10.30.2011

The Steelers Finally Have An Answer For Brady

I'm gonna be upfront - I had little faith that the Steelers could knock off the Patriots. Recent history has given little indication that Dick LeBeau had been willing to abandon the zone-heavy strategies that resulted in a host of humiliating Steelers losses to New England. Even in the best of seasons for the Pittsburgh defense, Brady had been able to make them look wanting. How could they, minus James Farrior and James Harrison, with William Gay starting, hope for a different outcome this time around?

Now, of course, we have our answer. LeBeau proved willing to radically change the approach of his defense and the payoff was monumental. By all accounts, the Steelers played more man and press coverage than they had at probably any point in LeBeau's tenure. It makes sense that that would lead to more pressure on Brady. Give receivers free release and Brady is going to find someone to check it off to before the rush gets there. Obviously the danger is that a big play can occur if a corner gets beat badly off the press. The problem for the Patriots is now that they lack a Randy Moss type that can beat any DB in single coverage. Think Deion Branch or Chad Ochocinco can dominate an aggressive corner? Not likely.

Of course, when LaMarr Woodley left the game with a hamstring injury, this strategy started to wane in effectiveness. Down their two best outside pass rushers, Brady had tons of time to throw. There was more than a few dropbacks where Brady had five seconds and still couldn't find a target. So today was a huge win for a secondary that is mostly maligned aside from Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

It wasn't only the defense that stymied Brady. A Pittsburgh attack that was able to consistently put together long drives - only one punt all game - kept the Patriots with limited opportunities to score. At the same time, the Steelers allowed New England to hang around closer than the stats would show. For starters, the Patriots got the one turnover which led directly to points. The Steelers offense also couldn't apply the kill shot when given multiple chances in the second half. The Cowboys saw what happens when you toy with New England and give them chances to close the gap late. This almost caught up with the Steelers as well, but thankfully the Pats fell short enough that they were never realistically in position to grab the win.

A lot of things have come together since the dreadful start to the season. Ben Roethlisberger has resolved most of the accuracy issues (the bad INT today not withstanding), the Max Starks signing amazingly stabilized a horrid offensive line and the run defense is, if not as dominating as last season, certainly not a liability. This win was key for the Steelers season in innumerable ways. Maybe even more so than if the Steelers had only beaten the Ravens over this two-game stretch. Because the Patriots have always been the litmus test that showed the Steelers were just short of the class of the league. I don't mean to say that this win alone elevates Pittsburgh to the definitive top of the conference, even if it did in the de jure standings. It simply means that there is no longer a challenge that we know that the Steelers absolutely cannot overcome. Maybe there wasn't one before, but the Pats sure seemed like one.

There were a few bad calls that went the Steelers way in this game. As is typically the case, this has brought out only the saddest of the officiating conspiracy trolls. Rob Gronkowski's catch should have been a touchdown, but what stopped the Patriots from challenging the ruling? Nothing. Belichick had ample time to make a call for the officials to look it over. As for the Polamalu punch that led to a safety, it's almost certainly meaningless. Troy gets flagged and the Pats get the ball back at about the 20 with 10 seconds left and no timeouts. With the Pats inability to get ANYTHING completed deep during this game, we're to suppose New England can cover 80 yards and score a TD in 10 seconds, when on the previous play Brady was sacked and stripped?

There's no reason to remind anyone of the enormity of next week's game. I've seen a few wishful (deluded?) Ravens fans on Twitter already saying they love the position that their team is in - that the Steelers will be overhyped and overconfident. I'm sure there isn't a Steelers player (maybe save Max Starks, who didn't play) for whom the memory of the Week 1 blowout isn't fresh in their mind. The Ravens haven't looked great the past two weeks, but they rallied when they had to late to beat Arizona and that should give the team reasonable momentum coming into Pittsburgh.

