Shitheads Ahoy!

That's right, we're closing in on the Steelers first match-up with the famously overrated referee-blaming Ratbirds this Sunday. What's that? Ray Rice might be out? Oh heavens, that's just too, too bad.

After Joe Flacco sucked purple-clad ass for two weeks, Baltimore opened up the offensive floodgates on Sunday to eke out a one-score victory over the mighty Browns at home. If only Cleveland didn't do unspeakably retarded things like this:

they might have pulled off the upset. I mean, Cleveland got 144 rushing yards out of Peyton Fucking Hillis, aka Mike Alstott 2.0. Hillis only has one other 100-yard game in his career and it came in 2008 against the pre-Rex Ryan Jets. That's some stout run D, Bawlmer.

Of course, as underwhelming as the Ravens have been playing in this, their supposedly Super Bowl season, they'll be far from an easy victory. Let's not forget that Charlie Batch's last start prior to this past Sunday was a meaningless Week 17 loss in Baltimore at the end of 2007. And this will be the first contest between the two teams since Santonio Holmes left for greener and pussytubier pastures. Holmes, of course, was well known for his Ravens destroying prowess. Mike Wallace will have to step it up.

I know, I know. At a surprise 3-0, the Steelers are essentially playing with house money. A loss means they're still 3-1 when Roethlisberger returns. And that's a scenario any Steelers fan would have gladly taken before the season started. Normally, I'd be in the mood to settle, but Baltimore losing this game would not only be massively humiliating to them, but drops them already two games back in the AFC North with the Steelers just getting back to full strength. Do it.


3-0 And The Winning's Easy

Not gonna lie. I was concerned this was going to be a huge upset where the Steelers offense couldn't get anything going and the Buccaneers would get enough breaks on offense to pull out a victory.

It seemed to be playing by that script on the opening drive. On the second offensive play, Batch rolled out and threw it right to Aqid Talib, who was covering underneath Mike Wallace. A mindless interception and one that a veteran like Batch has no business throwing. Luckily the defense held tough to hold Tampa to a three and out and a field goal, preventing any early-onset panic on the Pittsburgh sideline.

Each team swapped possessions without a first down, then Batch, in direct defiance of me saying he's only effective from, at furthest 15-20 yards, hit Mike Wallace in the end zone with two defenders in the area. Luckily, the closest defender was rookie safety Cody Grimm, who couldn't find the ball and had his back completely turned when the ball landed in Wallace's hands.

Of course, Wallace would do it again on another deep pass that Talib could have made a play on in the end zone, but instead tipped to Wallace for a touchdown. By then, the Steelers offense had found a semblance of stability, and Batch would end the first half with another touchdown toss to Hines Ward. All told, Wallace finished with 100 yards receiving - mostly on those two catches - and Rashard Mendenhall ground out 143 yards on the ground.

There may be issues to find with any performance, no matter how dominating, but given the huge margin of victory, I'm willing to overlook any niggling problems. The offensive line didn't allow any sacks. The defense didn't let Tampa into the end zone until LaGarrette Blount plunged in on a 4th down with two minutes left in the game. Despite having been forced by the home team to sweat it out in the black jerseys in heat, the defense seldom showed any signs of fatigue. Troy couldn't get any officials interceptions, but he found a way to capture an errant pass by Josh Freeman nonetheless.

Most importantly of all, the running game proved it could simply retain possession and run the clock with a big lead in the second half. This has been something largely missing from the Steelers over the last few years. Even when the Steelers have been good in every other respect, they've struggled to kill games with the lead. That was not the case today with Mendenhall and Isaac Redman running it down the throats of Tampa in second half. If they could have done that in Super Bowl XLIII two years ago in that stadium, it would have never been a close game.

Honestly, other than the Batch pick on the first drive, the lowest point for me was the camera catching these folks in the stands.

