as they were at the start of 2016, and that, my friends, would be boring. As a writer, I find that sports franchises are fun to write about when they are;
A. Doing particularly well or
B. Underachieving 
As I wrote about in an earlier article, had the Steelers lost on Sunday, I don't believe that this team would fit into either one of those categories. Luckily, they won. 

Now, I know that the season is not over yet. I know that the Steelers are relatively heavy underdogs in New England, as all visiting teams are, and I also know that some goofy, entitled yinzers are going to call for blood if this team falls short of a 7th Lombardi. But I think that all Steelers fans who do believe in rational thought will be happy with what this team has accomplished regardless of what happens from here on out.

While what the Steelers have accomplished this season is impressive, that doesn't mean that it is surprising. We all know about the talent that this team has, and many of us; including Big Joe himself, picked the Steelers to be their 2016 Super Bowl Champions. That said, there is no denying; again, from rational people, that the Steelers have taken a step forward in 2016-17. For the first time since 2011, the men of steel are among the four finest units the NFL has to offer, and to look at that as anything less than progress would take a greedy and negative outlook.

What makes this season impressive above all else, to me, is the night and day difference from Sunday, November 13th, to the present day. At the time of that rough 35-30 loss to Zeke Elliot and the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers were 4-5. The offense was inconsistent. The defense stunk. Nothing seemed to be working. Then, all of a sudden, the switch flipped, and the rest is glorious history.

While I'm on the topic, How about this young defense? Yes, most of the gushing from the KC game is over Le'Veon Bell and Chris Boswell. But the D won it for the Steelers. Anytime a team can win a game without scoring a touchdown; I know who deserves the credit. These young corps that would be among the youngest in football if not for the menacing presence of 38-year-old James Harrison, get better every week, and it will be intriguing to say the least to see if they're ready for Tommy Boy this Sunday.

Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, it is important for us to realize that the Steelers have not been this good in a long time, and they overcame a lot of adversity to get to where they are. The offense had to prove it's worth. The defense had to grow up. Look where we are. 60 minutes away from Super Bowl 51. Splendid, eh?

Now, I will give credit to my good buddy, Mitch Montani. Before the season, I remember him saying that the Steelers season would come down to a cold, January day in Foxborough. Well, Mitch, you were finally right about something. Have a cookie.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Steelers-Chiefs: 3 Keys to victory

Hello, all. Sunday night is a big night. It's Steelers-Chiefs, and at stake is a hot date with Tom Terrific. Here are three things that the Steelers can do to get that date.

Key #1: Ring the Bell

The Steelers offense almost always runs through Le'Veon Bell. Tonight, that holds especially true, since it will be cold in Kansas City, and cold weather makes it harder to throw the football. Also, the Chiefs have a bottom five run defense. I don't expect Big Ben to have one of his 400+ yard masterpieces against this Chiefs defense, as the KC secondary is too talented to let that happen. Therefore, as always, Bell will get a lot of carries and do some work catching out of the backfield. The louder the Bell rings, the better chance the Steelers have at victory.

Key #2: No big mistakes 
KC's Marcus Peters is a big threat to make a big pick. (Photo creds to bleacher report)

The Steelers don't need Ben Roethlisberger to light it up to win today. But they do need Ben Roethlisberger not to make a terrible mistake. As I referred to above, the Chiefs are 5th in the NFL in pass coverage, and the most impressive aspect of their defense is their ability to take the ball away. In 16 games this season, KC has intercepted 18 passes, with four of those returned for touchdowns, and they have forced 19 fumbles, recovering 15 of those. If you do the math, the Chiefs force a little over two turnovers per game. In a matchup as even as this one, any play can be the difference, so it is critical for Pittsburgh not to stub their toe on offense.

Key #3: Stop Tyreek Hill

The wide receiver/return man from West Alabama has evolved into one of the league's most dangerous weapons. Hill can hurt the Steelers in a lot of ways, whether on special teams, in the air, or in the running game. If the Steelers neutralise Hill, I like their chances to keep the Chiefs offense from doing too much damage. However, in a contest like this, one big play from Hill could send the Steelers home for the winter.

Final Prediction
I have this weird feeling about the Steelers, in that I am not nervous at all headed into this game. I just don't see the Steelers losing. Maybe it's because they've won eight in a row. Maybe it's because of how they handled Miami last week. Whatever the case may be, I don't see the Steelers season ending at Arrowhead. Bells will be ringing. Brown will be singing. Towels will be waving. Rejoice, Steeler Nation.

