Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Each week during the 2012 season we're hitting up some of the most knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles' opponent that particular Sunday. Today we have Alan Robinson, Steelers beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Kulp: Pittsburgh is 1-2 heading into the intrastate matchup, and you wrote their campaign could very well hinge on this game. The team seems to be getting healthy right on cue, with Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu all potentially available this week. Assuming they all play, are the Steelers' problems suddenly solved?

Alan Robinson: Not necessarily. The Steelers' problems are across the board, ranging from an inability to run the ball, get to the quarterback or stop teams in the fourth quarter, where they've been outscored 30-13. Harrison and Polamalu are potential game-changers, of course, but Harrison is 34, Polamalu is closing in on 32 and injuries are becoming an issue. Harrison hasn't even practiced on consecutive days since last season. What the Steelers need Harrison to do is bring some pressure some how. They have only five sacks in three games and their 3-4 defensive line is not playing well. But the question is how effective Harrison can be on a knee that has blown up constantly whenever he's tried to push it, and without a full week of practice in nine months. What the Steelers have to hope is this isn;t the mobile Michael Vick they saw in either 2002, when he rallied the Falcons from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter (the only time that happened against a Bill Cowher team) or in 2006, when he threw four touchdown passes against them.

The Steelers have evolved with the NFL and have featured a pass-first offense for awhile, but their ground attack has been non-existent so far this season. They're 31st in yards per game (65.0), dead last in yards per attempt (2.6) -- as you wrote last week, their worst start in 62 years. Mendenhall appears set to return from a torn ACL, but is that really going to be a cure-all?

He's twice rushed for 1,000 yards, and he might have had another 1,000-yard season if he hadn't gotten hurt against the Browns in the final regular season game last season. Unlike Harrison, Mendenhall has been practicing regularly since the season started, and the main thing is he's better than what they've got. Mike Tomlin was so desperate to find a hot running back that four different backs got carries against the Raiders. Yet the Steelers still haven't had a back gain more than 43 yards in a game this season. If Mendenhall can't do it, their only option might be to bring Jerome Bettis or Franco Harris out of retirement. One factor: This is a contract year for Mendenhall, and he's playing for a deal next year. That's often the recipe for a big season.

James Harrison has averaged nearly 11 sacks per season over the last five years, but has yet to play this season after August knee surgery. Through four weeks, only six teams have notched fewer sacks per game than the Steelers (1.67). As of today, Harrison wasn't listed on the injury report, but you wrote he'll need to get through a full week of practice without swelling. Do you think he will be ready to go, or perhaps only available on a so-called pitch count?

They need him as many snaps as they can get him, and now. They can't afford to lose this game, drop to 1-3 and potentially fall well behind two teams with 4-1 records (the 3-1 Ravens and Bengals both play 1-3 teams this week). It's a very big game for the Steelers so early in the season, and that could be one reason why they can't wait any longer to see what Harrison can do. The key will be if he gets through practice both Wednesday and Thursday; he hasn't gone back-to-back yet this year. He didn't even dress for practice when the knee acted up last Wednesday, before they broke for the bye week, but Tomlin said Harrison had some "intense workouts" over the weekend. If that's intense by James Harrison's definition of intense, that could be a good sign for the Steelers.

Despite their inability to generate a consistent pass rush without Harrison, and even with Polamalu missing two of three games, Pittsburgh is still ranked third in passing yards allowed (190.3 per game). What is their secret?

Mark Sanchez did nothing against them (10-of-27, 138). That skews the numbers; Peyton Manning was 19 of 26 for 253, 2 TDs and couldn't be stopped in the second half in his first game in 20 months; Carson Palmer was  24 of 34 for 209 and 3 TDs and couldn't be stopped in the second half. (Even if Denver stopped him the whole game, limiting the Raiders to 6 points). If LeSean McCoy opens things up for Vick by getting yards early on, Vick is very capable of doing to the Steelers defense what Manning and Palmer did. The difference is those games were on the road, no QB has lit up the Steelers at Heinz Field since Tom Brady in 2010.

The biggest difference between this year and last for the Steelers seems to be new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In what ways has the offense changed under his direction?

Roethlisberger is motioning a lot more at the line of scrimmage in the no-huddle offense than he did under Bruce Arians, and he's also getting rid of the ball faster than before, when he was constantly looking to get the ball down field to Mike Wallace or to improvise. The receivers are running more underneath routes and are getting targeted more by a quarterback who generally prefers to throw the home-run ball but is strongly being encouraged to be more reluctant to take sacks. Haley wanted to run the ball more effectively at times when the Steelers needed to wind the clock, but the running game's awful start has prevented that. So far, the offense looks much like it did when the Steelers successfully took the ball out of Brady's hands last season at Heinz Field by having Roethlisberger control the clock, throw a lot of safe passes and win the time of possession battle. The Steelers have done that in every game, but it hasn't mattered because -- unlike that Patriots game last season that the Steelers won 25-17 -- they can't keep their opponents out of the end zone when it matters. The Broncos (3 times) and Raiders (5 times) combined to score on each of their eight meaningful second-half possessions.

For the latest news on the Steelers, check out the Tribune-Review sports page.

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

Maikel Franco's benching continues as Howie Kendrick readies to play 3rd base in minors

The benching of Maikel Franco lasted for a second day Wednesday.

When will it end?

