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Rams-Steelers pregame stretch

December 23, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode

St. Louis Rams (2-12) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4)

Saturday, 1 p.m., FOX

Weather – or not?: Partly sunny, 39, great weather for Pittsburgh in December, not too pleasant if you’re used to playing in a dome.

Announcers: Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick

Annoyance factor: Red alert! Red alert! We were so ready to say how nice it will be to get a break from the same four crews we’ve heard all year, even if it’s a crappy Fox D team, and then, then, then ... this. Alright, over/under on EST that Billick mentions 2000 Super Bowl win? We’re going with 1:18 p.m.

Referee: Clete Blakeman

Competence factor: In his second year as a white hat, Blakeman is establishing a reputation as a take-charge guy. He’s also one of the most outgoing NFL officials, maintaining both a Facebook page and Twitter account. Blakeman and Co. also worked the Steelers-Texans game and did an excellent job (which is more than we can say for the Steelers in that game). After last week’s debacco engineered by Walt Coleman’s gang, the Steelers are more than due for a solidly officiated game.

Blogger’s note: We write about officiating (and especially bad officiating) because we’re interested in it. But all of our discussion about it should be framed in this context: We do not believe officials EVER should be blamed for deciding a game. Officiating is just another human element in a human game. Officials make mistakes, just like players and coaches make mistakes. Officiating (and officiating mistakes) should be openly discussed with a goal of improving the game as a whole (and helping us understand it better as fans). We think Mike Pereira had the NFL heading in that direction before he retired. We’re worried the momentum from that initiative is fading. A climate where officiating mistakes are either ignored or groused about endlessly, with no action being taken to fix them, is detrimental to the game.

The line: Pittsburgh -14.5

Smarts say: Once again, most Vegas sports books did not want to touch this game until more was known about Ben Roethlisberger’s status. There was an open of -16.5 on Tuesday but a few -14.5s started trickling out Thursday evening so we’re going with that. Check out the link at right on Saturday to see how the professional gamblers who play the Hilton’s Supercontest felt about the game. The over/under of 37 the year’s lowest and would result in something like 24-12 Steelers.

Key matchup: Steelers RBs Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman vs. Rams run defense

Because: The Rams are dead last in the NFL in defense against the run. The Steelers aren’t a running team anymore but they’d be wise to become one Saturday to take some pressure off whoever starts at quarterback and also to set up a deep ball or two. One caveat though: Mendenhall is starting to carry the ball away from his body again and almost had it poked out several times Monday evening. Hopefully, someone on the Steelers coaching staff noticed.

Playoff scenarios:

#1 seed

Probability: 4 percent

Scenario: NE lose one, HOU lose one, BAL lose one, PIT win two

#2 seed

Probability: 17 percent

Scenario: HOU or NE lose one, BAL lose one, PIT win two

#3 seed

Probability: 19 percent

Scenario: NE, HOU and PIT win two, BAL lose one

#5 seed

Probability: 60 percent

Scenario: Any other scenario

Note: These scenarios are based on play entering Week 16. Houston’s loss Thursday obviously increases the likelihoods of scenario #1 and especially scenario #2. Probabilities are pulled from latest simulations.

Quick hits:

+ Obviously, this blog is written from a Steelers fan’s point of view, but we try to be a somewhat rational Steelers fan, which brings us to this: Mike Wallace is quickly gaining on Philip Rivers as the most overrated player in football. His reputation is based on world-class speed that’s resulted in roughly a dozen highlight-reel deep touchdowns in the past few years. But when you look deeper, it’s a troubling picture. We’ve previously documented Wallace’s statistics (or lack thereof) in big games, a trend that’s continued this year; he continues to consistently give up on deep routes without making an effort to catch underthrown balls (and yes, he’s overthrown quite a bit, too); and now, to add to the list, he’s simply not blocking consistently on plays where he doesn’t get the ball (and it’s not coincidental that’s happening as Hines Ward is seeing less time on the field). Wallace is still young and there’s plenty of opportunity to improve, but contentions that he’s a top 5 or even top 10 receiver in the NFL right now are outlandish.

+ Fan and media criticism of Mike Tomlin’s decision to start and stick with Ben Roethlisberger Monday is just laughable to us. Tomlin and Bruce Arians see Charlie Batch and Dennis Dixon in practice every day. They know EXACTLY what their capabilities are, or more precisely, are not. Anyone who says, “surely Batch (or Dixon) gave the Steelers a better chance to win,” is IMAGINING those quarterbacks’ capabilities. You can bet if Byron Leftwich were healthy, he’d have started Monday. But as is, Roethlisberger at 70 percent was the best option. The mistakes he made – overthrowing a streaking Mike Wallace, trying to force a ball between two defenders in the end zone, hanging on too long on the sack/strip – are mistakes he’s made many times when healthy. As we noted in our game blog, the Steelers had plenty of chances to win that game, they didn’t execute.

+ Suddenly (and for all the wrong reasons), this is a huge game for the Rams. The Colts win Thursday over Houston has created a three-team logjam for the worst record in football and the top pick in the draft and that logjam likely won’t be untangled until the “strength of defeat” tiebreakers are calculated after the final game of Week 17. And that pick might be more valuable to the Rams than to anyone because they’ve got a franchise quarterback already and the new rookie salary structure makes a trade (that would certainly involve receiving multiple #1s back) very doable.

The pick: If you’re looking for something to hang your Steelers Super Bowl hopes on, try this: Despite the obvious holes we saw exposed against the Ravens and Texans early in the year, Pittsburgh’s defense has recovered to become the No. 1 unit in the NFL and they’ve done that with very little pass rush (30 sacks, 19th in the league, compared to 36, 12th for the Rams). If a healthier LaMarr Woodley and an angrier James Harrison can turn that part of their game up a notch, you’ve got a formula for more turnovers and big game wins. We think there’s no better time to make progress in that direction than this Saturday…Steelers 24-7.

Last week: Unfortunately, we were right in picking the Steelers to lose and the Niners to cover, which leaves us at 10-4 straight up and an impressive (if we do say so ourselves) 9-5 vs. the spread.

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