Steelers 24, Chiefs 14

Saturday, January 14, 2017

NFL Playoffs: Divisional Round Predictions

Bracket Update: 
Rutz was able to knock off Bradley last week, officially eliminating the worst picker of the five guys.  Rutz advances to face the number one seed Joe.  Ryan and Jeff face off in hopes of getting to the championship.  For a closer look at who picked whom look at the graphic below.  Remember: ties in this round are determined by higher seed, giving a slight advantage to Joe and Ryan.  Good luck guys!

By: Joe Smeltzer
Seahawks (10-5-1) at Falcons (11-5)
Joe: Seahawks 
Rutz: Falcons 
Ryan: Falcons
Jeff: Seahawks 
Bradley: Seahawks
This is a case of "who do you trust more in crunch time"? Seattle had a pretty bland year by their standards, while Atlanta might have been the most exciting team in football. If this game were in the regular season, I'd give Atlanta the edge in their home stadium. However, Seattle has been cash money in the postseason over the past few years, while Matt Ryan has not. I do not trust the Falcons to bring it when the chips are down. Seattle's recent playoff history speaks for itself, and I think they add to it on Saturday. 

Sehawks 24, Falcons 21

Will the Patriots lose?

Packers (10-6) at Cowboys (12-4)
Joe: Packers
Rutz: Packers
Jeff: Packers
Ryan: Cowboys
Bradley: Cowboys
Without question the marquee matchup of the weekend. Dallas is for real. There is no doubt about that. However, have you seen Aaron Rodgers over the second half of the season Pretty good, eh?  I can't pick against the Packers when they are in this much of a zone, and I believe they won't stop until Superbowl Sunday.

Packers 34, Cowboys 24

Friday, January 13, 2017

Oh, what a week: The struggle of having too much to talk about

From left to right; Joe, Brandon, Ray, Dakota, Colin, Mitch
By: Joe Smeltzer
Hello, all. Originally, I had planned to write a recap of college footballs national title game between Clemson and Alabama. Well, circumstances got in the way, and I mean that as a positive, and somewhat of a negative

In case you've been in hibernation over the past few days, the Clemson Tigers are your National Champions. It was the greatest college football game of this decade, and if not for a man named Vince Young, might be my choice for the greatest college game of all time. For Clemson, they are the champs, and they deserve to be. For Alabama, they will win another title or three before St. Nick retires. I had planned to write more about this game, but circumstances got in the way. Ironically, the cause of those events were people who I was with when DeShaun Watson hit Hunter Renfrow in the end zone with 1 second on the clock on that night in Tampa.

At around 3:00 P.M. on Monday, I had just started my first shift at Waynesburg's Library for the second semester, when I got a call from my buddy, Mitch. He told me that a group of us were planning on going to Morgantown the next night to watch #10 West Virginia take on #1 Baylor. I couldn't pass up my chance to see a #1 team, so I said yes. Boy, what an experience this turned out to be.

We got to Morgantown around 5:00, and parked all the way at Chick-Fill-A, where, of course, we ate. When we got into the Coliseum, all I could think about was how I would handle the Musket of Mountaineer's Mascot. For those unfamiliar, West Virginia's mascot looks like this
, and he fires that gun off.  I, Joseph Arthur Smeltzer, do not like loud noises. Having not been to a WVU home game before, I did not know what to expect, so I brought my headphones with me.                      

The gun turned out not to be a problem, as I dodged it by going to the restroom during pregame introductions. This allowed me to enjoy the rest of the night. Previously, I have not seen this West Virginia team in action. I knew about their famed press, and I have always known that Bob Huggins is an excellent basketball coach. However, I was amazed by what I saw.

What I saw was a basketball team possessed. The intensity that West Virginia plays James Naismith's game with is something that brings a tear to my eye. The Bears turned the ball over a staggering 29 times, and the outcome was never in doubt. West Virginia won, and I got to be a part of this.

This is one of those weeks that makes me love, and hate running this blog at the same time. In one way, it's perfect, because there's so much to talk about (don't forget the Steelers as well, which I promised to do at the top of my national title preview) At the same time, there's so much to talk about, and it's hard to stay on top of all of it. So, since I was at the WVU game and it was unlike anything I've ever experienced before, I thought it was important to write about, even if that meant not talking in detail about one of the greatest college football games of my lifetime.

