2016-2017 Steelers Preview: Secondary

In this preview, we’re wrapping up looking at the Steelers defense. We’ve looked at the front-seven, which in my opinion, is at least top-5 in the NFL. However, the final four positions on the Steelers’ defense is not quite as strong. It’s been flat out atrocious at times. They’ve had short little moments where they looked great. It’s definitely the Achilles’ heel of the team. Some say it’s because of the lack of a shutdown corner. Or because they’ve paid more attention to other positions in the draft when they should’ve drafted cornerbacks or safeties. Whatever the case may be, the secondary is still a question mark. Let’s take a look at the projected starters and break this down:

Projected Starters:

CB William Gay

FS Mike Mitchell

SS Robert Golden

CB Ross Cockrell

It’s interesting. The pessimist can look at the secondary and think, “Well, our offense is going to have to score 50 points a game because we can’t stop the other team from going up and down the field on us.” On the contrary, the optimist may say, “Just be patient. This group will be great in a few years.” Personally, I’m kind of in the middle. I’m generally an optimist. I could see how this group could end up being middle of the pack, but I could also see how they could finish dead last against the pass. William Gay is their best cornerback. That’s not good. No knock on Gay, who’s play has gone unnoticed by too many. He’s one short on career pick-6’s as Rod Woodson in Steelers’ history (you may have heard of him). William Gay isn’t a number one corner though. If he were on a team that had even a semi-deep secondary, he’d more than likely be the number two. The Steelers depth at corner, at least in terms of those with any legit NFL experience, is slim-to-none. Ross Cockrell is the number two corner, who was surprisingly decent last year. His inexperience showed though by getting torched a few times, but for his first year getting that kind of playing time, it gives reason for optimism. Mike Mitchell. He was signed out of free agency two years ago as the replacement for Ryan Clark. Clark was a steady free safety who could lay the boom down on receivers going over the middle. Mitchell was expected to bring something similar. His first year with Pittsburgh was very forgettable. He didn’t get credit for a “pass defended” until the season was nearly over. He was slow. He was wasted money on the roster in my opinion. He was also battling a groin injury all season and played through it. Mitchell was healthy last year and his play drastically improved. He led the team in interceptions and was third on the team in tackles. If he stays healthy, he’s the best player in the secondary. Robert Golden is getting his first crack at a starting job on the secondary. He’s been the special teams captain and played in nickel or dime packages. I expect inconsistency from him. He knows the system and his teammates, but will he be able to execute? That remains to be seen. He’s the biggest question mark in the bunch. 

The depth behind these four is very interesting. The Steelers have started to pay much more attention to the secondary in the draft. They drafted cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant in the second and fourth rounds in 2015, respectively. This year, they drafted cornerback Artie Burns in the first round, and safety (or cornerback) Sean Davis in the second round. Golson sat out last year with an injury, and has already suffered another injury this year that will keep him out for an extended period of time. Grant has shown some things in preseason, but is not ready for a starting job. Burns and Davis both have high ceilings. I think Davis is more polished than Burns and could get a starting job before Burns, but I think Burns’ ceiling is higher. Burns has insane raw talent, but it has to be honed and trained for the NFL game. It will be an adjustment and it will take time. Patience is key with these young players. It was the same for Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and Ryan Shazier, but look how they’ve progressed. These young guys can be very good, but more than likely, not this year. This year will be crucial for their development though. Expect to see Grant, Burns, and Davis on special teams and in nickel and dime packages. One guy I’m not high on is Shamarko Thomas. He’s been given opportunities, and hasn’t delivered. He was drafted in the fourth round in 2013, and could’ve possibly been Troy Polamalu’s successor at strong safety. He just hasn’t performed. He’s battled injuries, but even when healthy, he hasn’t given reason to give him that starting job. This year is the year for him to prove something, if he has it. I personally think Sean Davis could win a starting role, either at strong safety or corner, before the year is over. Injuries happen, and he has the talent and football IQ to gain Tomlin and Butler’s trust. 

