Stories published earlier, but bumped back to the top of the page for visibility reasons. Breakdowns of specific plays can be found below. We'll get to Baltimore soon enough. Believe me. But there's not much to be said really. Two rivals will face off for the ultimate prize - a trip to the Super Bowl. Time first to soak in the entertaining and dominant performance against the Chargers first.
Where to start? I'm barely calm enough to sit down long enough to think, let alone write something but let's start in the most obvious of places - the performance of the Pittsburgh Steelers much maligned offense.
Here were the final team numbers on the day for them:
|3rd Down %||6/14||5/12|
|Time of Possession||36:30||23:30|
|Penalties||7-44 yards||8-104 yards|
|Sacked||1-4 yards||4-33 yards|
1) There were probably lots of Steelers fans who were wringing their hands nervously during the first quarter. San Diego marched right down the field on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead on an absolutely perfect connection between Philip Rivers and Vincent Jackson for 41 yards. We then had to punt after a holding penalty at the SD 36 backed us up out of FG range. At that particular moment, with the offense once again shooting itself in the foot to stall an otherwise promising looking drive, some may have been exceedingly nervous.
I was not simply because Willie Parker and our offensive line gave us a glimpse of the feast to come throughout the rest of the game. Parker's first run went for 12 yards; he then picked up 2 yards, and another 8 on back-to-back carries and we were inside the San Diego 40 yard line. Credit to Bruce Arians for setting the tone early in the running game. You could just tell that our linemen played like they knew they were the nastier unit in the trenches for the first time all year. Part of that I have to imagine, starts with the offensive coordinator and the tone he sets with his preparation and play calling.
2) We'll get to some individual performance reviews in a bit, but back to the team numbers for a second. It was so huge that Bruce Arians stuck with the run throughout this game. I really felt FWP had a 150 yard game in him and Arians, Parker and the offensive line made sure that prediction rang true. Or at least almost. Parker finished with 146 yards on 27 carries. The 27 carries were the most since Week 2 against Cleveland when he had 28 carries.
3) Pounding the ball against San Diego isn't necessarily the obvious recipe for success. The Chargers after all 11th against the run and 31st against the pass. It helped that Parker was running amazingly hard and efficiently (more on this later), and that the offensive line was opening up some significant running lanes, but as I already said, so much depends on the offensive coordinator putting together a cohesive game plan and sticking to it - then adjusting at the right times throughout the game.
4) The reason I felt so confident after we steadied the ship (forced three straight punts after their opening TD) was because of this clearly visible solid game plan. Take some of our other first half drives for example. Holmes' punt return leveled the score at 7-7 of course, When we got the ball back next, we went 3 and out.
After forcing another punt we got the ball back on our 18 yard line. Here were the ensuing plays:
|1-10-PIT18||(12:49) W.Parker up the middle to PIT 25 for 7 yards (E.Weddle; S.Cooper).|
|2-3-PIT25||(12:14) W.Parker right tackle to PIT 30 for 5 yards (S.Cooper; J.Cesaire).|
|1-10-PIT30||(11:34) W.Parker up the middle to PIT 36 for 6 yards (J.Tucker).|
|2-4-PIT36||(10:56) W.Parker right guard to PIT 41 for 5 yards (S.Cooper; J.Williams).|
|1-10-PIT41||(10:12) M.Moore left guard to PIT 45 for 4 yards (S.Cooper).|
|2-6-PIT45||(9:28) W.Parker right guard to PIT 48 for 3 yards (S.Cooper; T.Dobbins).|
PENALTY on PIT-D.Stapleton, False Start, 5 yards, enforced at PIT 48 - No Play.
|3-8-PIT43||(8:20) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass short right to C.Davis to PIT 49 for 6 yards (E.Weddle).|
(7:48) (Punt formation) M.Berger punts 51 yards to end zone, Center-J.Retkofsky, Touchback
That's not a misprint. 6 straight runs for Pittsburgh, covering 30 yards or 5 yards per carry. I don't know if you remember, but on that 3rd and 3 play were Stapleton jumped, we were going to run it out of the shotgun. It was a great call and we were going to get a 1st down.
Anyway, that drive further reinforced to me that we were going to win this game, even if it was just 7-7 and halftime was just around the corner. The one thing that was clear to me and the army of Black & Gold supporters joining in the open thread was that Parker was running hard and decisively. In some of his more jaw dropping highlight reels, Parker often is found doing a stutter step in the backfield as he sees exactly where his lanes might be. Patience and vision is a good thing of course, but sometimes you gotta just go hard into the hole and take what you can. Parker did that when running in between the tackles. When running outside the tackles, he showed that his speed is baaaaaaaaack.
5) We'll discuss the fake punt soon enough, but after we failed to convert, San Diego got a cheap 3 points and we were suddenly trailing by 3 points with just under 2 minutes remaining. Even though we all agreed that Bruce Arians had been calling some nice plays, we joked that this was a great opportunity for the offense to get points: Ben would be in the no-huddle and in charge of the play calling. 7 plays and 66 yards later the Steelers took their first lead of the game at 14-10.
One thought on that final drive before wrapping it up for now: even though the run blocking and the pass blocking from the offensive lineman had been solid in the first half, we needed Mewelde Moore to do a better job of pass protection if we were going to hit our stride in the second half. Moore totally whiffed on the Chargers one lone sack of the game, choosing incorrectly about where the help was needed. I commented on it in the thread, but that was the last of his mental miscues. He was as good as the rest of the line in protection for the remainder of the game and even though it won't show up in the stat sheet, it was highly critical for us to get that contribution from him today.
An absolutely gorgeous 41 yard throw and catch from Big Ben to Hines Ward put us in business and Parker finished it off from 3 yards out one play later. Let that throw to Ward be a nice reminder of two things about Ben:
A) He's still an amazing physical talent - not all QBs can make that throw, period.
B) He has the ability to forget what happened last play, last drive, last game in order to do what's necessary to get things done in the moment. If you recall, Ben overthrew Santonio Holmes the very play before the perfect strike to Ward. There was no time to sulk or panic or be frustrated, even though that miss cost us 7 points. He didn't and we took a lot of the wind out of San Diego's sails heading into halftime. Despite the early deficit; despite the gamble that didn't pay off on our side of the field; and despite being out gained in the first half 118 to 58 prior to that last drive, we mounted that charge and took control of the game's momentum at just the right moment of the game.
A quick look at what I'm talking about, starting first with the errant throw:
Damn, look at all that space between the two Chargers defenders. Holmes was running towards the post and had the inside track on the closer defender. There was no way that the safety was going to catch him if that ball is thrown where it needs to be.
Its a what have you done for me lately business though and Ben responded on his very next attempt:
Sick. So good.
That's what championship caliber quarterbacks and teams do.
Second half next.