Being bandwagon fan Texas is one thing, but emblazing your Roethlisberger jersey is inexcusable whatever your fan bona fides. Steelers haters would decry Pittsburgh fans horde taking over another road stadium, but hell this game was blacked out even with the tons of Steelers fans in attendance. Yeah, the Bucs weren't going to be a great team but they were still coming in 2-0. I guess when the weather is fair for both the Bucs and Rays, Tampa fans only have the time to pretend to support one.

Of course, with the win the Steelers will be at worst 3-1 when Ben Roethlisberger returns from suspension. After this week, a win over the Ravens, who once again failed to look impressive in a home win over the Browns, looks nowhere nearly as improbable as it did just a few weeks ago. It will take a hell of a performance by Pittsburgh and Joe Flacco turning over the ball as he is wont to do against the Steelers, but it can feasibly be done.

A possible 4-0 record and nothing more to worry about than the retarded knee-jerkery from national sports columnists musing whether the Steelers shouldn't just start Charlie Batch the rest of the season, even after Roethlisberger's return.


Charlie Batch Starts His First Meaningful Game Since The Merger

Because wins against the Bucs from 10 years ago still count for something, right?

Among the 2-0 teams entering Week 3, the Buccaneers and the Chiefs are pretty much neck and neck for the most derided or easily dismissed. Not that there isn't justification for that. Tampa almost certainly isn't a playoff team, though an upset win over the Steelers would make their path considerably easier. That and their two wins came at home against Cleveland and over a mediocre Panthers team whose play is made even more horrendous by the Delhomme-esque bumblings of the already benched Matt Moore.

For the most part, Tampa has been winning a lot like the Steelers have, by getting just enough points to ride a stingy defense to victory. While the Bucs have allowed quite a bit more yardage than the Steelers, they have only given up one more point through two weeks. It helps when you play a team like the Browns that is willing to fumble the ball repeatedly in the red zone, but again, the result is still the same, and it's not as though the Steelers didn't get the benefit of a few of those against the Titans.

While Tampa's offense came into the season looking to be a huge joke with Kellen Winslow as its only option in the passing game, it's been, well, slightly less of a joke than anticipated. Josh Freeman has the 10th best passer rating in the league through two weeks, putting him one space ahead of Aaron Rodgers. I know the Steelers have shown an aptitude for correcting that kind of statistical mistake, the way they did last week with Vince Young, who entered Week 2 as the NFL's top rated passer.

What worries me about this game is the need for a big splash play early on. Pittsburgh struck paydirt with the Antonio Brown return on the opening kick off last week and never looked back. Of course, they never another touchdown the rest of a game, though a Mike Wallace TD catch was overturned by a holding penalty. I imagine both teams will come out with an array of gadget attempts early on in hopes of gaining that initial full score advantage. One thing thankfully the Steelers have not had to do so far this season is come back from a deficit. The most the Steelers have trailed by all season is three points, hardly a daunting figure to overcome.

As far as the torrid debate between starting Byron Leftwich or Charlie Batch... eh, I guess I prefer that Batch is the one going. Not that there's an incredible difference between the two at this point, but at least I know Batch is fully healthy, which means it might take multiple hits for the other team to put him on IR for the season. Kidding aside, Batch looked okay despite his numbers last week. There were two or three throws that could have been completions if the receivers had made better plays on the ball. With a full week of practice with the first team, rather than abruptly being thrown into the game in the second half, Batch should perform better. And who knows, maybe the Steelers might even get a passing touchdown sometime before Roethlisberger returns. It would be kind of hilarious if it came on a trick play for Randle El.

Tampa safety Tanard Jackson this week was suspended for the season for the second violation of the league's substance abuse policy, meaning that Russ Grimm's son, Cody, gets his first career start. Cody was a seventh round pick who played exclusively on special teams the first two weeks of the season, so it's pretty safe to assume the Steelers will be targeting whoever he'll be covering on more than a few plays.