This group could be really good in a couple years, where Burns and Davis are starters. But this year, it will be another year where the continually struggle. They’ll have good games, and I think it’ll be more frequent. The secondary automatically improves if the front seven can wreak havoc for the quarterback, which I believe they’ll do. But for teams like New England that get rid of the ball very quickly, the Steelers will struggle mightily. There’s not enough depth with NFL experience. Youth is great to have, but it’ll be another year of learning for the young guys in the secondary. Prepare yourselves for some games that the opposing team throws all over the field. It’s gonna happen. However, I like the direction they’re going. It gives reason for optimism. Realistically, all the secondary has to do is be average as long as the offense stays healthy. 2014 was proof of that. 2015 is proof of what happens when the offense gets banged up. Only time will tell what 2016 will hold.

Preseason Grade: C-


Steelers 2016-2017 Preview: Linebackers

Last week we looked at one part of the Steelers front seven on defense, and this week, we’re going to look at the rest: linebackers. This is a position that the Steelers have arguably the best track record with. Jack Lambert. Jack Ham. Greg Lloyd. Kevin Greene. Levon Kirkland. Jason Gildon. Joey Porter. James Farrior. James Harrison. More recently, Lawrence Timmons. That’s just to name a few. There is a lot of potential in this year’s group of linebackers. Let’s take a look:

Projected Starters:
LOLB: Bud Dupree
ILB: Lawrence Timmons
ILB: Ryan Shazier
ROLB: Jarvis Jones

That list doesn’t jump out at you and make you think, “Wow. This is one of the best groups in the league.” Look past the surface though. This is a group to really get excited about. I REALLY like Ryan Shazier. If I had to put my money on anyone of these guys having a monster year, it’d be him. He’s having a tremendous camp. He’s building off of a year where he took some serious strides at getting better and adjusting to the NFL game. Also add that insane speed he has. Shazier is primed for a great year. He just has to stay healthy. It’s been an issue with him in his first two seasons. Let’s hope the injury bug stays away from him. If it does, there’s a very good chance he’d be the team’s best linebacker. Next to him on the inside is Lawrence Timmons. Timmons looked a step slow last year while he battled a toe injury, but still racked up a team-high 119 tackles and 5 sacks. He’s shed a little bit of weight, so I expect him to move around a little bit better than last year. Timmons is still Timmons though. You know he’s going to get 100+ tackles and at least 3 sacks. Those numbers aren’t bad at all, especially if Shazier has a monster year. Vince Williams is a guy off the bench that could provide a spark. He’s a solid tackler, and he’s gotten some significant playing time under his belt filling in while Shazier’s been sidelined with injuries the past couple of years. The pair of Timmons and Shazier could arguably be the best duo at inside linebacker in the league, at least compared with teams who also run a 3-4 scheme. The speed, the tackling ability, the coverage ability, and the football IQ is all there. They just have to execute on the field.

At outside linebacker, I’ve projected the pair of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones. Both guys are first round draft picks. Dupree’s stock is much higher than Jones’ right now. Dupree is coming off of a solid rookie year where he sacked the quarterback four times while sharing time with Arthur Moats. Jones is coming off of a year where he was awarded the starting job, but ended up losing it to James Harrison, or at least lost a significant amount of snaps. Harrison is getting older, but if utilized correctly and for a certain portion of snaps per game, he can still be affective, and may even show shades of the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year. However, Outside Linebackers coach Joey Porter has already said he wants to get away from the split snaps, or a “platoon,” if you will (Dupree/Moats on the left, and Jones/Harrison on the right). Jones and Dupree are first round picks, and the Steelers are wanting to give them every reason to prove it. Dupree’s stock is much higher than Jones’. Jones’ option for a fifth year was not picked up by the Steelers, meaning he’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season. If any time was the time for Jones to break out, it’s now. 

At the of the day, I think this is the strongest part of the defense. There’s speed, youth, and experience. They tackle well, they rush the passer well (although, they still need to improve), and they cover well. I expect big years from Shazier and Timmons, and I think Dupree’s sophomore year trumps his rookie campaign. Jones is the big unknown. He lost some weight to try to get a little quicker off the edge. We’ll see if it pays off. The Steelers are known to have great linebackers, and this year, they’ve got a solid group, with potential to be a truly great group.