In my three years of writing for my sports blog, I've learned a lot. One of the main things I figured out is that, sometimes, important events happen in the world of sports over a week, and it can get very frustrating when a writer, which I am, is not able to write about these things separately. So, since I've already covered the national title game and my experience at West Virginia, I'll briefly touch on something else that happened this week.

The San Diego Chargers have moved to Los Angeles. It is a very sad case of sports being a business first and a game second. The Chargers were in SD for 56 years, and it's a shame that LA will get it's 75th professional sports team at the expense of  San Diego.

Sound brief? Well, that's because of the struggle. Since I am a freelance writer who does not get assignments in professional sports, I have to come up with my own topics. Usually, there is about one event a week that has my attention. Well, this week, I had three, and if I wrote about them all at the same time in great detail, it would be draining.

With all of that said, I am proud to be an aspiring sportswriter. It's better to have too much to talk about than too little, and I'm glad I could try my best to wrap all of this weeks excitement into one big post.

Monday, January 9, 2017

2017 National Title Game Breakdown/Prediction

These two titans meet again. (Photo creds to Washington Post)
By: Joe Smeltzer
*Disclaimer* Yes I do plan on writing about the Steelers later this week. Be patient.
Hello, all. Well, the two best teams in college football are squaring off once again for the nation's top prize, and those are the Dabo Swinney's Clemson Tigers and Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide. For Saban, it is a chance for a sixth national title (5th at Bama), which would further him into immortality. For Dabo, it is a shot at redemption, as well as a chance to bring the great state of South Carolina it's first national title in 35 years. Of course, there are a lot of intriguing match ups to watch, and now is my time to talk about them, starting up front.

Alabama's Defensive Line vs. Clemson's Offensive Line
Hopefully, defensive end Jonathan Allen does not have his career ruined by the Cleveland Browns

No debate here. Alabama's defensive line is elite, and it features maybe the most dominant defensive player in college football in Jonathan Allen, who will likely be a top-five pick in this year's NFL Draft. Tim Williams, Ruben Foster and Ryan Anderson are also extremely athletic, and will not make life easy for Clemson QB DeShaun Watson.

Edge: Alabama

Clemson's Defensive Line vs. Alabama's Offensive Line
Christian Wilkins is a big boi. (Photo creds to The Boston Globe)

Clemson's defense has been inconsistent all season. However, as Ohio State found out on New Year's Eve, when they are good, they can be excellent, and for me, the defensive line is where this Tigers unit does the most damage. Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins, and Dexter Lawrence are three forces on the defensive line, and the Tigers linebacking corps features the controversial but talented Ben Boulware. Although Alabama's offensive line has big Cam Robinson, who won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top offensive lineman in 2016, the rest of the line is questionable, as evidenced by a poor showing in their semifinal win over Washington. Clemson's defensive line is scary when they are on, and it will be interesting to see whether the Tide can hold them down.

Edge: Clemson 

Alabama's Secondary vs. Clemson's Receivers
Injured for most of last season, Mike Williams looks to end his college days on the highest of notes. (Photo creds to USA Today)

To me, this is the most intriguing matchup of the evening. Clemson's receiving corps are as good as any in the country, as Mike Williams (future first round pick), Hunter Renfrow, Deon Cain, Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett (look for him to break out) give DeShaun Watson plenty of weapons. Clemson's passing game will be tested tonight, however, as Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Tony Brown and Ronnie Harrison are all in Bama's talented secondary. Both of these respective areas are strengths for Clemson and Alabama. However, Clemson's receivers, combined with the talent of their quarterback, give them the edge in this category.

Edge: Clemson

Clemson's Secondary vs. Alabama's Receivers
This match up is dull in my eyes. Yes, Clemson's secondary features one of the better corners in the country in Cordrea Tankersley, and Alabama has a few receiving options, particularly their tight end, O.J. Howard. However, Clemson's is not known for their pass defense (Pitt's Nathan Peterman threw five touchdowns against them) and Alabama is not known for passing the football. I don't care about this match up, so I'm going to call it a push.


Watson claims to be the best player in college football. Time for him to put is money where his mouth is. (Photo creds to Bleacher Report)

I love Jalen Hurts. I think the Alabama freshman is a play-maker who has a bright future ahead of him. However, DeShaun Watson is elite. Yes, Watson's form is not as strong as it was when these two teams met at the end of last season. However, he is still one of the best players in the country when he is on. If the quarterback position is the deciding factor in this game, that is good news for the Clemson Tigers, as Hurts is too inexperienced to put the Tide on his back.