The Tampa running game is off to a laughably bad start. If the Steelers put the reins on Chris Johnson last week only to let Cadillac Williams (so far averaging 2.6 yards per carry) run wild, then they more than deserve any letdown that would come with a loss. Of course, it's the letdown scare after a pair of crucial wins that concerns me. The Bucs are far from a great team, but the Steelers are walking a tight rope by asking the defense to hold the opposition to about 10 points a week to win. Yes, the Bucs offense, especially the running game, is nothing spectacular, but freak plays happen and one getting through shouldn't be enough to beat your football team, with or without its starting quarterback.

The one advantage Leftwich brings that Batch doesn't is that Lefty at least throws a decent deep ball, while Batch maxes his throws out at about 15-20 yards. The worst the Tampa defense has to worry about is mid-range throws to Mike Wallace, which means they will be able to play up the way Tennessee's was late last week. Unfortunately, this means the Steelers scoring drives will have to be of the 10-play variety. That is, unless the defense feels the need to score the points necessary to win. Not expected, but I certainly wouldn't put it past them, either.


Steelers Greatly Impede Chris Johnson's 2,500-Yard Pace

Antonio Brown gave the Steelers their first kickoff return for a touchdown since Allen Rossum took one back against the 49ers early in the 2007 season. With the defense forcing seven turnovers, that would have been enough to win the game until Kerry Collins hit Nate Washington for a late garbage time touchdown to get the Titans within eight points of tying the game.

There are low notes to grouse about with this game if you're in the market for some: Trai Essex left with an injury, adding to the offensive line difficulties the Steelers have at left tackle at least the next few weeks, as did Dennis Dixon, which will make for a curious scenario at starting quarterback next week. Charlie Batch didn't look horrible under center. On a few plays, he was let down by a receiver unable to haul in a makeable catch.

These are mere quibbles, of course. If the overtime victory over the Falcons ensured that the Steelers wouldn't be behind the eight ball when Roethlisberger returns in Week 6, this win means Pittsburgh will almost certainly have charted a course for a playoff run by the time Ben's suspension ends. As I said in the preview, I didn't have high hopes for a victory and that the defense would have to force a host of mistakes for that to happen.

Was I too fulsome in my praise for Vince Young? Probably, though I think he's still played very well of late and was surprised that Jeff Fisher has such a short leash with his starter in this game. Ultimately, I think VY will be fine. It's just that the Steelers defense is that good again this season. I mean, they just held Chris Johnson to 2.1 yards per carry, not to mention under 100 yards in a game for the first time since Week 5 of last season.

Two salient graphics that kept coming up in the course of the game were that the Steelers had been 1-8 at Tennessee. LP Field and its predecessor have certainly been difficult places to play, no doubt, though I was partial to this second statistic:

Didn't feel like Photoshopping the change to 18-3, but feel free to use your imagination.

Pretty telling that so far this season Polamalu and McFadden have all the interceptions by the secondary. LaMarr Woodley is also to be commended for baiting Young into a bad throw over the middle that Woodley made a great snag on. If Woodley can be counted on for better pass coverage, that's a frightening prospect for opposing offenses.

Will have to watch the game again to be sure, but I didn't come away with a sense that Jonathan Scott or Tony Hills stood out over the other at left tackle. Fortunately, again, Starks isn't out as long as once thought. That and the Steelers have Tampa Bay next week. I was intrigued how much Isaac Redman was used at fullback, especially after David Johnson had that superb block to free Mendenhall in overtime last week.

[Superstitious reminder to myself that Tampa is 2-0 and you shouldn't take any team lightly]



This, of course, was the play where the Titans hit Dixon on the blind side and forced a fumble when the Steelers could have taken a two-score lead within the first few minutes. Or even not almost allowed Tennessee to tie the game. Such an inane playcall.


Cortland Finnegan was bullshitting this week about how his goal is to unseat Hines as the NFL's dirtiest play. I'd argue he's well on his way after this dick move on the Steelers first drive. Not sure exactly how this is an off-setting penalty when the Titans initiate the fight by swinging the ball in Hines' face then twisting his facemask around. But then Jeff Fisher's team always engages in shit like this, yet no ever cares about the Titans enough for it to stick as their reputation.


