Lots of good thoughts on the game in the post game thread as well as the numerous fanposts written since the Steelers won their fourth straight this afternoon against the Dallas Cowboys. A few more from me.
* Let's start with the defense. You have to give credit to Jason Garret for finding ways to use Tashard Choice effectively against our imposing defense. The rookie from Georgia Tech had 150+ yards from scrimmage, including 88 yards on 23 carries. The 88 yards were the most by a running back against Pittsburgh this year. On consecutive possessions to start the 3rd quarter, the Cowboys scored a TD then a FG. The drives were 8 and 7 plays long, covering 67 and 57 yards respectively. Our top rated defense certainly didn't look top rated at that point. To me, the drives rekindled old memories of the 2006 defense - a good defense, but certainly not spectacular. Was this supposedly great defense being exposed on a big stage finally?
Nope. First of all, bright coordinators, and even not so bright ones, typically discuss something at halftime that they think will work to start the second half. They did that. Secondly, and quite simply, teams put together drives from time to time. Even the Bengals embarked on a stunning 10+ play 90 yard drive for a TD with Ryan freakin Fitzpatrick at the helm. And thirdly, they had the wind in the third quarter. Nothing disturbing at all about what transpired. The reality is, we'll probably have to continue converting turnover opportunities at a fairly high clip to advance deep in the playoffs based on what we know about the offense, but to me, this game managed to enhance my appreciation for this Steelers unit. Holding the Cowboys often explosive offense to just 10 points certainly made me think no worse of them.
Anyway, back to those series real quickly to conclude. One of the bigger plays of the game was James Farrior's 8 yard sack of Tony Romo on 3rd and goal from the Steelers 7. That sack not only killed the Cowboys long string of success on offense and forced on the FG team, it was absolutely it for the day for the Cowboys in terms of offensive production or ball control. They would manage just one more TO completion following their goal line stand, and one meaningless first down before turning it over on downs to seal it. The point is, even when teams find a little prolonged success during the course of a game against us, no time to panic.
* Obviously creating five takeaways per game the past two weeks is a an embarrassment of riches, but if we can continue to get two or three per game we're going to be so tough to beat.
* I really liked that Mike Tomlin called a timeout after the Cowboys ran the ball on 1st down with less than two minutes to go and the game tied. You can't measure these kinds of psychological things, but obviously Tomlin plays to win the game and believes in his guys. Similar logic applies to his decision to go for it on 4th and goal from the 1.
(BTW, I got multiple emails from NFC East fans that hate the Cowboys basically saying 'I can't believe Tomlin didn't kick a FG there. What an idiot).
I like the decision though. 12 play drive with multiple 3rd down conversions. Too bad Willie Colon slipped on the play and totally whiffed his guy.
* Speaking of Colon and the rest of the offensive line. Not a good day at the office from them. There have been a few bad in-game stretches since Darnell Stapleton took over for Kendall Simmons, but mostly the line has played average, not terrible, since then. Today was closer to terrible than average. We mustered only 70 yards on 26 carries. When we had to get a push along the goal line, we couldn't. Anyway, give the Cowboys a ot of credit for the confusion they created. They were physical and fast all day, and up front particularly, they had the upper hand against our line.
It's worth noting though that like the rest of the guys on offense, the line did their job when we were finally starting to move the ball with a sense of urgency and efficiency. Unlike in the Giants game when things fell apart in a hurry with our offensive line, they rallied at just the right time to assist in the win.
* The TD pass to Heath Miller was really a beautifully thrown ball. And to me personally, it was the kind of play that told me Ben is 'back'. By 'back' I mean no longer skittish and rattled in the pocket. He had the same intensity of pressure barreling towards him earlier in the year as he did on that TD throw. But at times earler in the season, he failed to just trust his instincts of where and how to throw that pass. Ben let it go before Heath was even close to breaking out of his route and it had -just- the right amount of air under it. Heath caught it in perfect stride and had the angle on the defender to the pylon.
* Ben's shoulder seems to be doing fairly well too. He threw several nice passes in the 3rd and 4th quarters in tricky wind conditions. The deep ball into the wind to Santonio on 3rd and 16 was gorgeous. We were stuffed on the goal line of course, but that one play gave us a desperately needed injection of adrenaline and hope. God knows the offense was stuck in neutral, if not reverse, up until that point.
