Anybody else pleased that it's a short week before we get to see just how much progress the Pittsburgh Steelers may or may not be making as the season approaches the stretch run. Yesterday, maryrose mentioned that regardless of how the San Diego game had ended in the final seconds, he would have felt pleased about the visible improvements shown by Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line. It's a perfectly reasonable point of view, particularly since he also mentioned that he was also pleased that Willie Parker proved that he can be a difference maker when healthy.
For me though? Absolutely not. We HAD to have that game in my opinion. Why? Forget records and playoffs for a second. What I wanted to see was the team finish a game. Sure we won a few tight games earlier in the year against Baltimore and Jacksonville, but in our latest two tight games - Indianapolis and New York - we failed to seal the deal late. My face was buried inside my jacket as Jeff Reed lined up for the game-winner.
Whew. Ok, that's something to build off of. Of course, a kick in the final seconds has no bearing on the other 59+ minutes of the game, but my hope is that now that we have one of these tight wins against a solid team under our belt, we add a little pep to our step in practice and then go out and play a little bit more loosely, fluidly and confidently on offense. Big Ben can go back to playing more instinctively out there now that he doesn't have yet another sour moment in 2008 fresh on his mind.
So what next?
Well we play at home again this Thursday night against the Cincinnati Bengals. I will provide more info later, but the game can be watched online on the NFL Network's website. It's a good crisp picture and I don't think it's delayed or anything. More details to come. Anyway, with this year''s team, I refuse to pencil in Ws. Not with all the evidence we have that the offense struggles to put complete games together. If it's not one thing, it's been another. For now, I'll personally view every game as a tough one, because in this league, being good for just 2 or three quarters, or for just the first 6-8 plays of the drive isn't good enough. Just about every team, Cincy and Detroit included, are good enough to keep things interesting if you don't step on their throats when you have them down on the mat.
I need not remind you that even though the Bengals have been one of the worst teams in football this year, they're not going to roll over dead against us. For one, its a rivalry game. And not just any old rivalry game. It's payback time, at least so say the Bengals. Payback for the huge hit Ward had on rookie LB Keith Rivers that sent him to the sidelines injured. These are grown men with huge egos and pride. Maybe not to fight for their coach, but certainly to defend any semblance of toughness and respectability against an opponent that has succeeded in beating them up literally and figuratively.
Me? Worried about Hines being on the other end? Nah. Dude knows how to play with his head on a swivel. Like all real players should
And secondly, they actually have been playing better football since their BYE week several weeks ago. They're 1-0-1 in their last two and have gotten much better play from QB Ryan Fitzpatrick than what we saw earlier in the year. The defense has also done a better job, holding down decent offenses in Philadelphia and Jacksonville. Side note: Andy Reid should have been fired on the spot for airing it out 58 times Sunday against Cincy. Sure the game lasted 5 quarters meaning more pass attempts than normal, but Brian Westbrook had just 14 carries for the day, despite averaging more than 4 yards a pop. Unforgiveable.
Anyway, Thursday night provides a fantastic opportunity for the offense to take things to the next level. In an ideal world, Captain Bruce would draw up a nice opening series or two, we'd take a lead, then take to the ground. And stay there for much of the game, with some efficient 3rd down looks to Hines and a couple of well timed vertical passes to Santonio Holmes. But it's the ground game that I truly hope to see emphasized.
We're playing on short rest which means, among other things, that Gary Russel could be strategically used this week in combination with Willie Parker. Yes, Parker feasts on the Bengals, but I hope that Arians isn't intent on letting him eat too much just for the sake of letting him have his time in the spotlight after an unlucky and inconsistent year thus far for FWP.
I have no evidence at all to substantiate this, but I'm beginning to wonder if running the ball effectively at this level is partly psychological. Don't get me wrong, it's flat out easier to do when you have guys like Dermontti Dawson, Alan Faneca, Jonathan Ogden, Jeff Saturday, or Willie Roaf. But as I've said before in other conversations, unlike in college, the talent disparity is not nearly as pronounced in the National Football League. We're cleary somewhere between mediocre and below-average along the offensive line, but we're not flat out awful, particularly at the interior line positions (Guard and Center). Could we possibly improve markedly in this last couple of months by having another couple of productive weeks on the ground, then simply willing ourself to reasonable success consistently?
Who knows. Again, I look first at tangible matchup issues and talent when trying to evaluate how we might fare. It's definitely clear that our current stable of linemen aren't sufficient cosidering the remarkable depth and talent we have at most every other position on both sides of the ball. Yet, I've seen enough now, in both pass protection and in the running game to think we could be somewhere between so-so and pretty good instead of decidedly underwhelming.
Why? Well, couple things. Firstly, we've shown some success running the ball against solid run defenses. The Chargers game comes to mind. So does the Jaguars game. Secondly, most of our pass protection issues have come from outside ass rushers this year, whereas last year, we had both problems at tackle and in the interior of our line. No longer is the pocket collapsing on Big Ben with startling frequency from DTs who have no business pressuring QBs as often as they did last year against us. I think Ben can still get his groove back enough where he can avoid some of the pressure from the outside. And it's worth noting that it's a lot easier to execute the short stuff to Hines, Mewelde and the TEs in the middle half of the field when there's not massive interior DLinemen with their arms raised in Ben's face.
So, that's some fairly unorganized stream of conciousness from me, but to conclude and summarize, I'm cautiously optimistic that we can continue to improve to the point where we can realistically consider us challengers in the AFC. As of today, I'm not yet ready to say we are even though no team truly scares me too much besides Tennessee and Indy. If we can finish off drives, halves, and games on offense with a ltitle more regularity, I'd feel a bit better. But I personally see all the ingredients there.
A resounding win against the Bengals on Thursday would be just what the doctor ordered for a team that's so close to breaking through and becoming more consistent. Ben can put his disappointing stretch of games in the rear view mirror, Willie Parker can again prove why we may be ok if he's got gas in the tank for the stretch, Heath Miller might return to provide Arians with the two TE sets he so supposedly craved, and Santonio Holmes can prove that he's still a threat when his QB and offense is not out of sync.
Lay it all on the line this Thursday Steelers! A ten day rest awaits before playing again, and it's more than likely that Tomlin will give his players at least 4 days rest after Thursday's game to heal up.
With some ever improving health, consecutive wins (hopefully), and more confirmation that we might be more strategically effective running the ball a bit more, the Steelers' prospects could be looking increasingly promising in just a few short days.