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Pregame stretch:
Bills vs. Steelers

November 7, 2013 - Ray Eckenrode

Buffalo Bills (3-6) vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-6)
Sunday, 1 p.m. EST, CBS

Announcers: Marv Albert and Rich Gannon
Annoyance factor: Refreshing. The only thing that’s important is here is that these two aren’t Nantz and Simms. Gannon already has seen the depths the Steelers can sink to, having done the Raiders game a few weeks ago with Spero Dedes. Albert, like Dick Stockton, has lost or forgotten most of the tools that once made him great and is coasting into retirement based on name recognition. Can’t wait.
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Weather – or not?: Mostly cloudy, 20 percent chance of showers, high 40s. Pitt and Notre Dame will be on the same turf just 14 hours earlier so it will almost certainly be torn up again and possibly worse if there’s any rain.
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Referee: Scott Green
Competence factor: Higher than the game quality. Green, a Doylestown native, have been the white hate for three Super Bowls. Green and his crew are in the top five as far as penalty yardage assessed and lead the league in penalty yardage assessed on pass interference (formerly known as the #RavensBestPlay).
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How they rank:
Buffalo offense: 28th passing, 7th rushing
Pittsburgh offense: 8th passing, 28th rushing
Buffalo defense: 4th vs. pass, 17th vs. rush
Pittsburgh defense: 18th vs. pass, 31st vs. rush
Notable: Only the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars are worse defending the rush than the once-vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers. Yikes.

The line: Pittsburgh -3.5
Smarts say: After an historically inept performance in Week 9, of course the Steelers are favorites to win in Week 10. It highlights just how many bad teams there are in the NFL, not mediocre, mind you, truly bad. And that dynamic becomes important now as Pittsburgh vies for a high draft selection in 2014. If the draft were tomorrow, the Steelers would be flipping a coin with the Falcons to see who picks fourth. But to remain in that position come early January, they’re going to have to keep the awful coming, which will be hard to do because there are going to be some awful teams across the line from them. The over/under in this awful matchup of 43 means something like Steelers, 23-20.
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Key matchup:
Offensive linemen the Steelers cast off vs. Defensive linemen the Steelers kept
Because: There’s no small irony in the fact that the Bills are seventh in the league at rushing the football with two starting linemen (guards Kraig Urbik and Doug Legursky) who weren’t considered good enough to stick in Pittsburgh. (As an aside, the Jets are 11th in rushing and their best lineman – Willie Colon – also was considered expendable.) Across the ball from them Sunday will be a porous defensive line composed of underachieving No. 1 picks, aging former stars and struggling journeymen that has been gashed for the second-most rushing yards in the league this year and given up some record-breaking big plays. The line’s woes are only part of the equation as Pittsburgh’s second-level players have proven adept this year at missing tackles and biting on fakes. The Bills feature perhaps the best 1-2 rushing punch in the league in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller and if Mssrs. Urbik, Legursky et al can provide the holes it could be another long Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field for the Steelers dwindling faithful.

Long snap:
Fast Eddy Bouchettey had an illuminating piece in the Post-Gazette earlier this week, quickly pointing out that Mike Tomlin’s options for making any kind of meaningful change with the Steelers’ lineup are severely limited by a) injury, and b) the fact that he’s already made so many changes (benching Cortez Allen, Ziggy Hood, Mike Adams, etc.). About the only real personnel moves left to Tomlin that he already hasn’t tried would be sitting Ryan Clark and/or starting Yinzergeddon by sitting down Troy Polamalu (who is having a terrible year despite his athletic roaming).
Others have noted the needed changes don’t have to mean changing players, but rather changes in philosophy, things like fewer wide receiver screens and less defensive freelancing. While it’s true those kind of changes are possible right now, they’d involve asking coordinators to fundamentally change the way they approach the game and that just doesn’t happen in the NFL. If you want a fundamental change, you change coordinators (which, of course, happens all the time in the NFL).
We’ve pointed out in this space numerous times that there needs to be a change in the way games are managed on Sundays, improving things like clock management, use of timeouts and fourth-down and two-point strategies. While paying closer attention to those kind of things might win you two more games in a season, we’d be the first to say that’s nearly not enough help in this instance.
So, we’re back to square one: How do you go about fixing this?
We think the rebuilding of the Steelers has to start on a different level and with a more radical move: Give Tomlin more control. He came to the Steelers as a virtual unknown and was plugged into a well-established way of doing things. Obviously, when Pittsburgh’s talent level was high, that worked splendidly and resulted in two Super Bowl appearances and one win.
But now that a series of poor drafts have caught up with the team (and we really don’t know what role Tomlin played in those decisions) and there’s a need to rebuild, we think it should be done the Tomlin way. If that means going to a 4-3, so be it. If it means new coordinators on both sides of the ball, bring it on. If it means losing Kevin Colbert, bite the bullet.
We don’t know if Tomlin has the answers – and that’s the point. The Steelers great years were built on a wonderful collaboration of owner and front office and coach, but that collaboration has turned into a stew of incompetence. The fastest way out of such a malaise is by following a single voice and vision for success. We’re not sure if Mike Tomlin possesses that voice (we know he’s got the vocabulary for it), but if you think he’s still the guy that knocked your socks off in that job interview seven years ago, it’s time to find out.

Quick hits:
+Based on a quick look at the StubHub ticket market and our innate understanding of both yinzers and sports fans, we’re expecting actuall attendance Sunday to be in the mid- to high-50s and possibly below 50,000 if there’s even the slightest sign or rain.
+ With so few positives to mention from Sunday, we’d be remiss not to note that Antwan Blake (#41) had a nice special teams game with three tackles.
+ Without going into another drawn-out discussion of the Richie Incognito – Jonathan Martin situation in Miami, just let us say that the national dialogue on the situation this week makes it clear that most people are still in denial about just what they’re watching in terms of professional football: A blood sport, played by men full of fury, which sometimes becomes rage, and often leaves them both physically and emotionally traumatized. But the money’s good.

The pick: Just checking a sampling of the picks in this game, both nationally and locally, it’s clear people are still having trouble coming to terms with the fact that the Bills are the better football team here. We see Buffalo being able to run the ball well enough early to allow E.J. Manuel to settle back in at quarterback and then we see him burning the Steelers secondary on play-action later on. A 100-yard game from Le’Veon Bell (that would keep Ben Roethlisberger around 28 attempts and 275 yards) might change the dynamic but it’s nearly impossible to predict that will happen, so ... Bills 23-21.
Last week: Unfortunately, forecasting Tom Brady’s resurgence last week was easy pickings for us. The double win moves us to 4-4 straight up and 5-3 versus the spread.

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