11.28.2011

You're So Dreadfully Ugly, Ugly Win

Bless you, Anthony Becht.

A lot of comparisons are being made between last night's ugmo win in Kansas City and the equally putrid yet also equally victorious showing that the Steelers had in the beginning of the season in Indianapolis.

And while I was one of the many down on the team after the win in Indy, I'm much less so after last night. Why? Because now, as opposed to then, I know the Steelers are capable of much better. And this shoddy performance was coming off a bye week, which has mysteriously been tripping up more than a few teams this season.

Not that the Chiefs haven't been dealt more than a few personnel setbacks (Tyler Palko being able to commit terrible turnover after terrible turnover last night is evidence enough) but the Steelers had more than a few of their own on Sunday night. There's the obviously concerning head injury to Polamalu. The team had to deal with Maurkice Pouncey not being able to go at the last minute.

Then, of course, a potential trap game started off in the least desirable way. The Chiefs, whose defense came out fired up as they did the week before against New England, got on the board first. The Steelers looked primed to respond with a touchdown to take the lead, only for Mewelde Moore to cough the ball up as he was making a nice run inside the five. I'll question a lot of Bruce Arians' playcalling, but I didn't necessarily hate the idea of that run. And it's not as though the play failed. Had Moore not fumbled, it's at least a five- or six-yard gain to set up a third and goal from the 1 or 2. It's not like Arians told MeMo to put it on the ground just before reaching the goal line. Unless he actually is evil personified. Still, I feel like even if that were the case, he would have funneled his evil through a bubble screen of some sort.

Not gonna let Mike Wallace off the hook. He's quickly become one of my favorite players on the team, but that was one of his worst showings. He dropped a pretty routine touchdown grab on the play before Moore's fumble. He let another long pass go through his hands later on. The latter was far more excusable. Wallace didn't have tons of separation from a defender who had a 10-yard cushion to try to cover him deep, plus the DB's outstretched hand also blocked his vision. Nevertheless, Mike got his hands on the ball and maybe we're spoiled, but we're used to seeing him haul those in.

For as poorly as the offense played - the O-line's regression (possibly because of Pouncey's absence) was troubling - the defense got turnovers. Yes, two of them were giftwrapped, but, hey, sometimes turnovers are giftwrapped and teams still don't get them. Look at the Chargers on Sunday, for instance. so, that was nice. Could have lived with more of a pass rush, but Woodley is coming back soon and thank goodness for that.

So I'm not gonna join the chorus of pessimists, unless of course Polamalu will have to miss extended time because of the concussion. I've heard mixed reports on that issue thus far, but he was able to come back the following week after taking a similar blow earlier this season against Jacksonville, so hopefully that trend will be followed.

The Steelers won't have the luxury of playing down to competition next week, when they face the Bengals for the second time in a month. Taking down Cincy again at Heinz Field would erase a lot of the nagging doubts that resurfaced last night. It would almost open up a mostly easy closing stretch for the team.

11.14.2011

Defense Actually Gets Turnovers, Steelers Enter Bye On High Note

As far as the national media narrative, yesterday's Steelers-Bengals game was going to teach us more about Cincinnati than it would about Pittsburgh. Accordingly, we did discover that the Bengals are an upstart team worthy of its 6-2 start, but still a little ways off from challenging for the division.

For the Steelers, a lot of it was reinforcement of trends that have been prevalent all season. It's a team that typically comes strong out of the gate, at least on offense, but has some difficulty sustaining that momentum throughout games. For a while, it seemed like yesterday's win would be very similar to the win at home against Jacksonville, where the Steelers leaped out to a double-digit advantage, only to watch it slowly erode for the remainder of the game. It didn't end up being quite that agonizing, as the offense still found had some gas in the second half.

But the real reason that Pittsburgh won is because on Sunday the defense equaled its entire interception total for the season coming into the game. Lots of credit to William Gay, who had been torched for the deciding touchdown by Torrey Smith the week before, for jumping a route on an Andy Dalton pass late in the game to seal. Lawrence Timmons grabbed an earlier pick on a fortunate deflection. I'm not complaining. Any turnovers the defense can muster are more than welcome this season. Any season, really. They're turnovers. When don't you want your defense to force turnovers? Given the general paucity of them this season, expectations have been skewed a bit, I guess.