Edge: Clemson

Nobody in Alabama's backfield has made fans forget about Derrick Henry. However, as we saw on New Year's Eve, Bo Scarbrough is no slouch, and considering how shaky Clemson's defense can be, that should be a concern for Tiger fans. For Clemson, Wayne Gallman is a punishing tailback himself, but I don't think anybody who watched Scarbrough against Washington would argue which player is in better form at the moment.

Edge: Alabama

Special Teams
Clemson is much better in the kicking department than they were one year ago, and I think that Greg Hugel will be up to the challenge if and when he is called upon.

Edge: Clemson

Final Prediction
To be honest, I had no idea who I was going to pick until I started writing my preview. On the one hand, Clemson is out for revenge, and it's very hard to imagine them falling short twice in almost the same situation. On the contrary, it's hard to imagine a Nick Saban coached team losing.. ever. Finally, after breaking down the rosters, I've decided that one of two things is going to happen;

1. If it comes down to the trenches, I like Bama's chances. The Tide's front seven is second to none, far more consistent than Clemson's, and the better they perform, the worse it will be for the Tiger's offense.
2. If it comes down to skill, I like Clemson's chances. It's hard to imagine a power five football team that has six receivers with over 400 yards on the season, but that's what the Tigers have. The combination of these receivers, and the talent of the man who will be throwing them the ball will be very hard for Alabama to handle.

I've been thinking of some possible concerns for Clemson, and I've found that, although I do not expect nearly as lopsided of an affair, that some of Ohio State's main strengths also apply to Alabama. Ohio State had a great defense, as does Alabama. Ohio State was known to force a lot of turnovers, sometimes for defensive touchdowns, as is Alabama. The main point of this comparison is that in the lead up to Clemson's thrashing of the Buckeyes, people felt that Watson's tendency to turn the ball over, along with Ohio State's tendency to create turnovers, would be bad news for Clemson. In spite of two more Watson interceptions (he now has thrown 17 on the season), 31-0 happened.

 I am not saying that Clemson will roll over Alabama the way they did Ohio State, but I am saying that DeShaun Watson is ready to be a college football immortal. He is talented. He is poised, and perhaps most important of all, he's seen Alabama's defense before and did quite well against it, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdown passes in last year's title game.

It will be a classic, but, after breaking it down and listening to my mind and gut, I think DeShaun Watson will have his finest hour on that field in Tampa Bay. Go ahead, Clemson. Party like it's 1981.

Clemson 34, Alabama 28

Clemson Tigers, 2016 National Champions

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The horses are saddled up

By: Joe Smeltzer
Hello, all. Typically, before a Steelers game, I would be breaking down what the teams need to do to get that W. However, I've decided to go a different way, as these are, in fact, the NFL playoffs. Instead, I will write about the Pittsburgh Steelers in much greater detail than just predicting one contest. Let's get into it.

The Steelers are in a unique situation this year in that, as the title says, all of their horses are in the saddle. For the first time since becoming a trio in 2013, the "Killer B's" of Ben (Roethlisberger), (Antonio) Brown, and (Le'Veon) Bell, as well as standout center Maurkice Pouncey, are all healthy in January.

This time around is different from last time, when Brown and Bell were both out for that loss at Denver, ending an injury-riddled season in which a loss in the divisional playoffs could be considered admirable. It is also different two years ago, in which the Steelers were without Bell for their wildcard washout to the hated Dirty Birds at Heinz Field. This time, the Steelers big guns are healthy. That's the good news. The bad news is, the fact that they  are healthy will not help things if Pittsburgh suffers another disappointment.

I'm not going to talk about what will happen if the Steelers lose on Sunday because frankly, I don't see any way that takes place, nor do I want to think about that slim possibility. The Dolphins are banged up, and not as talented or as polished as Pittsburgh is, anyway. So, assuming the Steelers take care of business on Sunday afternoon, what more would Pittsburgh have to do for us to look back at this season with a smile?

If the Steelers win on Sunday, and they definitely should, then I think it would be unfair to call this season a failure regardless of what would happen next Saturday in Kansas City. Although it would not be terribly disappointing if Sunday's game is the last one Pittsburgh wins this season, losing in the divisional round would mean that Pittsburgh did no better in the postseason with Le'Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey this season than they did without them last season.