Preseason Grade: A-

412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Steelers or the National Football League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Steelers or the National Football League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content

Steelers 2016-2017 Preview: Offensive and Defensive Line

The NFL season is upon us. Everyday we grow closer to opening kickoff, and it’s a season that holds a lot of promise for the Steelers. If the team stays healthy, the “stairway to seven” mission is not an absurd thought. The offense is a juggernaut and the defense is getting younger and faster. There’s a lot to dissect here, in terms of trying to figure out just what this Steeler team is capable of. I could try to put it into one gigantic article that could rival Atlas Shrugged in length, but I figured it would be more fun to break this down by position, or at least groups. So here in my first installment, I’m going to preview where football is won and lost, in the trenches: the Pittsburgh offensive and defensive lines. Here’s what the rest of the preseason will hold:

August 12th – Linebackers
August 19th – Secondary
August 26th – Running Backs
September 2nd – Quarterback/Receivers/Tight End
September 9th – Final Season Preview (w/ prediction)

Offensive Line:
Projected Starters:
LT Alejandro Villanueva
LG Ramon Foster
C Maurkice Pouncey
RG David DeCastro
RT Marcus Gilbert

The offensive line is coming off of a solid season. They continued to improve as a unit in terms of protecting the quarterback and creating holes for Bell or Williams. When this line is healthy, they easily could be argued as top 5 in the NFL. Pouncey is arguably the best center in the game, DeCastro and Foster are a great pair of guards. The offensive tackle position is really the only weakness. Gilbert is a much better run blocker than pass blocker, and Villanueva is a bit inconsistent. If Pouncey goes down with another injury, Cody Wallace would step in as center, but that is a major downgrade. Health is going to be the key issue for the offensive line, however there is silver lining. The offensive line proved last year that even through injury, they work well together as a unit. They communicate well and it doesn’t hurt to have Ben Roethlisberger be your biggest cheerleader. Outside of health, the only other factor to watch out for is penalties. Last year, it seemed the offensive line committed penalties at bad times. They committed just over two penalties per game, which isn’t terrible, but they have to be more mindful in clutch situations.

Another thing to be mindful of is Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley’s offensive scheme benefits the offensive line. Ben gets rid of the ball quicker, in turn, less time to commit penalties and less likelihood of allowing a sack.

Overall, I’m confident in what this unit can do. What was once a major team weakness, is now one of the team’s underrated positions.

Preseason Grade: B+

Defensive Line:
Projected Starters:
LDE Cam Heyward
NT Daniel McCullers
RDE Stephon Tuitt

This defensive line is something to be excited about. Cam Heyward is a superstar. I don’t care if he gets the league-wide recognition or not, he’s a beast. Stephon Tuitt has lived up to expectations of being a second round draft pick. He’s shown at times to be just as dominant on the line as Heyward. With two years now under his belt, he should continue to improve. The tandem of Heyward and Tuitt could possibly rival any other pair of defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme in the league. Last year, they combined for 13.5 sacks (Heyward 7, Tuitt 6.5), and they both finished with 54 total tackles, 39 solo tackles EACH. They clog up blockers and put pressure on the quarterback. They can both also play in formations with only two down-lineman, which makes them more valuable in third down situations when Keith Butler has more defensive backs on the field. There’s every reason to be high on these two guys. They give reason to believe in this front-seven again.

The position of question here is nose tackle. The Steelers may never have another dominant nose tackle like Casey Hampton. That’s just something we might have to live with. McCullers is intriguing. He’s as big as a house at 6’7″ and 352 pounds. If he gets leverage on a blocker, you’re not moving him. McCullers’ height could be his biggest weakness though. Blockers get low to gain leverage on defenders, and most interior offensive lineman are shorter than McCullers. That’s one of the reasons Casey Hampton was so good; he’s only 6’1″, which is much shorter than most interior offensive lineman. Leverage is a huge factor for nose tackles. Clog up blockers and push them back. Force the running back outside and collapse the pocket for the quarterback. Another guy to watch for this season is this year’s third round pick out of South Carolina State Javon Hargrave. He’s built much like Hampton (also 6’1″) and has a lot of raw talent as a pass rusher, but much like the rest of the draft class, it’s raw talent. You have to be patient with him. The ceiling is high for Hargrave and if he hits near his potential as the year goes on, he could replace McCullers.