A follower asked me on Twitter during the game whether this game marked Antonio Brown surpassing Mike Wallace as the team's best, or most complete, wideout. I think that would be a very hasty pronouncement to make, but AB is making his case. Obviously, I think it's unfair to say Brown is better now because Wallace certainly draws more attention from opposing defenses. Brown is a better receiver in the middle of the field and a better possession receiver, but there's so many ways Wallace can kill with his speed that he more than makes up for that facet of his game being underutilized. While the Steelers did try Wallace deep against Cincinnati - Ben should have hit him deep once - I like that most of his focus was on underneath stuff and designed runs. Not that you want to ignore the home run potential, but if you can get those quick dump offs where Wallace can sprint for a first down, not unlike Santonio used to do, that's easy money worth taking.

Glad to also see Jerricho Cotchery finally being worked into the offense. It's borne out of necessity with Emmanuel Sanders banged up, but he's already showing himself to be a vital and useful weapon. Hines is good for a play or two a game at this point, but he's not really a viable starting receiver anymore, in my opinion. I think it hurt the offense a lot in the Super Bowl last year when Manny went down. Wallace becomes a lot easier to defend when he doesn't have a nice complement like Sanders or Cotchery on the opposite side.

Speaking of Hines, that was his first catch in three weeks (because dicksmack John Harbaugh challenged the one last week where Ray Lewis got away with an illegal helmet shot on him) so that puts Hines 19 catches away from 1,000 on his career. I think and hope it's reasonable to expect that he can reach that mark over the final six games of the season.

Up and down game for Heath. He made an incredible 3rd down catch in the red zone to set up a touchdown, taking a shoulder to the facemask and hanging on. Sadly, he followed that up later by handing the Bengals a momentum swinging interception by bobbling a pass twice and knocking it into the hands of Leon Hall. The corner would later suffer a season-ending injury, which will certainly be a blow to Cincy's fortunes for the remainder of the year. And, surprise, surprise, the Bengals play Baltimore next week. The Ravens always seem to catch teams at the right time when it comes to injuries.

Max Starks left the game for a spell with an injury which prompted the frightening return of Jonathan Scott. It's amazing how quickly I went from disdaining the return of Starks to the Steelers to not imaging they could even put together a scoring drive without him. I'm a knee-jerk asshole like that.

As we all know, the Ravens once again lost in gloriously inept fashion a week after blowing their load beating the Steelers. Just fantastically terrible coaching by John Harbaugh and Cam Cameron. Cam actually makes me glad for Arians, which hurts so much to say it might be inspired trolling if it weren't so destructive to the Ravens. How do you have Joe Flacco throw 50 times in any game? I realize Seattle jumped out to an early lead, but that game was never out of reach. A shame the Ravens waste all of their halfway decent coaching on the Steelers. These letdown losses really have to fall on Harbaugh, who made a jackass of himself celebrating to the point of personal injury last week while still bitching about some song played on the Heinz Field PA that he deemed offensive to poor delicate Joe Flacco. All of that, and Harbs has his team fall flat again. Maybe the Ravens just can't sustain top performances on a week-to-week basis? That doesn't figure well for the postseason, where one big win is going to do for you.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the Steelers likely getting Woodley back after the bye. His presence has been sorely missed these past few weeks. The Steelers, it should be noted, had no sacks on Dalton. James Harrison didn't quite have the dominating performance he had the week before against Baltimore, but he shouldn't be asked to do everything for the pass rush.

Again, it wasn't a perfect victory, but few ever really are and perfect victories usually don't come in big wins against surging division opponents, so I'm more than grateful for just keeping the Bungles in their place and moving on to what is hopefully another shot at a division title and an extended run through the postseason.

11.07.2011

Ravens Complete Sweep, Reignite Rivalry

You know, you can only leave Torrey Smith open so many times before he's actually going to catch it. The Steelers learned that the hard way.

For all the mocking we do of Joe Flacco, he's now led last-minute scoring drives to win at Heinz Field in consecutive seasons. It doesn't automatically make Bert an awesome QB or anything, but I'll give credit where it's due. The guy isn't completely worthless. Well done, Unibrow. Hopefully the Steelers will get another shot at thwarting him in the postseason.

