Point Blank – August 18
Is this the season for the Steeler LBs to emerge (though it won’t be the night for the to happen)…Jose Fernandez has been a fish out of water on the road, though the markets still don’t reflect it…
The NFL is back on the field tonight with a host of pre-season games, including something that we can work into our investment pockets, and it just so happens that the focus team today on our training camp tour is involved in the sequence. It is a Good News/Bad News column for Steeler fans, first dealing with the upside that the young LB corps could start to bring into full evidence this season, but then the fact that there will not be much of that visible this evening.
As our special tribute week to the Tragically Hip continues, leading to the final stages of what has been a remarkably well-done final bow across Canada, tonight in Ottawa and then Saturday’s finale in Kingston, today it will be “Long Time Running”, one that not just brings another of those Gord Downie’s murals of the human existence (in this case of a relationship gone bad), but also one in which someone in the Winnipeg crowd two weeks ago was fortunate enough to video from an angle that makes for a beautiful juxtaposition -
We don't go anywhere
Just on trips
We haven't seen a thing
We still don't know where it is
Item: Are the Steelers building another curtain?
The big focus for most of the Sports Mediaverse as 2016 approaches is the terrific cast of characters Pittsburgh has in the skill positions, and how often they can get all of those hands on deck is indeed a big story. Put the full group out there and it is likely the NFL’s best, but that did not happen often enough across the 2015 schedule, and won’t this time either. But there is another major storyline to follow on the other side of the ball, and it could lead to a breakout for a LB corps that they are trying to build in a particular image, and the seeds planted may be ready to start producing fruit.
Having dominant and athletic LBs has been the major part of the Steeler defense through the years, Chuck Noll winning Super Bowls with the Ham-Lambert-Russell trio in a traditional 4-3, and then the Cowher/Tomlin cycle looking for a different prototype out of their 3-4 sets. After the defense fell a few pegs there was a concerted effort to bring that part of the game back, since it is essential in the Tomlin schemes, and it led to three straight years of spending a #1 draft pick at the position, Jarvis Jones (Georgia, 2013), Ryan Shazier (Ohio State, 2014) and Bud Dupree (Kentucky, 2015). It wasn’t just about particular football performance with those three, but also the fact that they can run. So now comes 2016…
Jones has been an underachiever, so much so that the team declined a fifth-year option for him, which means free agency at the end of the season. The move comes from two directions, one being a football reality related to performance, but the second being whether it lights a fire for him to improve. From DC Keith Butler, who has been with the team for 14 years - “That's the reason why we did it. We like Jarvis. There is nothing wrong with putting him in that situation. Sure, if he was a Pro Bowler, we would get all the stuff sewn up, but he hasn't done that. I would rather put him in (this) situation to see how he responds.”
The story is much different with Shazier and Dupree. They are not just players that have already shown the ability produce at their positions, but also bring an athleticism that allows for a layer of complexity to be added to the playbook. But it can take some time – Shazier has missed 11 games to injury over his first two seasons, while Dupree was only able to work his way into the starting lineup five times as a rookie.
Let’s go back to Butler for a take on Shazier, and in particular note that aspect of a player being “on schedule” at the position in the Pittsburgh schemes - “I think all of us should have that expectation (Pro Bowl) for him. He's shown the ability to move probably better than anybody that I've seen at that position. So he's gonna continue to learn, and I've always said that for a linebacker, probably the most productive years are years three and four. (From those years) through seven or eight, that's where knowledge of the game and talent are usually melded most at that time.”
The learning curve for Dupree, who can run a 4.5 despite being 6-4/269, also has an arc that Butler discussed in a way that the student of football can relate to - “He's got to have go-to moves that he's going to use in certain situations when he's not even thinking about it. Usually, the good pass rushers have one or two moves like that they can use when everything is happening so fast around them and they're not even thinking about it. They just use it.”
Dupree is already aware of that, and showed up at camp lighter than the 269 listed, and ready to go to work - “Double-digit sacks — that's the goal. Getting double-digit sacks means that you are just at a different level. That's the goal for me. … I added some things and am better at things. You've got to have that move that is your go-to move. (But) then you gotta have some counter-moves. I learned that.”
This is a situation not just of the ability of the individual players, but how they can connect together. One of the things that Tomlin/Butler are doing in the 2016 camp is moving Dupree and Jones around, which can create favorable matchups. Might that also light the fire that can turn the career of the latter around?