Overall, I think the defensive line will again show they are part of the stronger part of the defense. The Steelers are relying on their front seven to create havoc for the quarterback to try and make the secondary’s job easier. The defensive line can help with that, however, I have concern at nose tackle.

Preseason Grade: B+

I believe the organization has done a great job over the last several years rebuilding both the offensive and defensive lines. Football is won in the trenches at the line of scrimmage. If you can control the line of scrimmage, it gives you a much better chance to win. These two units can get it done on both sides of the ball. They shouldn’t give much reason to be having heart attacks on Sunday afternoons this season.

412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Steelers or the National Football League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Steelers or the National Football League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content

Pittsburgh Penguins 2015-2016 Season Review: We Are The Champions, My Friend

I remember sitting in Dallas in October watching the first game of the season. I remember thinking to myself, “This is going to be a long season if this is who we are.” It was a bad game. We couldn’t establish a forecheck. We couldn’t gain any speed through the neutral zone. And forget about any sustained pressure with speed or a forecheck. Now, this was only one game, but it still scared me. And the next 27 games would prove my concern correct. We didn’t have an identity. We didn’t know who we were. It was going to be a long season. And then, starting December 12th, 2015, it all changed. And in the span of less than a month, we were watching a new team. A team with an identity. The fastest and most resilient team I’ve watched in my lifetime. And now, they’re on top of the hockey world. They’re the Stanley Cup champions.

This could be an exhaustive piece, but for the sake of time, my sanity, and your attention, I’ll be as brief as possible. The first quarter of the season was painful. Our stars weren’t performing. Our offense couldn’t do anything, even though the majority of our payroll was dedicated to those who put the puck in the net. Marc-Andre Fleury was pretty much the only reason we were only a few points shy of a playoff spot in early December. If it weren’t for him, we would’ve been near the bottom. There’s no doubt in my mind of that. Our defense was decent, but not great and our penalty kill was good, but this team was not built to be defensive and conservative. So changes were made. Here are the moments and moves that mattered in the Penguins’ championship season:

Enter Mike Sullivan, Trevor Daley, and Carl Hagelin. All three of these moves were vital to the Penguins success in 2015-2016. Mike Sullivan challenged the player’s heart and challenged them to be better versions of themselves, especially the leaders on this team that have always been under the most scrutiny, like Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. Crosby and Letang especially answered the new coach’s challenge. Crosby went on to lead the NHL in points from the time Sullivan got hired and Letang made more than a mere case for a Norris consideration, which the hockey world refused to give that credit to Tanger. Trevor Daley found a resurgence in a Penguins sweater and gave some life and mobility to the Pens’ defense. Jim Rutherford deserves to win GM of the Year for just that Daley/Scuderi trade. My goodness, what a freakin’ steal. The Penguins really seemed to catch some serious fire when they acquired Carl Hagelin from Anaheim in exchange for David Perron. The trade worked out for both teams. Perron played well in Anaheim and Hagelin was that last piece that made the Penguins a blazing fast team.

Malkin’s injury. At the time when Malkin went down, it seemed that the Penguins’ season was in serious jeopardy. They had just started to play really well over the last couple months, then Malkin goes down for the rest of the regular season and a few playoff games. If this hadn’t happened, the “HBK Line” probably would’ve never been born. Hagelin and Kessel were playing with Geno, and they were playing well, but when Bonino centered the line in Malkin’s absence, it shot to another level. All three guys levels of play went way up. They found perfect chemistry with each other and it was the perfect blend of speed, skill, and hockey smarts on one line. Call it the first, second, or third line. Call it the HBK Line. Call it whatever you want, this was the best line in hockey. And it wasn’t even close.

The Baby Pens grew up. Would the Penguins have won the Stanley Cup without Bryan Rust, Tommy Kuhnhackl, and/or Conor Sheary? Nope. These three guys were amazing. Rust showed he could play on any line. He could grind it out on the 4th line, but still showed skill to play with Crosby or Geno on the 1st and 2nd lines. Rust scored some big goals in the playoffs, probably none bigger than his two in game seven of the ECF against Tampa. Sheary was brilliant in the 1st round against the Rangers. His speed and forecheck was ridiculous. He definitely got tired as the playoffs went along, but after being a healthy scratch, he found some new energy and was a force again in the Stanley Cup Final. He scored a huge OT goal in game two. Kuhnhackl was a little more quiet in terms of the scoresheet, but don’t think that he didn’t have an impact. He was great on the penalty kill and found great chemistry with 39 year-old magician Matt Cullen.

Fleury’s concussions lead Matt Murray into stardom. Matthew F. Murray. And the “F” standing for “Freaking.” What a dude. What a goalie. This guy will be a star for years to come. He’s 22 and plays with the calming presence of a 32 year-old. He’s only going to get better. That’s scary. Some think that Murray deserved the Conn Smythe, and there’s definitely a case for it. He was amazing, and the Penguins wouldn’t have won without him.

The “underachievers”….achieved. Ben Lovejoy. Ian Cole. Justin Schultz. Eric Fehr. Olli Maatta. These guys were vital to the Penguins success this season, especially down the stretch. When Daley went down for the season in the playoffs, the other D-men stood tall and played insanely well. Maatta responded very well to being a healthy scratch after constantly getting beat one-on-one. He played some of the best defensive hockey of his career. Eric Fehr helped stabilize the fourth line with Kuhnhackl and Cullen, and helped out a lot on the penalty kill. And how great were Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, and Justin Schultz? They were more than solid on defense and helped the Penguins move the puck up the ice. They did exactly what Sully needed them to do.

The other defensemen. All eyes go to Letang when he’s on the ice, but what about his partner for most of the playoffs? Brian Dumoulin is a stud. He’s just…so solid. He made maybe two mistakes all postseason. So solid in the defensive zone and has wheels for a “defensive” defenseman.

Moneymakers earned their keep. At the end of the day, Crosby, Geno, Kunitz, Hornqvist, even Fleury can hang their hat and be proud of their performance. A lot of people can scrutinize Kunitz for his decline, but he had some stretches in the playoffs where he was a shade of who he was in his prime. Fleury is the ultimate teammate. He could’ve easily thrown a fit about Murray getting the starts after Flower was good to go, and he might’ve internally. That I don’t know. What I do know is that he supported Murray and helped him along the way. He put the team ahead of himself, which is what great teammates and leaders do. Hornqvist continues to show how great of a deal the James Neal trade was (I’m a Neal advocate by the way). Hornqvist is a better fit for Sully’s system. Neal played great with Geno, but was way too streaky. Hornqvist contributes every night. Not always on the scoresheet, but goalie screens aren’t accounted for there. Horny’s always wreaking havoc. That opens up ice for Sid to do his thing. Even though Geno played really well for only a few games in the playoffs, he was their best player under Mike Johnston. His contributions early in the season can’t go unnoticed, and he stepped up when he had to in the playoffs. And finally, Crosby is the best in the world. He proved it again. Did he lead the NHL in scoring? Did he lead the league in scoring the playoffs? No and no. But, he took over games. He scored when it mattered. He raised his teammates up when it mattered. He was clutch. That’s why he raised his second Cup and a certain rival still has yet to play for one.

Do it for Duper. They sure did, didn’t they? I don’t think anyone tied to the Penguins had a dry eye when Pascal Dupuis raised Lord Stanley’s Cup. This is a guy who fought so hard to come back from injuries and multiple blood clots, and unfortunately, got to the point where retirement was his only option. For him, like it should be, hockey wasn’t as important as his family. But you know it hurt like hell for him to hang his skates up. He was still there in the room with the guys and up in the pressbox during games. He was still tied to this team, and the guys wanted to win for him. Duper got to go out a champion.

If I had three words to describe this team, here’s what they’d be: Fast. Resilient. Special. This team put aside the monstrosity of who they were that night in Dallas and over the marathon of the season, turned into the greatest team in the league. Contributions should be credited all the way from the top with Lemieux and Burkle to Dana Heinze and the guys that get almost no recognition and everyone in between. This was a true team effort. And it made the Penguins great again. Go ahead Pittsburgh. Celebrate this one. Savor it. And get ready for that title defense.