It's a tough, painful loss, and the Steelers now definitely owe the Ravens a good deal of payback, but I'll take away positives where I can. The receiving corps continues to be stellar. Mike Wallace, who is usually big early in games, showed up late with a go-ahead touchdown. Max Starks did a better job containing Terrell Suggs than anyone on the Steelers has in some time. Suggs obviously made a great play intercepting a bubble screen in the third quarter.


The most surprising thing is that that hasn't happened early with how often the Steelers got to that stupid play and how much they telegraph it when they do. It's tempting to blame Bruce Arians, who is never ever shy about deploying the dreaded Bubble Screen of Death, but this was in a no-huddle situation, so it was more than likely on Roethlisberger for calling the play. It's the second time he's been intercepted in the last few weeks trying to force a receiver screen. The other time, the offense was in hurry up and he just chucked it out there when the receiver seemed confused as to what was going on. So Ben might just have to shake things up with the play calls if the offense wants to go no-huddle as much as he would like.

Ike Taylor was solid in coverage on Boldin, but did get torched by Smith on the ball that was dropped right before the TD. Polamalu went to help in coverage on the other side and Flacco had his guy open deep. Honestly, the Steelers would have been better off if Torrey caught the first one. It would have left the Steelers with 35 seconds left and multiple timeouts needing only a field goal. So the drop turned out to be a fortunate break for Baltimore.

James Harrison is all way back to his dominating form. The Steelers would have been destroyed in that game without Deebo. Then again, had the Steelers only had LaMarr Woodley on the other side last night as well, things might have been different. At least one thing to be encouraged about if the Steelers get a third crack at Bawlmer this year.

Speaking of Deebo, did you see Ray Rice DUCK A BLOCK on Harrison? Oh man, the Ravens are just so badass, I can't take it.



I've seen some Steelers fan bitching about the officiating, which is unfortunate, but there were tough calls both ways. Don't be like Ravens fans. They won outright. The only call (or non-call) that bothered me was the helmet-to-helmet shot from Ray Lewis. Not only was it evident and flagrant but it resulted in Ward being injured. Isn't the NFL trying to clamp down on those kind of things? Shit, they flagged Ryan Clark for hitting a receiver in the back last season. And they rightly got Clark on a helmet shot he issued just a few minutes after Lewis' last night. "God's Linebacker" is allowed to decapitate whomever he pleases, it seems.

Somehow, in the last two seasons, the Ravens have gotten away with Haloti Ngata punching Roethlisberger in the face and breaking his nose, Jameel McClain concussing Heath Miller with an illegal hit and Ray Lewis' cheap shot on Hines last night. No flags for any of those. I'm sure Lewis will be fined, but I really don't give a shit about a fine. What does that do for anybody? Nothing. It sucks. Not reading anything further into this, but it's shitty nonetheless.

Anyway, I'll just be here agonizing over Larry Foote's near-pick that would have closed out the game for a few more hours before I start looking forward to the equally important showdown with Andy Dalton and the upstart Bengals next week. Pittsburgh doesn't have itself in the best position for taking the division now, but it's still entirely possible they can come away with it. And, failing that, there's still a Wild Card berth that's by no means guaranteed.

The Steelers gave Baltimore a battle and could have easily won. It sucks that they didn't, but it's better than a shellacking that leaves them with the perception that they're old and done. This team will be all right. Now they just have to play well enough to get a chance for redemption.

11.04.2011

Assessing the Steelers-Ravens Rivalry



Last Sunday, the Steelers exacted their first measure of revenge against Tom Brady's Patriots in quite some time. About seven years, actually. Similarly, the Ravens, who had been tormented by the Steelers for the past five years (at least when a backup QB wasn't starting for Pittsburgh), finally got some payback of their own in Week 1.

In both cases, I wouldn't say the long-dominated team has gotten the monkey off their back as much as made more interesting what have been one-sided recent rivalries. The Patriots have still gotten the Steelers when it has mattered most, and the Steelers still own every critical matchup there is to own against the Ravens.