"It's a day-to-day thing," Pete Mackanin said. "No specific plan."

Franco is hitting just .221 with a .281 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage.

Mackanin first benched his third baseman/cleanup hitter on Tuesday. At the time, the manager said he was trying to take some heat off the slumping Franco and let him clear his mind, but the overriding reason for the benching is simple: Mackanin is looking for Franco to make the fundamental adjustments in his swing that will lead to more production.

"At this level you've got to produce," Mackanin said Tuesday. "You want to play, you've got to hit and they have to understand that. Nobody is here on scholarship.

"As much as he works in the cage and on the field in batting practice and does it right, when he gets in the game his head is still flying and his bat is coming out of the zone.

"I can't teach you to keep your head in there. I can tell you to do it, but you have to do it on your own and he's got to figure it out. … If you make outs the same way over and over, it's not going to change."

Franco on Wednesday said he understands the benching. He is disappointed in his production.

"Yes, I'm disappointed," he said. "I know I can produce better and help the team more. Nobody wants to be in this situation, hitting .220. The only thing to do is try to get better.

"I think any good hitter hitting .220 is going to be disappointed. I will not stop working and doing what I have to to get better."

Typically, a manager, especially one such as Mackanin, whose strength is communication, would speak to a player and lay out the reasons for an extended benching.

But Mackanin has chosen to let the lineup card do the talking on this one. He'd like to speak with Franco about the situation, but wants the player to come to him.

It doesn't sound like that's going to happen.

"They understand and I understand, you know?" Franco said. "I'm not the guy to go into the manager's office and say, 'Why am I not in the lineup?' I want to play. He knows what he's doing and I know what I'm capable of doing. Every single day when I come in, I'm 100 percent mentally ready to be in the lineup and I'm ready to play. If I'm not in the lineup, I have to get relaxed and just try to do everything I can to make an adjustment so when I'm in the lineup, I'll do my job."

Andres Blanco played third base in place of Franco on Tuesday and Wednesday. If Franco doesn't improve when he gets back in the lineup — whenever that may be — there could soon be another player in the mix at third base.

Howie Kendrick began a minor-league rehab assignment at Lehigh Valley on Wednesday night. He played left field in that game. Mackanin said the rehab stint would last four games and that Kendrick would also play first and third base.

Do the math on that one.

Franco can be optioned to the minors so that could also be a possibility if his problems persist.

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

NHL Notes: Penguins, Senators have chance at history in Game 7

PITTSBURGH -- Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that's not exactly the case.

"I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times," Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

"I think, if you believe you're beaten, you're done already," Anderson said. "If you believe that you can win, there's always a chance."

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league's marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren't supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring's Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they've survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan's impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year's East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents' Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month (see full story).

Predators: Goalie Rinne on smothering run
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Knocking the smile off Pekka Rinne's face right now is nearly impossible.

The longest-tenured player with the Nashville Predators, the 34-year-old goaltender finally will play in his first Stanley Cup Final in his ninth full NHL season.

"As a player, I feel like I've had a fairly long career and never had this opportunity," Rinne said. "So very fortunate and really appreciate this opportunity. I guess as a player you just enjoy being in this position. Enjoy the chance that you get, and you put your body on the line every night and give everything you have."

Teammates call the 6-foot-5 Finn the backbone of the Predators, and he's probably the best goalie in the world at the moment. He handles the puck like an extra defenseman. He foils the dump-and-chase efforts of opponents. And, oh, is he good in front of the net, aggressive with forwards in the crease, seeing seemingly everything and occasionally making saves with a Dominik Hasek-like contortion.

Not only is Rinne a playoff-best 12-4, his .945 save percentage ranks third all-time for a single postseason behind a pair of Conn Smythe Trophy winners in Jean-Sebastien Giguere for Anaheim in 2003 and Jonathan Quick for Los Angeles in 2012, according to HockeyReference.com. Rinne's 1.70 goals-against average is 10th all-time for one postseason.

"What he does every night, you can't put into words," Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban said (see full story).

Blues: Sydor returns to Blues as assistant
ST. LOUIS -- Darryl Sydor has returned to the St. Louis Blues as an assistant coach under mentor Mike Yeo.

Sydor agreed to a three-year deal Wednesday.

The 45-year-old Sydor finished his 18-year NHL playing career with the Blues in 2009-10, then broke into coaching as Yeo's assistant the next season with the American Hockey League's Houston Aeros. Sydor went with Yeo to Minnesota and spent five years with the Wild before working as an assistant last season with the Blues' then-Chicago affiliate in the AHL.

Sydor was a defenseman for Los Angeles, Dallas, Columbus, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, winning Stanley Cup titles with Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Coyotes: Cunningham hired as pro scout
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Coyotes have hired Craig Cunningham as a pro scout and say he will assist with player development.

General manager John Chayka announced the two-year contract Wednesday that allows Cunningham to remain in hockey.

Cunningham collapsed on the ice with a cardiac disturbance prior to a game Nov. 19 while playing for the American Hockey League's Tucson Roadrunners and required emergency life-saving care. He had part of his left leg amputated and saw his playing career end.

But the 26-year-old who was captain of the Roadrunners last season says he's excited to start the next chapter of his hockey career in the Coyotes' front office. Chayka called Cunningham a "smart, hard-working player with an incredible passion for the game" that he believes will translate to his new job.