Youch. Vince Young was pulled from the game not long after this hit. Granted, he had turned the ball over twice by that point, and would be stripped by James Harrison a few minutes later, but I wonder if he was showing any effects from that hit? I haven't seen any rumblings of him suffering a concussion.


Does He Have Getting Away From The Steelers Speed?

I spent a decent chunk of my evening yesterday writing this piece for SB Nation about how Vince Young is no longer worthy of ridicule, at least for his play on the field. The shirtless clubbing, suicidal disappearing acts and punching people because they flash him an upside down "Hook 'Em Horns" gesture, however, are still fair game.

The Steelers have only played the Titans twice since VY was drafted in '06 and both have come in the last two seasons when Kerry Collins was enjoying his final stint as a starting quarterback in the NFL. While this could present an advantage for the Steelers, since Young has yet to go against Dick LeBeau's vast array of blitzing packages, the unfortunate recent history the Steelers defense has had against running quarterbacks like Michael Vick has me a little concerned that that negates that edge.

Young had the top passer rating of all QBs last week in manhandling the Raiders. He even hit dropsyhands Nate Washington for a nice 56-yard touchdown to notch the Titans first score in the opening frame. While he did lose a fumble,

Of course, stopping Young and possibly everything short of Dennis Dixon not repeatedly turning the ball over is secondary to trying to stop Chris Johnson. The Steelers held Cop Speed to 15 carries for 57 yards in the 2009 opener, which would up being his second worst performance of last season, his worst being a nine-carry, 34 yard performance against the Colts in Week 5.

The key to those figures is that they both came with Collins as the starter at QB. Not only is Young playing better than he has at any point in his pro career, his ability to run makes it more difficult to defense the Titans running game. With Collins, you can stack the box on pretty much any formation where the team isn't spreading its receivers and you're not going to get burned particularly badly. Casey Hampton will probably be out and be missed some, but Chris Hoke always proves a more than capable back-up when Big Snack is gone. Jonathan Scott starting at left tackle, however, is a scenario I'm a lot more worried about.

As it was last week, the key to the Steelers winning is not allowing touchdowns. Roddy White might have had a huge statistical game, but Matt Ryan's rating was significantly lower throwing to him than any of his other receivers. The same principle is true this week. The Steelers would obviously much rather deal with VY breaking off the occasional 15-yard run than Chris Johnson beating them for a 76-yard touchdown. Johnson will likely get his numbers, but as long as they don't come in huge scoring chunks like they did last week, this is a game the Steelers can win.

Dixon struggled with all of his sideline passes last week and was finally able to start moving the offense when the playcalling focused on working the middle of the field. Oh, and not skipping passes into the dirt. I wouldn't be surprised if forcing sidelline throws weren't a huge part of the Titans defensive gameplan.

That said, I think this is the most difficult game the Steelers face in Roethlisberger's absence. Even more so than the Ravens in two weeks. I can't say I'm expecting a win, but I see the possibility of one if things fall the right way. Maybe Dixon can shake off some of the jitters he admitted to having at the beginning of last week's game and put together an entirely solid performance. While Vince Young is improved, he isn't exactly an elite QB yet either. He's capable of being forced into costly mistakes. Turning him into the VY of old and the Steelers could put themselves in amazing position to start their season.


Dennis Dixon Proved He Has Good A Supporting Cast

Any rational Steelers fan knew that a victory wasn't going to come easy against a talented Falcons team, even at Heinz Field. Had the Falcons been able to jump to an early lead, there's the possibility they could have run away with the game. But the Steelers defense looked as revitalized, consistent for 60+ minutes and as opportunistic as the 2008 version.

Dennis Dixon made the errors that were expected after his disastrous outing against the Broncos with the first-team offense in the preseason. Luckily, he was only made to pay dearly for one of them. Two other passes could or should have been intercepted by the Falcons, but then those kind of bounces happen within any game. Matt Ryan was fortunate not to have another pick that caromed off the stones hands of William Gay in the second half.