Still, if the Steelers were able to show new wrinkles to a more sophisticated and superior Patriots offense, one would imagine that they can do the same to the Ravens. Baltimore caught the Steelers at a good time in Week 1 - what with the team not knowing that Aaron Smith had little left to cover, with LaMarr Woodley yet to be turned loose in the pass rush. If anything, the play of the Ravens O-line and their quarterback has regressed significantly since that time.

I'm excited to see what will come. I'm certain that the gravity of the rivalry and the significance of the next game, I would expect nothing similar to the one-sided contest that we saw in Week 1. The Steelers are riding high but have a good deal of payback to issue to their main rival. The Ravens also know that losing in Pittsburgh might mean having to kiss the division goodbye yet again, given the schedule remaining.

It's almost seven years to the day that the Steelers last beat Tom Brady, so today is certainly something to savor. Nevertheless, just as big a hurdle awaits in seven days. The Steelers in Week 1 let the Ravens jump out to an early lead, only to see their own sloppiness bury them beneath a huge deficit. I can't see the team that played today put forth that kind of effort. And if LeBeau can kind a solution for a Patriots attack that bedeviled him for so long, the Ravens flurry of chop blocks can't be all that intimidating.

10.25.2011

Steelers Get Their Showing On The Road

Creating turnovers, getting consistently solid play from the quarterback and winning on the road. Not things we saw a lot from the Steelers early in the season, but it finally manifested itself Sunday in the desert. And none too soon. With the two-week gauntlet of AFC heavyweights staring them down, Pittsburgh could ill afford to drop one to Whisenhunt's Pittsburgh West.

Granted, this wasn't an ideal performance. The running game didn't have much to show, but when you're completing 95-yard bombs to Mike Wallace, that's probably not the hugest concern. Whisenhunt and Grimm also have a bit of insight into the Steelers run blocking strategies. The team never seems to be able to move on the ground well whenever they play the Cards the last few years. Ike Taylor was pretty badly abused by Larry Fitzgerald, as well, but not too many corners aren't. Ike had to get chippy and got flagged a few times, but he managed to avoid killing up the killer big play, so let's consider it, if not a victory on his part, a passable performance against one of the league's best.

Of course, the Steelers escaped with their first convincing road win of the year, but they couldn't do so without an increased injury toll. Hines Ward has already been listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Patriots. Farrior looks gimpy, which could figure immensely against a Patriots attack that relies heavily on their standout tandem of pass catching tight ends. And it appears James Harrison, Chris Hoke, Jason Worilds and Doug Legursky have already been ruled out for this week.

Still having Harrison out is gonna be rough against Brady. Last year, the Steelers barely managed any pressure on Brady at all even with Deebo playing, so there has to be some concern about how the defense is going to try to rattle him. Honestly, I'm not sure how they're gonna go about doing it. LaMarr Woodley has done extremely well taking over as the prime pass rusher, but the Pats can easily double team him. Plus, with the offense likely spreading itself out, Woodley might not have a lot of time to get to Brady unless LeBeau has finally come up with some creative coverage schemes to counteract the Patriots usual scheme of attack against Pittsburgh.

The Patriots only loss this season came against Buffalo when Brady threw four picks. The Steelers can boast the best defense in terms of yardage allowed (though some of that likely has to do with only having to defend short fields with the offense turning the ball over so much early in the season) but they aren't proving very adept at getting takeaways. Part of that is just an inability to catch the ball. Polamalu has dropped multiple INTs this season. It's not exactly a sight we've never seen before, but Troy showing off the Ike Taylor stone hands isn't going to fly if he gets a shot to make a play against the Pats.

New England's defense is seemingly regressing from year to year and teams this season - at least, so far - don't appear to be doing so well coming off the bye week (3-9 through Week 7) so that goes in the Steelers' favor. Rob Ryan had Dallas stymieing Brady for much of the Cowboys late loss in Gillette. While the Steelers may not be necessarily able to replicate that plan, their best chance is likely to play possession ball and limit what damage the Pats offense can do.