What the Steelers do on offense is easily visible, and will be out there for all to see. Watching that LB corps develop will take some diligence, but that is where the shrewd handicapper may find some edges. Just don’t expect to see all that much of them tonight…
In the Sights, Thursday NFL…
The Steelers saw their 2015 season come to an earlier end than the Super Bowl because of injuries in those skill positions, Fitz Toussaint forced to be the ball carrier on a fourth quarter drive in Denver when the Bronco Super Bowl run could have been quashed in the playoffs opening round. As such the big focus for Tomlin is to avoid any injuries to those positions in the pre-season, and it creates even more than the high degree of disdain he has had for recent August scoreboards – over the last 3+ season it has been a 2-12 run for Pittsburgh in these games, with eight of the losses coming in double figures. Tomlin has already declared all of his key cogs in the offensive skill positions out tonight, which sets up #401 Philadelphia (7:00 Eastern), with some low-vig +3 still out there in the morning trading.
Tomlin, as always, is blunt - “I know what Ben is capable of. I've worked with him for a decade now. He showed up in tremendous condition, and he's performed well. He's obviously a veteran. What's required for him to be ready to play might be different than others. My job is to give everybody what they need to be ready to go. I just believe that the reps are better served to be given to guys like Landry Jones and Dustin Vaughan. It won't hurt Ben by not getting them.”
It isn’t just a case of the players missing for the Steelers being so good, it is also how limited the back-ups are. Landry Jones is a #3 QB that gets the #2 role for the franchise, and with Bruce Gradkowski injured that leaves a lot of playing time for non-prospect Dustin Vaughan, in his first year with the team after being released by Dallas. That matters, because in the transition to a new scheme under Jim Schwarz the Eagles are not just going through the motions on defense, but using the pre-season to get players fully up to speed. They held Tampa Bay to nine points last week, while coming up with five turnovers and four sacks, and that included multiple possessions from Jameis Winston, and a Buccaneer back-up QB rotation of Mike Glennon/Ryan Griffin that is better than Jones/Vaughan.
Meanwhile there will also be more work from the Philadelphia first team offense tonight. Doug Pederson only gave Sam Bradford and the starters a single series last week, but they will play into the second quarter, and possibly the entire first half here. I also like Chase Daniel better than Jones, and while the hope is that McLeod Bethel-Thompson would not see much time, he is still better than Vaughan.
And it will not just be football on the ticket…
In the Sights, Thursday MLB…
The markets have gotten a little silly in Cincinnati today, over-rating the Marlins; under-rating the Reds (18-12 since the All Star break); over-rating Jose Fernandez; and under-rating Dan Straily. It takes all of that for Pinny’s opener of -153 to reach -180, and -190 is already showing in a key precinct (CGT in Nevada). I will take a combination approach, splitting a position between one-third Straight/two-thirds Run Line on #956 Cincinnati (7:10 Eastern). Make +155 and -1.5 -120 the limits on the value meter.
The Marlins post an average lineup, perhaps even a tick below, without Giancarlo Stanton. Fernandez is carrying a reputation despite an 8-13/3.83 career tally on the road, and now pitches for the first time in 10 days, which can impact his rhythm, especially having only worked 30.1 innings since July 8. Even if he brings his best stuff there is a “Utility” aspect being missed by the marketplace. Don Mattingly’s plan for his ace is a smart one, with no intention of Hernandez seeing the 8th inning in a game this season, and in half of his starts he did not work the 7th. That lessens his game impact, which is significant, especially with a pedestrian bullpen for those latter stages. It is not nearly the dominating package being priced, and note that with a -1.5 attached the Marlins would only be 3-6 in the Fernandez road starts this season.
Meanwhile there isn’t anything special about Dan Straily’s stuff, which helps us from a market sex appeal standpoint, but he keeps throwing strikes and competing – the Reds have won his last six starts, and that does boost a team’s confidence level. Straily in particular helps to fit the Run Line equation – he has only walked four batters over his last four starts, and if you throw strikes and force the Marlins to score via contact, it helps to prevent a game from breaking open.
Yet there is still the matter of the Cincinnati bullpen to deal with, which makes the Run Line a bigger part of the equation than the outright ticket. Closer Tony Cingrani has thrown 32 pitches over back-to-back games, and also threw 22 at Milwaukee on Sunday, and that is why I would like to be in a position to have made a profit if the Reds lose by a single run (they are 17-23 in one-run games this season).
U.S. Election 2016 Power Rating: Democrats -700
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