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Breaking Down the AFC Playoff Contenders: Houston Texans Remain Favorites in AFC South

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The Houston Texans had the NFL's best coached defense in 2011.

An arbitrary statement that will likely be argued - and can be. But there wasn't a challenge they didn't rise to accept, especially when they went through a period of time in which they couldn't get a quarterback to don a Texans helmet and step on the field without maiming himself in some way.

The fact they made it as far as they did was impressive.

It was also a let-down.

Houston had the best all-around team in the AFC in 2011, if you take out the quarterback. Unfortunately for them, that position is pretty much required to play well to achieve post-season success. Rookie T.J. Yates in Baltimore was about as overmatched as any player has been in the NFL, but Houston's defense held them in it, losing by a touchdown.

They improved in many ways, too.

After losing DE Mario Williams in October, their defense rallied around a nearly unbreakable scheme, and only surrendering 30 total points in two playoff games. After letting Williams walk in free agency - a smart financial move, considering the success they had without him - they return a young nucleus of budding stars, like DE J.J. Watt, ILB Brian Cushing and CB Brice McCain.

Their offense will see another strong output, with the return of veteran QB Matt Schaub, the signing of RB Arian Foster and a healthy WR Andre Johnson. While the release of RT Eric Winston was troubling, their decision to keep C Chris Meyers around speaks to their desire to continue with a dominant zone-blocking scheme that's propelled Foster to the top of his position.

They'll likely be challenged by an up-and-coming Tennessee Titans team in the AFC South, but with Indianapolis and Jacksonville mired in rebuilding projects, taking the division again seems likely for the franchise that qualified for its first post-season berth in 2011.



Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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Breaking Down the AFC Playoff Contenders: Baltimore Will Have Tougher Time Defending Title Than It Had Winning it

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The Baltimore Ravens were the 2011 AFC North Champions. They came close to representing the AFC in the Super Bowl.

These facts are, as they say, undisputed.

in the NFL, you're either growing or you're dying. I'm not suggesting Baltimore is a bad team or they're not capable of winning 10+ games again, but look at their offseason. Did they improve their team?

There's something to be said for internal improvement, true, and they have talent at most positions. But in what way are they getting better? I'm hearing nothing but great things about the Steelers' draft class, and their main challenge is amongst themselves, not their opponents. Wallace is in a contract year, Brown and Sanders are both looking strong, the offensive line is revamped, could be the most athletic defense they will have put out there in some time (Tomlin coaches athletes, that's his MO). I can't say Pittsburgh will walk away with the division, but I see more improvement from last season there than I do in Baltimore.

And keep in mind, just like a few years Pittsburgh beat Baltimore out, they tied at the top of the division, and Baltimore won the tie-breaker on a last-second play. The difference in those two teams was far less than Baltimore likes to admit.

Pittsburgh would have struggled to beat any team on the road in the condition they were in for the Wild Card Round. Health is just as much a part of a championship team as anything else. They didn't have it. But how well did Baltimore play against Houston? Did the Ravens peak in time for the playoffs?

In all fairness, I thought the Ravens' divisional round and conference championship games were poorly play by all three teams involved. In fact, Houston would have beaten both of those teams if they had better quarterback play. Credit to Joe Flacco and Tom Brady, who made plays in their respective games to help their teams win, but T.J. Yates was easily the worst quarterback in the AFC playoffs last season. Houston's last three drives, down 20-13, Yates threw two interceptions and failed to convert on 4th and short.

Flacco didn't have the turnovers, but was equally futile in moving the ball. The Ravens couldn't run the ball (tough to do against Houston) and had 227 yards total. TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY SEVEN YARDS. How often does that get you 20 points if you're playing a reasonably talented quarterback? Houston turned the ball over four times, and still matched Baltimore with 63 plays. The Ravens were 4-for-16 on 3rd down. Not to take anything away from Houston's defense, which was one of the best units in the NFL last season, but the Ravens didn't win that game as much as they allowed the Texans to lose it. Which Yates did. Spectacularly.

Against New England, 51 Ravens players did enough to secure a win. One failed to secure a pass and one lived out the ultimate nightmare for any player in any sport.

Making it to two consecutive conference championships is an anomaly. The Jets advanced in both 2009 and 2010, lost both games and missed the playoffs in 2011. Pittsburgh defeated the Jets, and the Packers defeated the Bears in 2010, neither Pittsburgh nor Green Bay won a 2011 playoff game.

The Colts, Saints and Vikings all made their respective 2009 conference championship games, none of them won a playoff game in 2010.

It's not impossible, but recent history shows how difficult it is to reach the summit and stay there, especially when you can't quite get to the top. Baltimore certainly has the talent, but with an improved division and a first-place schedule, they'll need more than just health to again stand at the top of the AFC North.




Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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Breaking down the defensive backfield for the 2012 Pittsburgh Steelers roster


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The Pittsburgh Steelers ended another week of OTA sessions, which means that fans are one week closer to the start of training camp and the regular season. While, it is virtually impossible to make heads or tails of defensive progress due to the lack of hitting, it is always fun to see how explosive young players look in helmets and shorts. One area that the Steelers have some young athleticism is in their secondary, where they have a solid mixture of veterans and youth. In looking at the potential roster for the 2012 season, the majority of the secondary spots are spoken for.