That would require a departure from Arians' M.O. this season, which has mostly been going for the kill early with big pass plays. Not that I'll ever mind a 95-yard touchdown bomb to Mike Wallace, but the Steelers can't try to get in a shootout with New England. Unless Ben's deep pass is more accurate than at any point in his life, that's not a battle they're likely to win. Teams can grind out the clock and dictate the terms with the Pats defense. The Chargers would have been able to do it if they weren't content to kill themselves with turnovers all game.

Even in the best of seasons, the Steelers have been bedeviled by the Patriots. At 5-2 with the top-ranked defense, the Steelers are looking a lot like paper tigers that have feasted on lesser competition. They can change that perception in a huge way over the next two weeks. They can also secure the top seed in the conference going into a stretch run that looks mighty accommodating. Failure to do so won't torpedo their season, but it will make it easy for folks not to take them seriously.

10.17.2011

20 Minutes of Playing, 40 Minutes of Panic

There's really no bad way to win in the NFL, but the most agonizing is probably the way we watched the Steelers win yesterday, or how they did in the AFC Championship Game last year - by mounting a huge lead, only to watch it slowly erode as the seconds tick off the clock in the second half.

Of course, that suggests that the Steelers simply went conservative and were content to try to run out the clock. Quite the contrary, the team was still trying to run up points, but being grossly ineffective at it. After looking sharp in the early going, Ben Roethlisberger lost all touch on his deep passes. He missed Emmanuel Sanders twice on would-be touchdowns. He had Mike Wallace targeted on another deep pass along to right side, but threw the ball too far to the sideline, forcing Wallace to have to attempt an awkward over the opposite shoulder grab.

Opportunities are bound to be squandered on both sides - for example, Ziggy Hood should have had a pick-six in the second half - but this seemed like another case this season where the Steelers were fortunate to be playing against a lower level of competition. I would like to say it's just complacency, but we've obviously seen flat performances against more impressive teams like the Texans and Ravens. So to see the Steelers come out blazing for a quarter, then proceed to do very little except post abortive drives and watch Shaun Suisham shank field goals just seems like an inability to make proper adjustments as the game goes on.

Obviously, we can be thrilled with Rashard Mendenhall's output, which was more than double his previous season-high rushing total of 66 yards in Week 2 against Seattle. Unfortunately, a dominant rushing attack is only going to go so far when Bruce Arians would rather the team be throwing bombs all over the field. When Ben is on target, that's great. But as they saw big throws being repeatedly missed, perhaps they were better off simplifying things a tad. Oh, and there are few positive things for the Steelers that disturb me like seeing one of Arians bubble screens to Hines go for more than 10 yards. I never see the point of those plays, of which there are at least one per game. Do the coaches want to ensure that Hines gets a catch? That would make sense if his streak were still going on. Otherwise, that play might be better suited for a faster, younger receiver.

Going into this game, the easiest trend to spot was that the Steelers were simply a dominant home team so far this season. Not sure you can still say that after the way they sputtered through the final 30 minutes of that game. But it does illustrate a more discomfiting habit of this team: that they're a first half team. That's an easy generalization to make after yesterday's game, but the more I've thought about it, the more it's held. If the offense has clicked at all this season, it's usually right out of the gate. That happened yesterday and it happened in the close with in Indianapolis. I would love to see a breakout of Mike Wallace's stats by half. Save for last week's win against the Titans, it seems like all of his big plays happen early in games. Not sure if that just means the opposition begins double teaming him and works especially hard to take him out of the game, but then you would think that would open other facets of the offense. And it isn't, for whatever reason. Uneven performances don't necessarily preclude winning. Most recall that the 2008 Steelers were largely a second-half team on offense and they won the Super Bowl. Of course, they also had a far superior defense to this season's squad. So accepting that the team is only going to put up so many points early in games then put fans through massive anxiety as they hope to squeak out wins isn't the greatest formula for winning games, unless you happen to be playing subpar or rookie quarterbacks.