Although I would not consider this postseason to be a "Super Bowl or Bust" type of deal, as losing to New England on the road in January is never anything to be ashamed of, I would be somewhat underwhelmed if this season is ended by Andy Reid's Chiefs.

Over the past few years, the Steelers have been making steady progress. In 2014, they won the AFC North and went to the postseason, which was an upgrade from an 8-8 campaign the pervious year. In 2015, the Steelers won a playoff game, which they hadn't accomplished since 2011. If this Chiefs team, which is good, but not particularly memorable, dethrones the Steelers, then it will mean that, for the first time since 2013, a season will end without this team moving forward on the road to the Super Bowl. I don't say this to disrespect Kansas City. They are a solid football team, and no team in the AFC outside of New England is "great" in my eyes, so it would be unfair to hold KC to that standard. But the Steelers did beat them 43-14 earlier in this season, and I don't think these Chiefs are the type of team that makes a fan say "well if somebody had to end our season, I'm glad it was a super team like Kansas City!" So while a second round knockout by Big Red would not be the worst thing in the world, I think it would leave fans in this city dissatisfied. It would mean that, even though  there weren't any huge setbacks health wise for this football team, that they would not get any closer to a seventh Lombardi than they had in the years that we did see those setbacks. That, my friends, is a frustrating thought.

The Steelers window to win a Super Bowl will not be closed shut regardless of what happens over the next few weeks. On the surface, they have a young team with a bright future, and things could get brighter yet if the troubled Martavis Bryant gets his head out of the sand in time for Opening Day 2017. However, we should not take for granted how hard it is to make a deep playoff run. We don't know what the future holds for this franchise. Sure, it is a young team with a bright future; in theory. But there's always that possibility that the future won't turn out as bright as we envisioned.

Say the Steelers bow out to either Kansas City or, god forbid, Miami. What if that's as good as it gets for the Steelers in the Roethlisberger/Bell/Brown era? What if Le'Veon Bell can't stay out of trouble off the field or stay healthy on it? What if the soon to be 35-year-old body of Ben Roethlisberger can't  cooperate for 10+ in an NFL season games much longer? What is Bryant can't stop smoking dope? What if the promising young players on the Steelers defense, for one reason or another, never fully develop into stars? These are not predictions, but rather scenarios that, while not necessarily likely, should not be dismissed, either.

In my eyes, it would be unfair to expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to play in NRG Stadium on February 5th, as they are not the favorites to come out of the AFC. However, I feel that, for this season to be looked at as a significant step forward, the Steelers must at least be playing in Gillette Stadium on January 23rd. Although it wouldn't be the mountaintop quite yet, being at least one game away from football's mecca would be a significant step forward. Anything less would be either a step back or no movement at all. I don't particularly love either of those options.

2016 NFL Playoff Preview: Round 1

Hello, all. It's playoff time, and the boys are going head to head. It's only wildcard week, so therefore, the only men who can be eliminated are the men with the two worst records; Bradley Stewart and David Rutz. The higher seed wins the tiebreaker for the first two rounds, but the tiebreaker for the final matchup will be Super Bowl picks, with the higher seed getting to choose.  The rest of us are safe for another week. Let's get into it.

Here is a quick look at the bracket:

Raiders (12-4) at Texans (9-7)
Never thought I'd see a playoff game worthy of "who the hell cares"? status, but here we are. It will be very boring, and neither team has a chance to go to the Super Bowl. Nonetheless, Bradley picks Oakland, and Rutz picks Houston.

Lions (10-6) at Seahawks (10-5-1)
Everyone picks Seattle at home, who has won 6 of their past nine games.  Detroit on the other hand has backed into the playoffs losing their last three games.

Miami (10-6) at Steelers (11-5)
Once gain, everyone picks the Steelers.  Pittsburgh has won seven in a row after a four game losing skid earlier in the season.  The Fins beat the Steelers earlier this year, but that was with Big Ben playing with a torn meniscus.  As long as the Steelers continue what they have been doing, it should be pretty easy sledding.

Giants (11-5) at Packers (10-6)
This game is the most intriguing game of the Wild Card Round.  New York is the only team to beat the 13-3 Cowboys when the Boy’s have played their full complement of weapons.  Actually, the Giants beat them twice.  However, the Packers have fought their way to 10-6 after winning their last six games of the season.  Both of these teams have Super Bowl potential, regardless, everyone is picking the Packers to pull this one out in Lambeau.

Here is a closer look at everyone’s picks for this week: