Hill pleased with progress, optimistic for season

640550.jpg

Hill pleased with progress, optimistic for season

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After undergoing Tommy John surgery last June, Rich Hill won't be ready to start the season on April 5. But he doesn't expect to be sidelined much longer than a month after the season opener.

"Absolutely, no doubt about it,'' said Hill. "We look at March 1 and two months away from there . . . that's a lot of time in my mind. So I think that's absolutely possible.''

Hill is not alone in his optimism. Signed to a minor league deal over the winter, the Red Sox purchased his contract and added him to the 40-man roster earlier this week, weeks before Hill's opt-out clause would have forced a decision.

The message was obvious: The Red Sox believe that Hill will be healthy, and sooner rather than later.

"I think all the work I put in is paying off,'' said Hill.

Hill could be a valuable weapon for the Sox. In limited playing time last season, he held opposing lefties to a .115 (3-for-26) batting average.

For now, however, Hill is focused on his recovery and completing his rehabilitation.

"I just had my fourth bullpen today,'' said Hill. "There aren't any breaking balls or changeups yet. We're working changeups on flat ground. Breaking balls are probably a week-and-a-half away. Long toss is unrestricted. I think now it's a matter of building up endurance off the mound and keep working on repetition of mechanics.

"For the fourth time off the mound, I'm really pleased with how it's been going. The elbow is feeling stronger.''

Hill has progressed so far that the toughest challenge is resisting the urge to speed up his program. But that would put his recovery in jeopardy, and tough as it is, he must be patient.

"I feel like I could have thrown live BP today,' he said. "However, you don't want to go out there and risk anything. Everyone I've talked to says, 'Do the best that you can at the stage you're at and move on.' ''

Should Hill be ready to pitch for the Sox on May 1, his recovery time will be just shy of 11 months. Since he's not starting -- and in fact, will be used mostly as a lefty specialist, tasked with facing only a batter or two -- he needn't worry about getting stretched out to 90-100 pitches, the way Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey, two other Sox pitchers who are coming off Tommy John, must.

Once he begins using his entire repertoire, Hill must guard against any setbacks. It's not unusual for pitchers close to the rehab finish line to experience soreness after throwing breaking pitches for the first time in 10 or so months.

"I'm expecting to feel good,'' he said, "but I haven't had a day where I have to take step back. That could still happen.''

Hill has a decision of sorts to make soon -- whether to use the low three-quarter delivery he used with great effectiveness the previous two seasons or return to a more conventional over-the-top delivery.

"Obviously, over-the-top is the way I threw when I was a starter'' said Hill. "That's not going to be my role here, starting. As soon as we start throwing breaking balls and full bullpens, from there I'll probably decide which route to take.''

Dr. James Andrews, who pioneered the Tommy John procedure and performed it on Hill, assured him that the lower arm angle was not the cause of the ligament tear.

In the meantime, all the rehab work and arm exercises Hill has done has had some unintended consequences in that it also served to strengthen his shoulder and entire body.

"Everything benefits,'' he said. "Overall, your whole body is stronger.''

Tomlin calls Patriots 'a--holes' in speech Antonio Brown posts on Facebook

Tomlin calls Patriots 'a--holes' in speech Antonio Brown posts on Facebook

Showing a knee-buckling lack of self-awareness, Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown put up 13:35 of footage on Facebook Live after his team’s 18-16 win over Kansas City on Sunday night.

It was a weird betrayal of the team’s privacy by one of its star players. Brown, allowed viewers to see live (and on tape until it’s inevitably taken down) that, while head coach Mike Tomlin was around a bank of lockers addressing what Tomlin presumed was his entire team, Brown was mugging in front of his phone for a growing online audience.

RELATED

The video starts with Brown and teammates having fun in front of their lockers. As the team is called together for a postgame prayer, Brown keeps the camera rolling. After the prayer, Tomlin made a statement.

“When you get to this point in the journey, not a lot needs to be said,” said Tomlin. “Let’s say very little moving forward. Let’s start our preparations. We spotted those a******* a day and a half. They played yesterday. Our game got moved to tonight. We gonna touch down at 4 o’clock in the f****** morning. So be it. We’ll be ready for that ass. But you ain’t gotta tell them we coming. Because some of us might not like the damn (woofkisses?) The chest pounding.  Keep a low profile.”

While Tomlin was issuing that low-profile request, Brown rolled on. Another Steeler then spoke up saying, “Keep cool on social media, this is about us, nobody else.”