Source: Yardbarker: Pittsburgh Steelers

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LaMarr Woodley’s Steelers Record Breaking Streak is Officially Over

LaMarr Woodley is not expected to play against the Browns.  With Woodley not being able to play he is officially done with his record streak.  Woodley had made it to double digit sacks 3 years running.  It is a Steelers record that he shares with James Harrison.  Harrison still has an opportunity to reach the mark this season as well and extend his streak to 4 seasons.  He only needs 1 sack to reach the mark.
Woodley was having a phenomenal season before the injury.  In his first 8 games he recorded nine sacks.  Woodley has been injured and has only played in 2 games since that time.  He played a little over a quarter against the Bengals and then came out 3 during the third quarter of the game against the 49ers.  He has not even totaled 4 full quarters since the injury.  This will be Woodley’s 6th game missed.  The way he was playing he would have easily kept his streak of consecutive seasons with double digit sacks alive.  It is sad that this is how this record is going to go...

Source: Yardbarker: Pittsburgh Steelers


Breaking Down The Steelers Goal-line Stop On 3rd Down Versus Browns

There were several great play by the Pittsburgh Steelers defense last Thursday night in their 14-3 win over the Cleveland Browns and I wanted to focus in on the 3rd down and goal play from the Steelers 1 foot line with just over 10 minutes left in the first quarter. This play followed the great touchdown saving tackle of Browns quarterback Colt McCoy by James Harrison, that was originally ruled a touchdown. The Steelers are in goal-line personnel on this play and the first picture has the Steelers players numbered that are on the field so you can see who is where to begin with.

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Source: Yardbarker: Pittsburgh Steelers

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Week 15 Steelers Spotlight: Breaking Down OLB Jason Worilds

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It's unclear if a spotlight has shone brighter this season than it currently does on Steelers second-year OLB Jason Worilds. It's due to three major factors that will play into Pittsburgh's Week 15 primetime game at San Francisco.

One, the suspension of James Harrison thrusting Worilds back into the starting lineup at ROLB after multiple stints of playing for either the injured Harrison or LaMarr Woodley.

Two, the collapsing 49ers offensive line, particularly on the right side, will draw their attention more toward stopping Woodley, who will return from a hamstring injury that's prevented him from playing in all but 13 plays since Week 9.

Three, the fact that Worilds is turning into a pass-rushing beast, coupled with the likelihood of San Francisco running at him the vast majority of their offensive plays.

Put simply, it's a huge game for Worilds. He's got a schematic advantage, it's a prime time game and the fact he'll line up on the defensive right side of the field over Harrison carries with it arguably the most controversial decision the league has made this year.

San Francisco's offensive line has been ravaged by injuries over the last few games, and the result of that has been poor protection for the NFC West champions. LT Joe Staley suffered a head injury in their Week 14 loss to Arizona, and if he's unable to play, Alex Boone will get the start. This is a unit that has surrendered 26 QB hits and 18 sacks in their previous three games.

Against the pass

Worilds has improved with each game, and the 49ers will have to consider him an impact player. Their game plan against Arizona was to make the pass their top priority, and it's probably the reason they lost the game. Arizona brings a great deal of pressure up the middle, but former Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton dialed up pressure from all over the field, and held the 49ers to just 19 points and a donut in the red zone.

The Steelers have seen an improved pass rush among their interior from Ziggy Hood (injured groin may prevent him from playing Monday), Steve McLendon (who will start at LDE if Hood cannot) and Cameron Heyward, but Worilds will be a key in the pass rush. Staley is a decent tackle, but he doesn't appear to be as strong against speed rushers like Worilds. Not the biggest guy on the field (he looks much thinner than his 262 pound listed weight), Worilds makes it up with great quickness and explosion off the ball. The mix of he and McLendon - who provides for the bulk - or Hood - technically savvy - could be a tough match-up, especially with Brett Keisel and Woodley on the other side.

If Worilds can push into the backfield on passing downs, it will force the anemic 49ers offense to go into max protect, which means keeping TE Vernon Davis, the team's best receiver, in-line to block.

Against the run

Worilds size becomes something of a disadvantage in this regard. It's easy to physically compare Worilds to Harrison - another undersized pass rusher - but Harrison's strength and flexibility made him extremely difficult to move off the edge. Worilds doesn't play as low as Harrison does, and he has a tendency to get hooked - meaning he rushes upfield and is pushed too deep to make a play by the lineman. Harrison, despite having the ability to speed rush, does not get hooked. Much of that is due to the obvious experience advantage Harrison has, but a good amount is due to the lower body strength Harrison has, and he fact he can play with his knees bent below a 45 degree angle, giving him a base of support that even offensive tackles can't move easily.

The key for Worilds is recognition. Harrison is patient in his recognition, identifying the intention of the play. Worilds is a bit more hyperactive, and pushes up field sometimes too quickly. Upon recognizing it, he must get lower in his stance, anchoring his weight to that spot, and force the running back to cut back toward the pursuing linebackers, or be in a position to keep his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage as the back bounces to the outside.

He has a great example of how to do that correctly in Harrison, who's the best run-stopping outside linebacker in football.

The 49ers are a struggling football team if they can't pass, but they're an elite team if they can run. RB Frank Gore seems to be feeling the weight of being the offensive centerpiece, and has ankle and knee injuries slowing him down. One doesn't need to be Jim Harbaugh's brother to see you're going to have a tough time beating the Steelers if you are a one-dimensional offense. They're going to want to establish the run, and the best way to do that is going to be going after Worilds.



Source: Behind the Steel Curtain

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