412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

CH Column: Stars Shined Brightest in ECF Victory

The Pittsburgh Penguins are Eastern Conference Champions. Yeah, Pittsburgh is going to be celebrating this win into and all throughout the holiday weekend. From where this team was when the coaching change was made in December, to where they are now, is simply amazing. Mike Sullivan changed the identity of this team. Jim Rutherford made the necessary moves to enhance that identity. And now, here we are. The Penguins are in the Stanley Cup Final.
It wasn’t an easy road though. Their Eastern Conference Final opponent gave the Penguins one heck of a fight, even being down key players. Like any good team, they had guys step up and perform at a level necessary to be successful (Vasilevsky. Hats off to you dude.). And at the end of this night, the Lightning were one goal shy of the Final themselves.

We knew going in that this was going to be a fast series, with a great dose of skill. As I stated in my preview of the series, I just believed the Penguins were the faster and more skilled team. Many, including myself, believed the Penguins were the better team. The Penguins proved they were in game seven.

Now I could sit here and break this down game by game, saying what the Penguins did right and what they did wrong. Game three being an example of the former, and the first two periods of game four being an example of the latter. I’m not going to do that. I want to talk about WHY this team won. Why they were able to look adversity and elimination in the face and rise above it. Why they came alive in games six and seven and outplayed one of the faster, more skilled teams in the league. Why they punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final: Sid and Geno.

Don’t get me wrong here. This was wholly a team effort. I’m not forgetting about Sheary and Maatta, who bounced back after being healthy scratches at some point in the series and played some of the best hockey they’ve ever played, especially Maatta. I’m not forgetting about Bryan Rust and his two goals, that could’ve easily been four, in the biggest game of his career. I’m not forgetting about Ben Lovejoy and how he is making the haters of the Despres trade rethink the fact that they hate it (seriously, he’s been fantastic in these playoffs). I’m not forgetting about Chris Kunitz, who has found some gas left in the tank and is playing at a level we haven’t seen in a long time from him. I’m not forgetting about Matt Murray, who could’ve easily been rattled by his benching in game five, but answered the call with two solid games facing elimination.

I’m not forgetting about anyone, but this all stems from leadership. Crosby and Malkin played two great games when this team was facing elimination. Go ahead and scrutinize Malkin’s play early in the series and Sid’s passiveness in games four and five, but the fact is that when this team needed its leaders to lead, they did it. Crosby had three game-winning goals in the series. Malkin finds himself on a four-game point streak. And they both found another gear in the final two games. Malkin was skating hard in all three zones, making impressive plays in the offensive zone as well as back checking in the defensive zone. Crosby’s goal in game six was just stupid good. He made passes when he needed to, but was creating shots for himself. That’s when both of these guys are at their best. The team sees that. They see their two best players leading by example. This is a close knit team, what choice do they have but to give everything they have too?

I’ve said this all playoffs. This team is special. A SPECIAL kind of special. Just when things seem like they’re going to fall apart, they answer with resiliency. When things go wrong, it’s so easy to blaim the coaching or the leaders’ lack of leadership. But things are going right. Right to the Cup Final. And I’m giving credit where credit is due. Sid and Geno have lead this team here. They’re goal is 16 wins. 12 down, 4 to go. Bring on San Jose.

Penguins vs. Lightning: Eastern Conference Finals Preview

The Penguins vs. Capitals series was another one that will be remembered for a long time. Especially game 6, which had a heavy dose of drama and heart attacks, but the Pens prevailed. They sent the President’s Trophy winners home in six games. It’s a great memory, to remember beating the rival Capitals on Bonino’s rebound goal, at home in front of arguably the best crowd ever at Consol Energy Center. It’s a night that Penguins fans will remember forever. It’s a night the Penguins themselves will, and should, celebrate. But that’s not what this team is about. They showed their resiliency yet again, and that says a lot about how this team goes forward. While it’s a great memory to send the Capitals home, the Penguins have won 8 games. They need to win 8 more. And you know this team has that in their minds. They’re halfway to their goal. Now the Tampa Bay Lightning stand in their path.

