Bills and Browns are on the up, baseball in October, and Otters season kickoff
Bills, Browns, Pitt victorious; Tomlin dubs Steelers worst in NFL
The Pittsburgh Steelers travelled across the pond to face the Minnesota Vikings at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 29, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 383 passing yards were not enough to bring down the Vikings, as the Steelers lost 34-27. Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell scored his first career touchdown on an eight-yard run late in the first quarter and contributed another touchdown in the third.
The Steel Curtain did not have an answer for all-pro running back Adrian Peterson, as he gashed the Steelers for 140 yards and two touchdowns. The secondary also struggled against Matt Cassel, who threw for 248 yards and two touchdowns.
After the game, in an interview with Roethlisberger, he revealed that "Right now, [head coach Mike Tomlin] would say we're the worst team in the league." Given that the Steelers are 0-4, that statement is agreeable. Several key players were lost in the offseason after what was already a subpar season for Pittsburgh.
Losing running back Rashard Mendenhall to the Arizona Cardinals has effectively eliminated the running game unless Le'Veon Bell can take massive strides as a rookie. Mike Wallace, Big Ben's former top wide receiver, is getting more targets as a Miami Dolphin than he ever did in Pittsburgh, and it looks like Roethlisberger misses him.
Another key loss is James Harrison, who gave opponents two pass rushers to worry about. With Harrison being a Cincinnati Bengal, the Steelers only offer one pass rusher to make offenses prepare for in LaMarr Woodley.
Take away all of those pieces that only got them to .500 last season and a down season for Pittsburgh was almost inevitable. The Steelers have a bye week this week to figure out what ails them, and they visit the New York Jets on October 13 at 1 p.m.
The Buffalo Bills found much more success on Sunday, Sept. 29 than the Steelers did, pulling out a 23-20 victory against the Baltimore Ravens. Defense was the key to victory for the Bills this week, as middle linebacker Kiko Alonso and free safety Aaron Williams had two interceptions apiece. Veteran defensive back Jim Leonhard also picked off a pass, which led to Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco setting a franchise record for most picks thrown in a game.
On the other side of the ball, running backs Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller made for a two-headed monster on the ground, combining for 167 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback EJ Manuel also threw for 167 yards, highlighted by a 42-yard touchdown connection with fellow rookie Robert Woods, a product of USC. Kicker Dan Carpenter was three-for-three on field goal attempts, but the Bills' offense has to get more points out of red zone trips going forward.
The Bills are headed to the Dawg Pound on Thursday, Oct. 3 to take on the Cleveland Browns, who are also 2-2.
The Cleveland Browns went with third-string quarterback Brian Hoyer again this week, and Hoyer delivered again, this time defeating the Cincinnati Bengals at home by a score of 17-6. The first episode of the 2013 Battle of Ohio saw Hoyer throw for 269 yards and two touchdowns. Tight End Jordan Cameron is still asserting himself as a high quality tight end in the NFL, catching ten passes for 91 yards and a touchdown. The ground game struggled against Cincinnati's stingy defense, as running back Willis McGahee led the Browns with only 46 rushing yards.
The Browns' defense answered the call as well, stifling the Bengals' running game to a mere 63 total yards.
There is talk of Hoyer being the answer going forward, but that is a tough sell. Other than the Bengals secondary that was lacking cornerback Leon Hall and safety Reggie Nelson, he has only beaten the Minnesota Vikings, who have allowed the most passing yards per game through four weeks. As Brandon Weeden returns to health, the quarterback picture in Cleveland should become much clearer. The Browns host the Bills on Oct. 3 at 8:25 p.m.
The Pittsburgh Panthers showcased their defense on Saturday, Sept. 28 in a 14-3 victory over the University of Virginia Cavaliers. McDowell grad James Conner scored on a six yard run in the first quarter and senior quarterback Tom Savage hit fellow senior Devin Street on a corner route to take a 14 point lead in the first.
That would end up being all the Panthers needed, as the defense shut down the Cavaliers' offense. The Panthers allowed only 123 passing yards and 65 rushing yards.
If all three aspects of the Panthers' game can appear in one contest, they could become a force in the ACC. The run game against New Mexico was stellar on Sept. 14, and Savage tore apart the Duke Blue Devils through the air on Sept. 21. The added aspect of the defense's strong showing can only help the Panthers going forward. After a bye week to build confidence, the Panthers visit the Virginia Tech Hokies on Oct. 12 at noon.
All three local favorites make it to October
The Pittsburgh Pirates did not end the season atop the NL Central, but they did make the playoffs for the first time since 1992. The Pirates' 5-1 week saw two wins against the Chicago Cubs and a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati. That sweep slingshot the Bucs ahead of the Reds in the wild card race and earned them home-field advantage for a single wild card game on Oct. 1 at 8:07 p.m. Right-handed pitcher AJ Burnett saw the most innings of work (8) and notched a win against the Reds on Sunday, Sept. 27. Fellow righty Brandon Cumpton also earned a win and only allowed two hits in five innings of work. Offensively, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, and Pedro Alvarez all hit two home runs. Alvarez also led the Bucs in RBI with six on the week. If the Pirates prevail at PNC Park on Oct. 1, they will begin a five-game series against St. Louis, who play games one, two, and five (if needed) at home.