It was an all-too familiar scene in the second half: Steelers held a lead in the 4th quarter, but stopped Atlanta short of a go-ahead touchdown. When the Steelers offense couldn't get back the lead, the Falcons took back the ball with about two minutes remaining. Were this 2009, this would be the part when they methodically drove for an excruciating field goal to win. But sorry, Troy's back.

The Steelers didn't come away unscathed on the injury front. Casey Hampton left in the first half with the hamstring injury and didn't return. Max Starks suffered a high ankle sprain late in the second half. Both these injuries are likely to cause both of these players to miss at least a few weeks, which is unfortunate but not cataclysmic. Likely Flozell Adams will be moved back to his natural position of left tackle for Starks' absence, while the defensive front didn't take a huge step back with Hampton out.

Forgetting a couple contributors going down for a few weeks, there's a lot to feel good about with this victory. For starters, it was their most winnable game of the three other than the gimmie against the Buccaneers. This meant it was an essential game to win if the Steelers want to be at least .500 when Ben Roethlisberger returns in Week 6.

The pass protection was very encouraging for the most part. Max Starks was beaten badly on one play by John Abraham. Other than that, Dennis Dixon was usually given more than enough time to throw. If the Steelers can count on much the same once Roethlisberger returns, they'll be in great shape.

An outstanding block made by David Johnson sprang Rashard Mendenhall on his 50-yard game winner. Up to that point, Mendenhall had been having a pretty decent game. Broke off a few eight to 12 yard runs. Granted, the Falcons were expectantly loading the box with big fronts, so it's not like it was going to be easy going for Mendy. No fumbles means good things in these incredibly tight opening weeks with Dixon.

It's been the norm for what seems like three or four years now, but people predicting Hines Ward suffering a huge drop-off just never comes to pass. Maybe it's a desire to prove himself in front of his hometown fans in Georgia, but he always seems to have his biggest game against the Falcons. Remember that in the road loss in 2006, he posted 171 yards receiving and three touchdowns. He might not have been able to get into the endzone on Sunday, but his six catches for 108 yards were central to all the key drives in the second half.

Jeff Reed had a decidedly mixed day, though he showed perhaps more leg strength than he has at any point in his career. I was baffled when the team even bothered to attempt 52- and 55-yard kicks at Heinz Field, but he nailed the first and certainly had the distance for the second before knocking it off the upright. Of course, there's no excusing his missing a potential game-winning 40-yarder. Not really the kind of thing you want to do after pitching a fit about not getting a contract extension before the season starts.

Next week in Tennessee presents an interesting challenge. The Titans looked dominant against what is supposed to be an improved Oakland team. Vince Young looks like what Dennis Dixon might with four years of seasoning. So barring the defense forcing VY into a few critical mistakes, it might be difficult to come away with a win. If any defense is capable of meeting the challenge of Chris Johnson, it's the Steelers. Pittsburgh held Michael Turner to barely over two yards per carry on Sunday. While all it doesn't take much of a mistake to give Cop Speed a breakaway run, remember that the Steelers did an admirable job of bottling him up for 15 carries for 57 yards in the '09 opener.


The True Test of Dennis Dixon

The Steelers chances to win on Sunday against the Falcons are more likely dependent on whether the defense to return to its overpowering form of two seasons ago than if Dennis Dixon exceeds his only other career start, a worthy performance in an overtime loss last season in Baltimore.

Dixon, however, can absolutely torpedo the Steelers' hopes in a hurry. Not to sounds overly pessimistic, but Dixon's woeful performance with the first team offense in the third preseason game did a lot to dash the stoked expectations that lingered since the November game in M&T Bank Stadium. Best case scenario is that the turd he laid in Denver turn out to be an instructive disaster that keeps Dixon from needlessly forcing passes on the opponent's side of the field, but until I actually see that materialize, I can't say I'm looking forward to anything but a conservative approach and maybe a few well executed scrambles and screens.