This is an interesting playoff matchup. Now that the Penguins are out of the Metropolitan portion of the bracket, they face the Atlantic survivor, the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s not against a team fans hate. Where is all the angst going to go? It’s also an interesting matchup because they play a very similar style hockey as the Penguins. They attack you with their speed. They had little problems in the first two rounds, beating the Red Wings and Islanders each in five games. And they’ve done it without their captain and highly skilled goal scorer Steven Stamkos. Much like I did for my Pens/Caps preview, I’ll break down this preview with three keys for this series, along with my X-factor for the Penguins, and of course, my prediction for the series. Not to blow smoke or brag, but I nailed both of the Penguins’ series so far with my predictions. I hope to keep that going. First off, here’s a quick recap of how the Penguins get here, along with some noteworthy points for this series:

  • The Penguins ride into this series having won 22 of their last 27 games, including their 8-3 record in the playoffs. They also haven’t lost back to back games since January 15th, ironically enough, against Tampa Bay (5-4 OTL).
  • The team has been as resilient as they come, bouncing back from either bad periods or bad games, and responding immediately. When they have a bad period and fall behind 2-0, they come back and win. Or even if they lose a game, they bounce back the next game and win it. They don’t allow adversity keep them down. They’re also 44-0-0 when leading after two periods.
  • They are as sound of a team as I’ve seen in recent memory. All four lines contribute, all six defensemen fill a role and execute it well. Depth guys like Matt Cullen, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, and Nick Bonino have raised their game and made this team hard to play against. Teams can’t just prepare to shut down Crosby and Malkin. The depth on this team proves that.
  • The Penguins have home ice for this series thanks to a superior regular season record. Both teams finished second in their respective divisions.
  • The only playoff matchup between these teams in history was in 2011. Pittsburgh had a 3-1 series lead, then Tampa Bay came back and won three in a row, clinching the series with a 1-0 victory in game 7 at Consol Energy Center.
  • The Penguins regular season record against Tampa Bay this season was 0-2-1, two of the games in Tampa Bay. All three games were under Mike Sullivan’s regime. Matt Murray did not play against Tampa Bay. Fleury was 0-1-1 and Zatkoff was 0-1-0.

Three Keys to the Series:
Star Power
The Penguins played well against the Capitals, despite their two main stars producing a combined total of four points in six games. Crosby and Malkin need to find their scoring touch in this series. The depth of the Penguins is amazing. The Penguins’ “third line” has been their best line since it was put together when Malkin went down with an injury in March. But imagine what this team would do when all three lines (Crosby’s, Malkin’s, and the HBK line) are lighting the lamp. They would literally be unstoppable. Ben Bishop is a good goaltender and plays a similar style to Lundqvist, but Sid and Geno need to find a way to put the puck in the net themselves. They’re both at their best when they create shots for themselves. Right now, they are both deferring to the pass way too much. Creating shots for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you always have to shoot the puck, but if you try to create the shot for yourself. passing lanes open up. If Crosby and Malkin can get it going on the score sheet, there isn’t any reason why the Penguins can’t win this series. Tampa Bay is without their best player. Pittsburgh’s had better outshine Tampa’s stars. This is what they make the big bucks for. Malkin historically has played well against Tampa Bay. Let’s hope we see more of this:


Need for Speed
The Lightning are a fast team. The Penguins are also fast. Very fast. Lightning fast, if you will (pun intended). It will be a fast-paced series. Neither team bangs the body too much. They can when they want, but it’s not their game. A team like Washington relied on their ability to wear down their opponent with their size and physicality. Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay don’t do that. They attack you with all the speed they have. It is very close, but I believe the Penguins have a slight edge in overall speed. When they are in full attack mode (as they were in game 6 against Washington), they are very hard to slow down. Tampa has speed to keep up with them, but logic might dictate that the Penguins may have a little more ice to work with in this series. Tampa doesn’t try to wear you down like Washington. That’s where you may see the Penguins skill excel. When given open ice, even just a bit of breathing room, the speed mixed with the skill the Penguins have is hard to contain. The Penguins need to emphasize their speed game and create chances in the offensive zone with it. There’s no other way to play Penguin hockey right now. It’s all about that speed.