* In the last four games, our defense has 11 sacks, 13 takeaways and only given up 43 points.
* I've really felt like Santonio was going to make somthing happen in the punt return game if he continued to get opportunities. I heart Mewelde Moore just fine back there. The ball security he provides is priceless, but it's been Holmes who has shown the ability to at least get close to breaking one. The timing of his big return against Dallas was so huge. Dallas got a little breathing room when they got a first down as I previously mentioned after the goal line stand. But we then forced them to punt. It was a low line drive punt that Holmes brazenly scooped up off the bounce with a defender in his face. By grabbing it in stride without bobbling it at all, Holmes got by the Cowboys gunner and had open space and a slew of blockers ahead of him. We only gained two yards on our three play series, but his 35 yard return already put us in FG position. Spikey clanked home a 44 yarder and we were within 7 and in clear possession of the game's momentum.
* I felt good about Reed's chances on that kick. Tough conditions, but Jeff doesn't miss twice! Period. Also, anybody else hear the sound of the goalpost when a ball rattles it. Cool.
* One last thing on Holmes. This is a kid with lots of heart. The kind of guy we want in our organization if you ask me. He's not the shiniest apple of the bunch, but he wants to be a great football player and it shows out there. He plays with much of the same bravado and confidence as a Terrell Owens without the lame theatrics when things aren't going his way. Wasn't Holmes declared by us and the national media as a breakout player waiting to happen this year? Did we hear anything from him earlier in the year when he wasn't involved much in the offense while we struggled? Nope. Guys like him don't fall off trees, and while he may not be the prototypical elite #1 type WR we greedily may want, he's got elite talent and far better toughness than people are willing to give him credit for.
* Ha, I guess the race for Defensive Player of the Year didn't get any clearer after this week. 4 straight games with a pick for Polamalu! That's 7 for the year, best in the NFL. Credit the dude with 7 tackles and 2 assists as well. James Harrison meanwhile forced another fumble and added his 15th sack to his resume. He too had 9 total tackles like Polamalu. In my mind, the race is between these two guys for the league's top defensive honors.
* Props to the unsung heroes again. William Gay played well. Travis Kirschke's sack in the fourth quarter was huge.
* Just two penalties for ten yards today. I dunno, maybe we should try to get away with holding more often if this is going to be the alternative offensively :)
* Dallas punter Sam Paulesco actually had a better day statistically than Mitch Berger. Paulesco averaged 40 yards on four punts, whereas Berger only averaged 32.8 on 6 punts. Jeez, typing that I realize just how bad that really is, wind or not, for a punter in the National FOOTBALL League. Anyway, I was going to say though that Paulesco's last two punts played a big role in our comeback. The first one returned by Holmes for 35 yards was a 42 yard punt, but it was a total line drive that gave the coverage units no time to get down the field. His 4th and final punt was a 23 yard shank into the wind that gave us the ball back near midfield even though the Cowboys started their drive on the 40 yard line thanks to Reed kicking it out of bounds.
Moral of the story? There are many, but that's also my point - these games come down to so many small things.
That's what Mike Tomlin talks about when he said 'this was a beautiful football game'. He manages 53 players and a slew of coaches. At the end of the day, nearly every player and certainly every coach with in-game decision making responsibilities did something positive to help win the game. The offense showed up just in time, thanks to the offensive line finally saying enough is enough and manning up for the fourth quarter. The defense went from bend but don't break to thoroughly impregnable for the last four series of the game. Jeff Reed had his ups and downs. Special teams again covered well and Gary Russel and Santonio Holmes provided sparks of varying degrees in the return game. And the main attraction Ben Roethlisberger got to do what he does best - engineer late comebacks and do just enough to help his team win. And perhaps most importantly, he was reminded by the sweet outcome that protecting the football was the difference between winning and losing.
NFL games are basically decided down the stretch. We've shedded some of the early and mid season demons to close the door on several tightly contested games during this recent four game streak. We'll see if it yields dividends in the immediate future, but one can almost gurantee that we'll be in a few more close ones, be it against Baltimore, Tennessee, or a playoff opponent should we make the dance.
P.S. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 10-3 in 2008 and 20-9 since Mike Tomlin became the head coach. The style points may be lacking, but the bottom line results are not. And this year, we're getting it done against some of the league's best along the way. Next big test? The playoffs. I, for one, think the program, so to speak, is in very, very capable hands.