Lights Go Out On Steelers Playoff Bye

I haven't watched any reaction or sought any feedback regarding Monday night's loss in San Francisco. Not because I'm avoiding it because I'm overly crushed. Disappointed, to be sure, but this outcome was largely an expected one. I try to avoid live blogging Steelers games at KSK mostly because I'd like to focus on watching my favorite team play rather than moderating comments from a thousand readers at a time. Also, since KSK readers know I'm a Steelers, a lot of get off on being trolling dicks whenever I write about them, even though I've taken great pains to strip my writing there of the homerism that I've been guilty of in the past. If anything, I've actually been pretty hard on Pittsburgh over there recently to combat that perception. Nevertheless...

The point here is I expected the Steelers to lose, so what the hell. The most discouraging thing is that my biggest reason for assuming that was Roethlisberger's limited mobility. And, yeah, the guy was very clearly hobbling last night, but as the game wore on, you could tell that the hitch was leaving his gait and Ben was moving pretty fluidly. It was shoddy decision making on his part that was largely to blame for the Steelers' loss. I tend to rail at the "drama queen" trash talk that Ravens fans especially use to smear Roethlisberger as a player. They want to believe he milks injuries, when the guy actually just gets hit a lot and tends to play through pain, usually well. That's in keeping with the usual empty tough-ass facade of Baltimore sports fans, though. I will say you know that if Ben is ever guilty of the drama queen stuff, it's when he goes overboard trying to be the hero. Last night, it wasn't enough that he was playing through injury. Toughing out pain isn't enough; you have to make impossible throws while doing it. There were a lot of times he ignored open shorter routes because he wanted to jam it in to a tight space for a big gain. Now, obviously some of his inaccuracy can be put on having an injured ankle support your plant leg. Knowing that's the case, maybe Ben shouldn't be trying to force post patterns to Mike Wallace in triple coverage on the opening drive. Just a thought.

Going forward, with so much of the offense based ar0und Roethlisberger's ability to scramble, it's imperative the guy gets healthy. But as you always see this time of year, two weeks to get rusty is just the kind of thing that leads to flat playoff performances. So I can't say I advocate not giving Ben any play time over the next two weeks. I would argue that he should sit against the Rams in favor of Dennis Dixon, of course. I'm not confident that Batch at this point is a safe bet to pull off the win against lowly St. Louis. Let Ben close out the season in Cleveland, yes, against the team that hurt him last week. Better that than a QB trying the field, likely in Denver where building a lead early is important, but being rusty with several weeks of inactivity.

The health concerns with Ben are paramount, but the sluggish pace at which LaMarr Woodley is recouping is really troubling. Granted, just having him play more than a drive for the first time in more than a month should be welcome news. But the guy showed barely any drive at all last night. Woodley had one decent drive that drew a stupid holding penalty, but that was about it. The absence of James Harrison felt all the more pronounced. But would it really have mattered that much if Harrison played, given how LeBeau reverted to the old "death by a thousand dinks and dunks" strategy that gives receivers 10 yards of cushion off the line of scrimmage? It's like the win against New England never happened. Why be afraid to play press coverage? Are the Niners' receivers really worthy of that much respect? Not when Alex Smith missed badly on every deep pass.

Last night felt like the Steelers reverting to all their worst habits. Ben trying to force big plays when moderate gains are there for the taking. The defense playing back on its heels. I know it's still technically possible for the Steelers to win out and have Baltimore lose in the season finale in Cincinnati, but not only would I not count on it, but I don't think the team really deserves it at this point. Yes, Pittsburgh was severely handicapped by injuries and a suspension last night, but hell, the Niners were without Patrick Willis. If you want to look for him on a list of slouches, you're gonna be scanning for a while. There was bad gameplanning and bad execution. It was hard coming away from last night's game saying that this team is one that deserves a playoff bye. We've seen them play at their best and hopefully can again before the season gets away from them, but it may be a few weeks on autopilot before we can even get the opportunity to see one way or the other.

Worth filing away for the next time you hear the trite cries of officiating bias for the Steelers were the two huge egregious calls last night. The first wrongly wiped out a possibly momentum-swinging fumbled punt (when the game was still only 6-0) deep in San Francisco territory. Replay showed hit a San Francisco player first but couldn't be challenged. Instead, the Niners got a 15-yard gain out of it. Then there's that bizarre leaping call on Lawrence Timmons that set the Niners up for an extra four insurance points late in the game. The Steelers played poorly throughout and even if those calls were made correctly, there's still a good chance Pittsburgh loses anyway. Still, for a team that's supposedly protected as the Steelers are by the refs, those were two painful oversights in a big game.

Anyway, on to the Rams. Can't lose to 'em or you get kicked out of the league.


James Harrison Receives Inevitable Suspension

Just yesterday, I expressed doubts that James Harrison was going to be suspended by the NFL for his hit on Colt McCoy. There's no question that league executives have been waiting for an opportunity to levy this punishment on Harrison, but I figured they would have waited for a less borderline infraction. Guess not. I mean, since Harrison is such a VICIOUS MALACIOUS HEADHUNTER ANGRY BAD MAN it should just be a matter of time, right?