Goaltender Situation
This will be a hot topic in Pittsburgh for the next few days. Who starts in net? Do you keep going with Murray’s hot hand or do you put Fleury back in the number one role? It’s a tough choice. I understand not going with Fleury in the middle of a series. He hasn’t played in over a month, and Murray is playing out of his mind. But now, it’s the start of a new series. In my opinion, I would continue to go with Murray. He’s earned it. Fleury is still fantastic and I would trust him if Murray’s game were to slip. The goal right now is to win a Stanley Cup. Murray is arguably the team’s MVP through the first two series. He’s stolen a game for you. He’s made the saves needed by a goalie to be successful in the playoffs. There’s no reason to change that now. I think Murray plays the rest of the playoffs until he loses the job, which I don’t think he will. I think he continues the strong play. He’s just a dang good goalie.

My X-factor for this series is Evgeni Malkin. I fully expect the two stars to bounce back from a rough series (at least, in regards to the score sheet) against Washington. But Geno, when he gets going and get on one of his rolls, nobody can stop him. Anyone remember the 2009 Conference Finals? Yeah, that’s what can happen. Don’t get me wrong. Tampa is a much better team than that ’09 Carolina team, but like I said, if Geno takes over like that, he’ll make them look like the ’09 Hurricanes.


Injury Update:
The Penguins (knock on wood as hard and often as you can) are considerably healthy. Fleury is game ready now. The only player that seems to be affected by any kind of lingering injury is Olli Maatta. He just doesn’t seem himself. For Tampa Bay, they are without two of their keys guys that they would LOVE to have in this series: Steven Stamkos and Anton Stralman. There’s a possibility Stralman gets into his series, but I don’t see Stamkos making it in, despite what Stamkos or Tampa Bay might say. He’s still on blood thinners. I don’t see it happening. Tampa has done a great job in filling in for the injuries. Nikita Kucherov leads the league in goals cored in the playoffs. Jonathan Drouin has looked really strong for them as well. But, they’d still be much better with Stamkos. And the Stralman absence really hurts their depth at defense. Victor Hedman is a beast, but that Tampa defense is a lot more scary when Hedman and Stralman are playing.

Tampa Bay is good. They play a style of hockey that is necessary to win in the playoffs. They’re two biggest assets are speed and skill. Unfortunately for them, the Penguins play almost the same exact style. And the Penguins have more speed and more skill. I expect Malkin to have a big series. The HBK line will continue to be the best line in hockey. Murray plays the entire series and continues his great run in the net. This won’t be an easy series. Give credit where credit is due. Tampa Bay is a good team. Eastern Conference Champions last year, and they made it back to the Conference Finals this year without their captain down the stretch, but I just think Pittsburgh is too good at the same game Tampa plays.

Penguins in six. Then on to the Stanley Cup Finals!


412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Penguins or the National Hockey League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content.

Steelers Notes: Jarvis Jones, Transactions, more

Here are the Steelers notes for the week of 5/1/16-5/7/16:

  • On Tuesday, May 5th, the Steelers declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Jarvis Jones, a former 1st round pick. Jones is entering his fourth season, a career in which many consider that he has underperformed or that his skills haven’t quite translated to the NFL level. The Steelers obviously didn’t see the value in the $8.4 million he would’ve made in 2017. He will spend this final season of his contract with Pittsburgh, and then become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
  • The Steelers cut three players on Thursday to trim their roster to 90 players. Headlining the cuts was former second round pick OT Mike Adams. He was cut due to a failed physical. Kicker Ty Long and RB Abou Toure were also among the cuts.
  • Also on Thursday, the Steelers signed their two seventh-round draft picks WR Demarcus Ayers and LB Tyler Matakevich to four-year contracts.
  • On Friday, Pittsburgh signed their sixth-round draft pick LB Travis Feeney to a four-year contract.
  • Rookie Minicamp got under way on Friday. It ran through Sunday, May 8th.

412 Sports is not affiliated with the Pittsburgh Steelers or the National Football League. The views and opinions expressed on this site are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of the Pittsburgh Steelers or the National Football League. This site may contain content copyrighted by another person or entity. This site’s author claims no copyright to said content

Steelers. Penguins. Pirates.