Troy Polamalu's concussion, given that stupid misnomer of a "very mild concussion", is clearly a big concern, both for his availability in a road game the team needs to win next week, but more so for Troy's overall health. We all know Troy has suffered more than a few concussions in his career and I worry with each one that comes that his playing career may soon be curtailed and that his post-football livelihood may not be the greatest.



And while Ryan Clark couldn't have known that Troy was feeling woozy after that tackle, I have a feeling that headbutt is going to be shown in a few ominous clips about football and concussions in the offing.

10.13.2011

If Pattern Of Steelers Home Games Holds, Jags About To Get Rolled

The Jaguars are the kind of team that in recent years would have been almost expertly engineered to lose to the Steelers. An offense that needs the run game to thrive to have any chance. A quarterback not necessarily bad, but at least too inexperienced to exploit the holes in LeBeau's scheme that only Brady, Rodgers and maybe Brees have been able to with any consistency.

Despite last week's improved effort, the Steelers defense still hasn't shown that its run defense is quite at the level where you can essentially write off a one-dimensional offense that depends on the run. Chris Johnson only finished with 51 yards, but looked good early and would have had more yards if the Titans hadn't fallen so far behind. It's true that the run defense got better against him after the first drive, but I'm still not at the point where I can say that the run defense is just yet near where it's been. Maybe this week I'll be able to say that if MJD is shut down and the Jags forced to put it in the air despite the fact that they're starting Blaine Gabbert.

Rashard Mendenhall is apparently starting Sunday, which I'm not totally wild about. Not that I think Mendy is slipping and that Redman and Dwyer have really earned any claim to stealing carries, but there always the concern with rushing back hamstring injuries. Of course, that concern was swirling around Arian Foster the other week and he proceeded to torch the Steelers on the ground, so take from that what you will.

There's been a pretty big dichotomy between the Steelers at home and on the road so far this season. Perhaps that's because both of the Steelers home games in 2011 have followed pretty embarrassing losses and the team is more motivated and focused, or simply that the Steelers are a far better home team this season for whatever reason. Too early to say, obviously. But if the Steelers struggle against the hapless Jaguars, the answer is obviously closer to the former.

10.10.2011

Backs To The Wall, Steelers Finally Put Up Fight

The Steelers, a month into the season, finally gave a performance that shows that they belong with any team in the league. None too soon, of course. Pittsburgh was coming into Sunday's game hard on the heels of a feckless outing in Houston that was made worse by yet another substantial injury toll.

The Titans had been rolling prior to yesterday, even decisively beating the Ravens a week after Bawlmer lambasted the Steelers in Week 1. It appeared the two teams were on clearly divergent paths. No one was mistaking the Steelers for a team on the accent. Even after the win, I would still doubt that analysts would change that appraisal, but a few may now take pause before saying this Steelers team is "done".

Some will say the abrupt turnaround is owed to backups who made the most of their opportunity to contribute. And certainly, much of yesterday's win is thanks to the Max Starks, Chris Hoke, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, among others. I was among those who scoffed when the team brought on Starks, remembering how little he had to offer last year. But the big guy was solid yesterday. It remains to be seen whether Max is still durable enough to keep that up for the remainder of the season, but that's a risk less dangerous than just being resigned to have Jonathan Scott or Trai Essex start there. Of course, all was not rosy for the O-line, as Scott got back in the game after Marcus Gilbert left with a shoulder injury. Hopefully he won't be out an extended period. I haven't seen any reports indicating as much yet, but we'll see.

But it was also key members of the team who at last stepped their game up to the level to which we're accustomed. LaMarr Woodley has admittedly been called upon to drop into coverage a lot this season, but with James Harrison out, Wood was finally turned loose in the pass rush, and it's good to know he can still bring it in that department. His first sack where he took down the blocking back as well as Matt Hasselbeck was just an unbelievable display of strength. And let's not forget that Woodley notched the team's first interception of the season. Given the secondary concerns coming into the year, maybe that's not the ideal scenario for the team's first INT, but who won't take it at this point?