Finally, what sounded like quarterback Ben Roethlisberger addressed the team saying of Foxboro, “That’s a lion’s den we’re going into this week. It’s a lion’s den. I’ve been there, a lot of us have been there. Keep your mouth shut.”

While people might fan themselves over Tomlin calling the Patriots a*******, that’s benign and likely will be matched in private by Patriots coaches this week.

What’s staggering is that a player of Brown’s ability and seeming intelligence would be so self-absorbed as to be agog at putting on a video show for Facebook followers at the expense of his coaches, teammates and franchise.  

Curran: Steelers survive, advance to AFC Championship Game vs. Patriots

steelers-ben-roethlesberger.jpg

Curran: Steelers survive, advance to AFC Championship Game vs. Patriots

For the third time in the Belichick-Brady Era, the Patriots will be trying to step over the Steelers to get to a Super Bowl.

Pittsburgh went into Kansas City on Sunday night and outlasted a breathtakingly sluggish Chiefs team, 18-16.

RELATED

If you spent the day stewing about the Patriots adequate-against-Osweiler-but-probably-nobody-else offensive performance Saturday night, maybe Sunday night calmed your nerves.

Despite having a more than 2-to-1 edge in total yards entering the fourth, Pittsburgh had managed just six field goals from kicker Chris Boswell. Their best chance at getting six on the board was squelched when Ben Roethlisberger got picked at the goal line in the first half.

That Kansas City was even in the game with a chance to tie it in the final three minutes has to be humbling for the Steelers. They dominated every statistical category of consequence while the Chiefs played aimlessly behind Alex Smith, who may be a cut above Brock Osweiler but is definitely a cut below every other quarterback in the Divisional Playoff round.  

On this night, Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t much better.

Still, Pittsburgh’s got the best 1-2 punch in the NFL at running back and receiver – LeVeon Bell and Antonio Brown were both at 101 yards after halftime – and New England’s entire defensive game plan will revolve around corralling those two and getting them horizontal.

The Patriots beat a Roethlisberger-less team in October, 27-16. Landry Jones was at quarterback that day.

The Steelers were in the Patriots’ red zone four times. They came away with 10 points. They were inside the Patriots’ 40 six times and finished with 16.

“In an offense like that with a bunch of very explosive players, one slant can turn into a touchdown so you have to be really careful in your coverages,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich told me after that game. "There’s not just one go-to guy. They got a running back that can catch it out of the backfield and make plays (Le’Veon Bell). [Antonio Brown] can catch it anywhere on the field and make plays. You just have to make sure with a guy like [Landry Jones] to have him make the throws. It’s hard in this league to be perfect. So to have him sit back there and try to make all the throws was what we chose and the secondary did a great job.”

Bell and Brown combined for 268 yards from scrimmage against the Patriots.

The Steelers scored one touchdown.

The ever-dawdling Bell, who practically walks to the line of scrimmage then skips around like a little kid with a full bladder before finding a crease to exploit, is where it will start for the Patriots.

If the Patriots are going to go to their seventh Super Bowl since Belichick’s hire, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Donta Hightower and Elandon Roberts – their two best interior linemen and their two inside linebackers – will be the ones who start the bus. The overwhelming majority of Bell’s runs are between the guards so building a wall and out-patienting him as he probes for a crease is Job One.

The Chiefs weren’t stout enough at the line of scrimmage and Bell brutalized them. It will, of course, fall to more than just those four. Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Vincent Valentine and Shea McLellin will also be in focus. Run-support from safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will be a part of it as well, but that’s where the Steelers become tough to deal with.

Once Bell’s established himself, the Steelers can start to work play-action and get Brown into space. Creep too far and the numbers on the back end could wind up being insufficient to deal with one of the NFL’s fastest players.

That’s why you can expect the Patriots to not overexert themselves with pressures and blitzes against Ben Roethlisberger. They’ll want as many back in coverage as possible to deal with Brown and some of the other Steelers speed merchants.

The Patriots have dealt with Pittsburgh’s defense enough to know where to attack. LeGarrette Blount ran for 127 yards on 24 carries in the first meeting and

Tom Brady went 19 for 26 for 222 with two touchdowns.

The Patriots had Gronk that day and the Steelers didn’t have Roethlisberger. That tips the scales some when measuring the differences. But after watching Pittsburgh kick six field goals and keep afloat an underperforming Chiefs team, the issue that dogged them in October – red zone offense – looks like its still around.

And they are going to visit a team that does that led the NFL in preventing points.