The Cleveland Indians hold the top wild card spot in the AL after a convincing 6-0 week against the Chicago White Sox and the Minnesota Twins. The Indians' offense put up at least five runs in all six games, including a 12-6 victory over the Twins on Friday, Sept. 27. Later in the span, the pitching staff and defense raised their game, allowing only one run on Saturday, Sept. 28 and one on Sunday, Sept. 29.
Second Baseman Jason Kipnis led the Tribe in batting average with a .435. He also led the team in runs with six. First Baseman Nick Swisher hit a team-high two home runs. Left Fielder Michael Brantley and catcher Carlos Santana both earned five RBI.
Looking ahead, the Tampa Bay Rays came away victorious in their 163rd game to earn the right to play Cleveland in Progressive Field. The game is scheduled to start at 8:07 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Should the Indians win, they will face the Boston Red Sox in the divisional round. The Red Sox tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the best record in baseball (97-65), so the Indians have a tough road in the playoffs, but they showed this week that they have the firepower to do it.
Unlike the Bucs and the Tribe, the Detroit Tigers have no worries about the wild card round. The Indians' surge may have given them a scare, but the 2-3 week was good enough to keep a grip on the AL Central. Getting swept by the Miami Marlins, who ended the season 62-100, doesn't exactly build confidence in the Tigers, but the pitching staff shows promise heading into their divisional series against the Oakland Athletics.
Right-handed pitcher Mark Scherzer and Doug Fister nabbed wins against the Twins, and the defense as a whole allowed only 1.6 runs per game. The run support simply was not there. Catcher Alex Avila led the team in RBI, but only earned three. Center Fielder Austin Jackson led the Tigers in runs scored with two. That won't do against an Oakland Athletics team that lives up to its nickname by generating a ton of offensive firepower. The A's took third in the league with 186 home runs this season.
That's not to say that Detroit didn't also finish high in that category (176), but Justin Verlander, Scherzer, Fister, and the rest of the defense need more help than what they got this week. The first game of the Tigers-Athletics series is in Oakland on Friday, Oct. 4 at 9:37 p.m.
Otters Struggle to finish road trip Strong; NHL Puck Drops on Oct. 1
The Erie Otters won one of three games played this week, as they scored six goals in a visit to the Sarnia Sting. Team captain and Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Connor Brown led the effort with four assists and a goal. His linemate Connor McDavid had a goal and two assists and the Austrian sensation Andre Burakovsky (WSH) also scored a goal. Center Dane Fox contributed two goals as well, and fellow center Dylan Strome scored one.
The other two games were not quite as productive. The Otters lost to the Saginaw Spirit in Saginaw on Sept. 25 2-1. Goalie Oscar Dansk's .935 save percentage kept the Otters in that game. The offense's only goal came from left winger Michael Curtis on a power play. Erie went 1-for-7 on the power play, which is simply unacceptable.
The Otters' road game on Saturday, Sept. 28 was quite the opposite. A high-scoring game left the Otters wondering what hit them after an 8-4 shellacking from the Windsor Spitfires. The Otters gave Dansk (CBJ) a night off and played young goalie Devin Williams, who allowed eight goals on 34 shots for a dismal save percentage of .765. Goals were scored by Burakovsky, Brown, Curtis, and left winger Stephen Harper. The Otters' lone game this week is their home opener at the Erie Insurance Arena against the North Bay Battalion on Saturday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.
The first puck drop of the 2013-14 NHL Season takes place on Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. in an original six matchup: The Toronto Maple Leafs are visiting the Montreal Canadiens. The Buffalo Sabres start their season in Motor City against the Detroit Red Wings at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 2.
The NHL realignment has shaken up the eastern conference quite a bit. The southeastern division has been completely eliminated. The Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning are added into what used to be the Northeastern division, as are the Red Wings. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, and Ottawa Senators all remain in that division. All four teams made the playoffs last season, as did Detroit.
Buffalo will benefit from the addition of Florida and Tampa Bay, but Ryan Miller did not prove that he can still be the Sabres' hero and crutch in a full length season. In the lockout-shortened season of 48 games, Ryan Miller finished 19th in save percentage (.915) and 34th in goals against average (2.81). In order to be an elite goalie that can be relied on, he needs to get the percentage above .925 and get the GAA below two.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, on the other hand, appear to be in much better shape. Despite injuries to defenseman Kris Letang and backup goalie Tomas Vokoun, the Penguins do not face a true challenger in the Metropolitan Division. This division returns all five teams from what was formerly known as the Atlantic Division. The Penguins' rivalries with the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers will still be as lively as ever.
Two of the more complete teams from the southeast joined the Metropolitan Division: The Carolina Hurricanes are loaded with firepower in two of the Staal brothers, and Alexander Ovechkin keeps putting the Washington Capitals on his back season after season. The Columbus Blue Jackets, a very deep team that many seem to be overlooking, join the Metropolitan Division from the Western Conference as well.
However, if centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can stay healthy, the goal scoring for the Pens will still be thriving and the Penguins can take the Metropolitan Division. Without Vokoun, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will have to step up his game, but the Penguins' firepower makes his job much easier than Ryan Miller's. The Pens open their season on Thursday, Oct. 3 in the Consol Energy Center against the New Jersey Devils at 7 p.m.
Adam Unger can be contacted at aUnger@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Adam Unger28.