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Steelers right back in mix after drubbing Redskins

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Steelers right back in mix after drubbing Redskins

PITTSBURGH (AP) Ben Roethlisberger talks constantly about the weapons at his disposal.

Mike Wallace. Antonio Brown. Heath Miller. Jerricho Cotchery. Whatever running back happens to be healthy during a given week.

So of course the first touchdown pass the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback threw during Sunday's 27-12 win over the Washington Redskins went to little-used tight end Leonard Pope. And the third went to fullback Will Johnson, a little 1-yard flip in which Johnson seemed to be surprised the ball was heading in his general direction.

``I was kind of yelling, `turn around, you're open,''' Roethlisberger said.

Johnson's score capped a surprisingly easy victory for the Steelers (4-3), who looked very much like a team starting to round into form midway through the season. The defense suffocated Washington's vibrant offense while the offense continued to work with its typical efficiency.

Pittsburgh held the ball for more than 33 minutes for the sixth time in seven games on a day Jonathan Dwyer became the first Steelers running back since Willie Parker in 2008 to top 100 yards in consecutive games.

This is the same team that struggled to put away underachieving Philadelphia at home and lost on the road to the likes of Oakland and Tennessee?

``We're going in the right direction,'' offensive tackle Max Starks said. ``We stopped digging a hole for ourselves. Now we can start laying a foundation.''

It's one that starts where it always seems to start in Pittsburgh, with the defense. The Steelers endured stinging criticism after letting three second-half leads evaporate. They defended coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme and insisted the problem wasn't the calls but the execution.

After convincing victories over two explosive teams in Cincinnati and Washington, it looks like they were right. The Bengals managed just 185 yards of total offense while Washington had a season-low 255. For all the concern bubbling three weeks ago, the Steelers are second in the NFL in yards allowed as the season nears its midway point.

``We still got that `3' in the column there, but we're improving,'' linebacker Larry Foote said. ``We know it's a long season. It's always long for us. We ain't saying we're there yet.''

Not with the defending Super Bowl champions looming.

Pittsburgh travels to New York next week to face the Giants (6-2), though it suddenly doesn't look as daunting a task as it did earlier this month after the Steelers pushed around Washington. The Redskins dropped 10 passes, many of the drops coming as a Pittsburgh defender closed in.

``The Steelers, we're going to run and hit,'' Foote said. ``Our safeties are going to hit. Our (defensive backs) are going to hit. You don't see that in a lot of places with the corners coming up and hitting. That's what makes this a special place.''

One that prides itself on maintaining a certain standard regardless of who is on the field. When starting running back Rashard Mendenhall and top backup Isaac Redman went out with injuries while losing to the Titans on Oct. 12, Pittsburgh turned to third-stringer Dwyer.

He's hardly played like a benchwarmer. Legs churning constantly, Dwyer has run for 229 yards over the last two weeks and is averaging a healthy 5.2 yards per carry, seventh-best in the league and ahead of guys like Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice and Chris Johnson.

``He's answered the call and taken advantage of the opportunity and that's what we expect from all our young people,'' coach Mike Tomlin said of Dwyer. ``This guy went over 1,500 yards in his last two years at Georgia Tech. He was ACC Player of the Year. He's not foreign to running the football.''

Dwyer isn't quite ready to plead for more playing time, simply entrench himself as an NFL player. He's done that with ease, giving the Steelers some needed balance to take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger.

The offensive line has done its part too. The quarterback has been sacked just 13 times this season despite playing behind a shuffled unit that includes rookie right tackle Mike Adams. Throw in a passing scheme that has limited the number of hits Roethlisberger takes and the Steelers are building at the right time.

``This is the part of the season where you want to be consistent and get better and start to stack wins,'' wide receiver Antonio Brown said. ``This is where it all that starts.''

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NOTES: The Steelers re-instated rookie NT Alameda Ta'amu on Monday. The team suspended him without pay two weeks ago following an incident with police on the city's South Side neighborhood in the early hours of Oct. 14. Ta'amu still faces three felony counts - fleeing police, aggravated assault and aggravated assault by vehicle - among a dozen other charges.

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The NBA All-Star pregame introductions were, uh, something

The NBA All-Star pregame introductions were, uh, something

Whoever put together the NBA All-Star Game player introductions has some 'splainin to do. 

The NBA introduced a kinda-full Staples Center to their 2018 All-Stars about an hour ago, and boy was it weird. There were a lot of dancers in different themed costumes. Kevin Hart was screaming. Rob Riggle was screaming. Ludacris showed up? Hey! Did you know that the Barenaked Ladies are still a band? The NBA would like you to know they're still around.  The whole thing was like when you're at an art museum and you're told that abstract piece in the corner is actually really meaningful but you gotta be honest, you don't get it. 