The Ravens could earn only their second-ever regular season sweep of the Steelers on Sunday in Heinz Field. Or they could suffer a loss that would almost effectively negate all the good feelings of the Week 1 drubbing at M&T Bank Stadium. A Baltimore loss wouldn't exactly wrap up the division for the Steelers, but it would show yet again that Baltimore can't win the one they really truly need to against Pittsburgh. It would also drop them a game back (the lack of the Steelers' bye muddies things a bit) and lose them their tiebreaker advantage, as all the Ravens' losses have come against conference opponents. It would also engender more and more serious doubts about whether Joe Flacco is in fact a franchise quarterback.

Suffice it to say, a Baltimore loss makes Week 1 look like a fluke, like the 41-0 lambasting that Buffalo gave to New England the opening week of 2003. It makes it look more like the upshot of an early season upended by the lockout's scheduling chaos.

But a Ravens victory? Well, that makes matters more interesting. I don't think it quite equals the Steelers being 3-0 in the postseason against a division rival, but it would let Ravens fans look less pathetic than they do beating their chest unremittingly about one September regular season blowout.

Baltimore has a knack for catching the Steelers at the right time in terms of injuries. Obviously, the fact that three times within fours years, they got to face a starting QB who wasn't Ben Roethlisberger was a luxury. Sunday, the Steelers will likely take the field sans James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior. The two best players in their front seven and a key Pro Bowl veteran middle linebacker. The Steelers will have to make do, as they have in recent weeks, but it'll be tough. Imagine the Ravens trying to win without Suggs, Ray-Ray and Ngata in the lineup. They'd be a little concerned, too.

That said, Haloti Ngata is banged up and may not play, which evens matters considerably. He's the best player on the Ravens' defense by a significant margin. He's also given Maurkice Pouncey some serious problems so far in the young center's career. So having Ngata out or even hampered by injury would be a huge plus. It would also opens things up nicely for the running game.

You could argue that Harrison, Woodley and Farrior all played Week 1 and it didn't make for a whole lot of good. That is true, to an extent. The Steelers were playing much less aggressive defense early in the season, much to their detriment. if anything, those injuries might end up benefitting this Steelers season in the long run, because it's made Dick LeBeau make serious evaluations and in some cases radically change long-entrenched schemes. Woodley has been incredible since Deebo went out of the lineup. That's evident even without the Defensive Player of the Month honors he earned this week.

It's not only the play of the Steelers defense that has improved markedly in recent weeks. The offensive line may not be stellar, but it's far from the disaster that it was. Max Starks, while not great, has been a welcome replacement for Jonathan Scott. I don't expect Starks to have a great showing against Suggs, but I think he'll make P-Drizzle work for his pressures a lot more than Scott. That Ben Roethlisberger has hit his stride in terms of accuracy after early season falters should give the offense much more confidence.

Speaking of epic mouthbreather Suggs, the fact that he was back to running his mouth this week gave me a lot of comfort. I realize the sideshow means nothing, but it's good to see nonethless. The Ravens were disturbingly quiet before Week 1. Very uncharacteristic. Now? They're back to their usual stupid antics and bold proclamations before a trip to Heinz Field. If Baltimore's stoicism before Week 1 helped catch the Steelers overconfident and complacent, well, it won't this time.

I don't at all expect the Ravens to come in flat, as they did against Jacksonville and in the first half against Arizona. They know what's at stake. Hell, they've probably been looking ahead to this game. And that's fine. I wouldn't expect any less. No doubt the Steelers have a huge amount of pride at stake after the loss and all the fighting that happened on the field back in Baltimore.

Obviously Timmons is going to have to have a huge game, as if Worilds if he can actually go. Not sure what you can expect from Sylvester and Carter other than hopefully they keep to the running lanes when Ray Rice gets the ball. There was a pretty big drop-off in pressure on Tom Brady after Woodley left the game last week, and that's concerning, but I think a few players, as well as LeBeau will rise to the occasion. Don't be surprised to see Troy Polamalu sent after the QB on a few plays. Who knows? After last year, Joe Flacco might actually see it coming.

The one annoying thing about the win over the Patriots was all the knee-jerk dipshit commentators, who back in September gleefully dismissed the Steelers as old and busted and done, reversed course immediately. WELP! GUESS THE STEELERS AREN'T OLD ANYMORE. A-DERP-A-DERP. As much as last Sunday's win did to chase away those doubts, a win over Baltimore eradicates them entirely.