I told my girlfriend last night that I didn't think the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to win this afternoon in Cincinnati. Through the first quarter and a half of Sunday's game, I thought I was going to be proven wrong. Unfortunately, I wasn't. Give credit to the Bengals for keeping the ship afloat during a very rocky first half, then ratcheting up their game and executing tremendously in the 2nd half to catch up to the Steelers in the game's final seconds. My five quick thoughts about the game. First though, there's lots of people who will say the team needs to 'wake up' or 'get motivated' or 'forget about last season' or other phantom things that don't really address why the Steeler are losing close football games. Just remember how razor thin a line it is between winning and losing in this league. We're one or two plays short in consecutive weeks from winning. We could easily be 3-0. We could also be 0-3. Just trying to 'play Steelers football' isn't going to cut it. We're playing Steelers football - hard and competitive games each week. We need a little extra something to get us over the top in this hyper-competitive league - a few breaks, the return of our best player, better execution in the red zone, etc etc.
To my initial five reflections...
I always like to start with something positive, or at least try to, so I'll begin by saying I was mostly impressed again by the offense of the Steelers. They were balanced, good on 3rd down, protected Big Ben pretty well and eclipsed 350 yards of total offense (373) for the 2nd time in three weeks. The 2008 Steelers only accomplished that six times last season. It was also outstanding to see Willie Parker play much better football this week. Outside of his performance against San Diego in last year's playoffs, I thought he looked better than he had since Week 1 of the 2008 season when Pittsburgh whooped Houston to start the year. Parker finished with a shade under 100 yards (93 yards) on 25 carries. He looked like his burst to get to the outside was back and he also showed an uncharacteristically solid set of hands in the passing game. If he can play like this moving forward, our offense really has a good shot at gelling and playing at a high enough level to make another run at the playoffs and beyond. This offense still needs to do a better job not leaving points out there on the field, but it's only a matter of time if you ask me until the scoreboard reflects how solidly they've been playing for most of this young season.
Okay, one more positive note before getting to the bad - CONGRATULATIONS to Hines Ward for surpassing the 10,000 yard mark in his Hall of Fame worthy career. Did you see some of those names on the graphic of wide receivers to accumulate 10,000 receiving yards with one single team: Rod Smith, Marvin Harrison, Steve Largent - impressive stuff for Hines. Individual milestones probably mean very little to him during the course of the intense season - he'll look back on the accomplishment at some point, just not now I doubt. Anyway...his contributions are still very meaningful to this football team. He's not being paraded out there just to surpass milestones. He's averaging 6 catches and just about 80 receiving yards per game so far. What a gamer.
Okay, on to the bad. It all begins and ends really with the defense at this point in the season for Pittsburgh. Remember what Tunch Ilkin said to us on Behind The Steel Curtain - the NFL changes dramatically every 4 weeks. That's because teams can individually change every four weeks. This defense is largely the same personnel as last season, so it may seem hard to comprehend why they're not nearly as dominant through three games as they were most all of last season. Obviously the loss of Troy Polamalu is huge. We'll be an entirely different defense when he returns from injury. What is troubling though is the lack of pressure being generated by the Steelers pass rushers and the blitz packages being implemented. And the lack of turnovers is also disconcerting. There's individuals who could play better, for sure. Has there been a Deshea Townsend sighting this year? William Gay continues to be just decent as he gets more experience - there's some good, but plenty of room for improvement too. Anyway, this is the storyline for the 2009 Steelers moving forward: can the defense be better than they've been while Troy is out as the offense continues to work at manufacturing more points out of the success they're having on offense.
Remember guys and gals that this is just Week 3. Last year on this date we were throttled by Philadelphia and looked bad enough that there was no conceivable way to think about advancing to the Super Bowl. The team improved and persevered through the downs. This 2009 team will have every opportunity to get itself back on track moving forward. They stand 2 games behind the Ravens in the AFC North through just two weeks, but remember that Baltimore has played two early cupcakes whereas the Steelers have yet to see the Browns (who look just awful) or teams like Kansas City or Detroit. Let's see where things stand in three weeks after Baltimore (who looks simply outstanding thus far) travels to New England and Minnesota. Pittsburgh meanwhile has three of its next four at Heinz Field, beginning next weekend against San Diego at Heinz Field. They then travel to Detroit (huzzah to them for winning for the first time since December of 2007), then host Cleveland and Minnesota before their BYE Week. The NFL changes every four weeks - let's see where things stand after that slate of games, then look forward to that BYE Week to get rested up for the stretch run in the season's second half. Something tells me the attitude of the fanbase will be a lot different after this next month, and certainly I think a 4-3 or 5-2 record is well within the realm of possibility.
- Stats of the game: 23 of the final 30 plays were run by Cincinnati's offense. The defense just couldn't make a play late in the game for the second week in a row. Give LOTS of credit to Carson Palmer and the Bengals offense though. Like the Bears did last week, the Bengals executed exquisitely when it really counted in crunch time. Second stat of the game: 3 of 3 on 4th down by the Bengals. All of them in the 2nd half and two of them in the game's final drive. That's one way to mask being just 3 of 12 on 3rd downs and not managing a single positive play really for the entire 1st quarter.
Much more from me on this one and about how the Steelers 2009 season is trending through three exciting and largely disappointing weeks.