Despite the questionable move before the half to try a hurry-up receiver screen that ended up being intercepted on the Titans' end of the field, this was easily Ben Roethlisberger's best outing of the season. Obviously, the improved protection aided in that showing, but in general, I feel like he was more on point.

After the Titans opening drive, the run defense showed glimpses of its former self. It was personally satisfying to see Nate Washington play well, but come up just short of making huge plays in the passing game on several occasions. Nate and Kenny Britt form a nice WR tandem for the Titans, but I can't say the guy is missed much around these parts.

You could tell early on that this game was not only huge in the standings, but of personal significance to the team that they attempted this fake punt early in the second quarter with a slim lead, hoping to break the game open early. Nice bit of film study and great execution by Sepulveda.



Now that we know the Steelers won't be content to just sleepwalk through this season, there's still the concern that they're not much of a road team. Right now, they;ve won two games at Heinz Field by 20+ points each, but have looked completely lost elsewhere, with their only win in three road games being a pathetic squeaker in Indianapolis over the winless Colts. The Steelers won't have another road test for two weeks, when they have to go to Arizona. The schedule is fortuitous in many ways for the Steelers - their last two really difficult games are against the Patriots and the Ravens and both of those are at home, even if in back-to-back weeks. Of course, the trip to San Francisco a few weeks later is more and more starting to look like a real challenge, but have to wait and see on that one. As for now, I'll just be glad with what we saw yesterday.

10.05.2011

Steelers Reanimate The Broken Down Husk Of Max Starks

Busyness, rather than the understandable excuse of crushing despondency, kept me from writing about the Steelers' lifeless showing in Houston. For the sake of going through the motions, which seems apt right now - The Steelers sucked. They should lost by far more. They failed to capitalize when the Texans practically begged to lose. The O-line is laughable. Arian Foster's meastliness notwithstanding, the run defense is as porous as I've seen from this team. Roethlisberger is hurt. Silverback is hurt. Mendenhall might as well stay hurt.

And the team's solution is to bring back Max Starks, the inferior of the two ancient tackles that fans were begging the team to sign since Willie Colon got hurt. Lord knows why. Not only is he out of shape, but he's about as injury prone as Colon or Aaron Smith has been the past few years. Hope they have the cart ready at Heinz on Sunday.

Oh yeah, the Titans are also surprisingly good this season. And even though Chris Johnson's numbers have been less than spectacular so far this season (2.9 ypc) we can't have the luxury of year's past that we know it's going to stay that way on Sunday.

There are a few things I will be curious to watch for, aside from Ben maybe getting finished off if he does play. Lawrence Timmons will move to the outside to play for the injured Deebo. I like the idea of Timmons on the outside, even if he's replacing one of the two players on the defense that seem capable of forcing a turnover this season. On the other hand, that means Larry Foote, who has been atrocious so far this season (Houston was picking on him regularly) moves into the starting line-up for the week. Still have no idea why the team let Keyaron Fox go.

On the upside - Antonio Brown appears to have entrenched himself as the no. 2 receiver on this squad, and the team is better for it. For better or worse, Mike Wallace seems to be doing most of his damage early in games. Either this is because teams thing they can get away with certain coverage then learn otherwise, or it just may be that as the game goes on, the Steelers can't risk the kind of dropbacks they would need for Wallace to get open deep. No matter the reason, Brown has been the most reliable target for the Pittsburgh offense late in games. Something good to know if the protection issues ever get close to being remedied.

So far this year, we've seen three dreadful performances on the road and one passable effort in a rout of a shitty Seahawks team at home. Probably not enough of a sample size to say for certain that they're sure to play better at home this week, but one would hope with the embarrassment they suffered Sunday at the hands of the Texans, that they, oh hell I don't know, show us something, anything.