Some people, including Jerome Bettis, have argued that Charlies Batch should have been made the Week 1 starter because if Dixon struggles and is eventually pulled, it will have proven destructive to his confidence. That'd be a fine argument if Dixon were a rookie, but the guy is in his third year in the league. He's already started a critical game. At some point, you have to stop coddling and figure out what type of player you've got on your hands. Better to figure out now that Dixon is or is not capable of leading this team than string both the player and the organization on with faint hopes that he will develop at some undefined point in the future.

The Falcons come in missing Jonathan Babineaux and Michael Jenkins. Babineaux's absence due to suspension in particular helps the Steelers, as Rashard Mendenhall will have to be grind out regular four- and five-yards gains against stacked defensive fronts. Atlanta has Hugh Douglas ready to replace Jenkins and some people are of the opinion that Douglas is actually better than Jenkins anyway, so that doesn't pose any great benefit to the Steelers, except maybe the quality of slot receiver they've have to face in multi-receiver sets.

The Steelers are at home and have a nice string of Week 1 victories going, not having lost their opener since 2002. Atlanta is certainly more than capable of snapping that streak. The Falcons were similar to the Steelers last season: a talented team with expectations that was ultimately beset by critical injuries. And while they face a few absences, they aren't starting a quarterback, who, while talented, has shown in his brief experience to have a tendency for critical turnovers.

I'll be interested to see how much Bruce Arians opens up the playbook for Dixon or if the approach will be more or less identical to how the offense was run against the Ravens last year. Dixon has had another full off-season of work with the offense and far more time to prepare for the opposition than the few days he got last year before being forced to start at the last minute.

The Steelers defense has the capability to carry the team to victories in any of their first four weeks before Roethlisberger returns and I'm excited to watch them back at their attacking best with Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith back. The offense just has to get points when they are there, even if that means settling for threes. More importantly, Dixon and Mendenhall have to not commit turnover that could lead to Atlanta leads that the young QB probably can't come back from.


Quarterback Sitaution Takes Both A Predictable And Unpredictable Turn

Ben looking a little too pleased with Leftwich's injury. He's still set on evil!

Roger Goodell decreased Ben Roethlisberger's suspension from six to four games, which is only surprising if you failed to fully understand how his punishment was initially structured. Of course, some people are caught up in their own dim sense of outrage, saying Goodell should stick by his original stance. This argument ignores that Goodell's "original stance" laid out the stipulation that if Roethlisberger met certain conditions - counseling, better outward behavior - the suspension would be reduced.

Ever since the conditional suspension was handed down, it's been presumed that, barring another monstrous fuck-up (never entirely out of the realm of possibility) by Roethlisberger, it would end up being four games. A month ago, Goodell removed any doubt by praising Ben for going "above and beyond" in his efforts to improve his image.

So yay! See in at Heinz Field against Cleveland in Week 6. Have fun practicing without the team.

In more immediate matters, Byron Leftwich went down last night against the Panthers with what is now believed to a second-degree MCL sprain. Not sure what his recovery timetable will ultimately be, but he will almost certainly miss the opener against the Falcons, meaning Dennis Dixon will almost certainly get the start.

There has been some pushing for Charlie Batch to get consideration for a start, but veteran or not, the guy hasn't taken a single snap with the starting offense in the preseason. He probably got very few, if any, during training camp. He threw all of two passes during the 2009 season, which means fewer than Dennis Dixon. I don't care if he played well in Roethlisberger's absence in the 2006 season and has looked decent against scrubs during this preseason, there's no way Batch gets to start unless Dixon too gets hurt.

I wonder now if the coaches were being overly cautious with Dixon last night. He didn't get much playing time after Leftwich left the game. On one hand, after seeing the presumptive starter go down you probably want to improve Dixon's confidence and get him more reps after the dreadful outing he had in Denver (he did throw a nice TD pass last night) but you also don't want to risk another injury.

Dixon starting certainly makes for a more volatile and potentially exciting offense than with Leftwich. Of course, it also carries the threat of the mindless turnovers that we saw against Denver. I'm not sure exactly what to expect, other than the Steelers running the ball a lot. At the same time, hey, it's a week and half longer than he got to prepare against the Ravens last year.