From my vantage point watching the game live, it looked clearly like an instance where Harrison was aiming at McCoy's lead shoulder. There certainly was helmet contact, and perhaps that could have been avoided with Harrison went lower with the shoulder. Then again, this is a moving target, so second guessing the angle a tackler takes is a fairly glib criticism. That said, I have no problem with the play being flagged or Harrison even being fined. But he wasn't headhunting. It doesn't help all the slow motion replays I've seen of the hit have come from the angle behind Harrison. The linebacker's body obscures the first point of contact at the shoulder, so all the viewer sees are the helmets colliding. Harrison is a media villain and most talking heads want to give him a fair shake about as much as they want to impugn any aspect of Tebow's game. Honestly, I still can't believe Deion Sanders stuck up for James during the NFLN postgame.

All said and done, Harrison obviously didn't make matters easier for himself with his outlandish comments about Goodell. This was going to happen sooner or later. Hell, the same might happen to Ryan Clark within the course of time. The NFL gets to be vindictive toward players that have been critical of the league under the pretense that they're making the game safer while at the same time leveling no sanctions against a team like the Browns that probably knowingly sent a concussed player back into a game.


High Ankle Spains Complicate Chase For AFC North Crown

Looks like I'm guilty of a little blog neglect.

Don't have much in the way of illumination from the two wins over four days last week. The victory over Cincy was as decisive and encouraging as the win over Cleveland was not. Don't want to bemoan the lack of style points in the Thursday win. The Steelers actually played that game well and Roethlisberger looked as sharp as he has all season before he suffered the high ankle sprain. But one careful red zone fumble by Hines and a perfect hit to dislodge the ball from Heath Miller kept the game from getting away from Cleveland early, as it should have. As soon as the second fumble occurred, Ben went down and the offense was significantly hamstrung, as it were.

While we're on squandered scoring chances, even as a Mendenhall fantasy owner, I'd like it if Redman were made the default goal line back. There's no question he gets better push than Mendy and that wasn't more clear than during the four-and-out sequence inside the two in the second half of the Cleveland game.

Still don't know how Ben played the second half of that game, even if he was given the shot at halftime. I was at the game live and the experience was twice as bizarre as it would have been watching TV, where the reports were constantly updating. I just remember repeating to myself that the best case scenario is that it would be a sprain and maybe Ben would miss at most a week or two. Then there's Roethlisberger sitting on the sidelines grabbing his helmet just before the second half kickoff. I figured, even then, that there was no way. Possibly the team would give Batch a few more series to hand the ball off en route to a three-and-out.

It's as a much a testament to a lack of faith in Batch as it is to Ben being tough that he came back in or was even allowed to do so. Charlie's been more than a capable fill-in when called upon in his time in Pittsburgh, and he was important during the labor standoff, but the guy is very obviously finished as a quarterback. It's sad that the team has seemingly no confidence in Dennis Dixon, because they're gonna need him to become the next back-up unless they can sign another veteran, which won't happen until the off-season at the earliest.

Roethlisberger and Pouncey are reportedly on track to play in a week in San Francisco despite their respective high ankle sprains. That Ben's is the lowest grade sprain leads to believe at least some of his mobility will have been restored with 11 days' time. I'd really Pouncey not even bother to go. It seems even more likely that he'd have a setback trying to take on an attacking defense on a weakened leg. Doug Legursky starting against that Niners defense is surely not ideal, but sticking Pouncey in there more than likely dangers Ben and his center more than if he's kept out.

Some are arguing that it doesn't really matter if the Steelers have to settle for the 5 seed, because that may be even easier than if they get the bye. Can't say I agree with that, even with the disdain I have for Tebowmania. Denver has the kind of attacking defense that could give the Steelers' line fits. Not to mention the Pittsburgh run D isn't quite what it was. If this were last year, I'd say a run-heavy team like the Broncos plays right into the Steelers strengths, but, well, it's not last year. I wouldn't go as far to say that the run D is a liability now, but it's not the shutdown guarantee it once was. And you can't gloss over just how difficult it is to win on the road in the playoffs anywhere, especially an environment in Denver that automatically eliminates one of your starting safeties because of a health issue with the high elevation.

The Chargers have rebounded in the past two weeks and are probably the best possibility to knock off the Ravens among Baltimore's remaining opponents. Yeah, they still have a game left in Cincinnati. With the way the Bungles have fallen off, I'm not liking the upset chances there. If Baltimore wins Sunday night, I won't exactly be crushed if the Steelers can't eke one out in the Bay Area. Losing to Arizona was no doubt a sobering experience, so now that the Niners' once assured bye in the playoffs is now threatened by the Saints, I wouldn't expect anything less than their best shot.

I've tried to ignore most of the hue and cry about the James Harrison shot on Colt McCoy. That said, I think there's more of an understanding this time around that it wasn't Harrison's intent to go at McCoy's helmet, since the quarterback was a moving target out of the pocket. Hell, Deion Sanders on the NFL Network postgame gab session said that it wasn't Silverback's fault at all. If only the consensus were so level-headed when Massaquoi ducked his head into a tackle last year and begun a lot of the focus on James. As far as a suspension, I don't see it, but just because discipline is being discussed yet again, I don't consider it out of the realm of possibility just because the media echo chamber might force Goodell to set pointless examples.

This time of year presents a usual challenge to the Steelers of having their stars performing at significantly less than 100 percent. Last year, Polamalu was demonstrably not at full capacity from the Bengals game on. And we all remember the concussion that Ben got in Week 17 of the '08 season - also against the Browns - before embarking on a title run. Ben, Pouncey and Woodley will have to be the ones excelling through pain this time around if the team wants another crack at Green Bay (assuming, but it's more than a fair assumption).