Anyways, the internet hated it. Here are some highlights from the internet hating it:

The lesson here is that you never need Kevin Hart and Rob Riggle. One will do. 

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Drafting a running back early not a cure-all for Redskins' ground game

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Need to Know: Tandler's Take—Drafting a running back early not a cure-all for Redskins' ground game

Here is what you need to know on this Sunday, February 18, 24 days before NFL free agency starts.

Tandler’s Take

The topic for today’s post comes from Twitter:

When I asked for topics for this post, the subject of the running game came up with several of them. And since John brought up the draft, let’s look at that as a potential solution.

Let’s first establish that the Redskins’ running game was not good enough last year. I don’t need to spend a bunch of time on this but here are some numbers. They were 28th in rushing yards and 29th in yards per carry. If you like to weigh more complete metrics, they were 28th in rushing DVOA. If you want to look at a key situation, they were last in the league in yards per first-down rushing attempt. Last year a team gained 100 yards rushing or more 274 times. The Redskins got there five times.

I’m going to leave it at that here since, again, if you’re reading this you probably watched a lot of their games and you don’t need to be persuaded that the running game was largely unproductive. Yes, there were injuries that had the offensive linemen playing snaps just days after being signed and the broken leg suffered by Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley’s various ailments. But the Redskins haven’t ranked higher than 19th in rushing yards since Jay Gruden became the head coach. Rushing game struggles are an ongoing issue.

I am going to work on the premise that those who advocate having the Redskins improve their running game via the draft are talking about drafting a running back in the first or second round. That may be overgeneralizing but that gives me a good-sized chunk of data to work with and still be able to analyze it in the 1000 words or so I am allotted here.

I’m also going to call a 1,000-yard season the minimum that would be expected out of a back drafted in the first two rounds. There are other ways a back can contribute, of course, and we can deal with them separately.

From 2010-2017, there were 45 thousand-yard rushing seasons by players who entered the league during those years (all data via the indispensable Pro Football Reference unless noted). Twelve of them were accomplished by players drafted in the first round. Six came from second-round picks, six from third-rounders, four from the fourth, three from the fifth, four from the sixth and none from the seventh. Oh, and there were 10 thousand-yard seasons that came from undrafted players.

It should be noted that four of those seasons from undrafted players came from the Texans’ Arian Foster. And two each came from LeGarrette Blount and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. So those 10 thousand-yard seasons should not be seen as an indication that there is a treasure trove of running back talent going undrafted every year.

Back to the first and second rounders, the combined 16 thousand-yard seasons doesn’t mean much in isolation. How many backs were drafted in the first two rounds in that time? How many opportunities have they had to post big seasons?

In the past eight drafts, 34 running backs were drafted in the first and second round. That group has had 170 opportunities to post a 1,000-yard season. What I mean by opportunities is the number of seasons that have elapsed since the player was drafted. The six backs drafted in the first two rounds in 2010 have each had eight chances to gain 1,000 yards in a season so they have combined for 48 opportunities (6*8). There were five backs drafted in the first and second seven seasons ago, so there have combined for 35 opportunities, and so on. Through the eight years that adds up to 170 seasons.

The combined 16 thousand-yard seasons in 170 opportunities comes to a success rate of 9.4 percent when it comes to reaching the bar that most fans would set as the minimum.

A couple of things need to be pointed out here. There are some backs like Giovani Bernard, Shane Vereen, and Christian McCaffrey who do not have any big rushing seasons on their resumes but have been valuable catching passes out of the backfield. And some like Dalvin Cook, who was injured after a promising start last year, and McCaffrey seemed destined to have 1,000-yard seasons in their futures. So all of the backs who have not gained 1,000 yards in a season are not necessarily draft busts or failures.

But here are first-round running back busts, just like there are busts at every position. There were 12 running back picked in the first round of the past eight drafts. Javid Best, David Wilson, and Trent Richardson clearly were disappointments (the former two struggled with injuries). Doug Martin, Ryan Mathews, and C.J. Spiller have had some success but perhaps not enough to justify being first-round picks. It took Mark Ingram a while, but he got rolling in his sixth NFL season. I want to see more out of McCaffrey before judging him and Melvin Gordon needs to continue his upward trajectory. It’s safe to say that even with small sample sizes of data in the books on Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette they were home runs. So was Todd Gurley.

So out of 12 first-round backs in the last eight years, you have three clear busts, three moderate disappointments, four top-level performers (including Ingram) and two TBD.

In any case, it’s clear that just drafting a back early is not a panacea for a struggling running game. Blocking (from both the line and the receivers and other backs), play calling, scheme, and some intangible factors like attitude (as Brian Mitchell will tell you) all play into the success and failure of moving the ball on the ground.

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.