It was a bizarre game. After the emotional roller-coaster that the Baltimore game was, this one felt... flat. Bengals had the lead early, the way they took it and the subsequent Steelers' offensive woes made me sit and watch the game calmly. They Troy Polamalu did the game with one brilliant play. That's the way the game was, all the excitement was about separate plays, there were about 7 or 8 of those plays. Other than that, the game was pretty much flat indeed.
The first Polamalu pick was very worrisome, as Troy went off limping after a spectacular TD. He winced and grimaced. I immediately thought back to the first week of last season, when Polamalu made an incredible interception of Kerry Collins but a few plays later went out with a knee injury. Polamalu stayed in the game, and I am not sure if it slowed him down, but I would much rather have a healthy Troy than that TD.
There's the other ankle that bothers me, and it belongs to Ben Roethlisberger. Yes, he said it was a minor injury, but I know how easy it is to aggravate a bad ankle with just a small tweak. We definitely need Ben to be at his best if we want to continue winning despite the atrocious play of the offensive line.
There aren't too many further observations from the game, but the big one is that this is the team that has the recipe for the championship - stifling defense and offense that scores just enough points while milking the clock. If you think about it, with all the futility that the offense had against the Bengals, the Steelers scored enough points to beat Cincy, even without two pick-sixes the score would have been 9-7. Leading in the game, Ben and his unit took out over 22 minutes on their four drives in the 2nd half. The D simply slammed the door shut on any comeback attempts that Cincy may have had.
What distinguishes this team from the 2009 Steelers is the 2nd half play. Yes, the Steelers scored the fewest points in the 3rd quarter in the NFL, but the Steelers are 9-0 after this game when leading at half time. This is quite a turnaround from last season, when we blew 5 fourth-quarter leads. Another amazing stat is that the Steelers are 4-2 in games where they score less than 20 points.
I also liked that the two big mistakes made by the Steelers in the game were rookies mistakes - both in their substance and based by who committed them. Maurkice Pouncey's missed assignment took 3 points off the board in the 2nd half, and Antonio Brown's ill-advised attempt to compensate for the bad punt bounce almost led to a spark that the Bengals team needed just as badly as we needed Troy's INT. Rookie mistakes mean that they can be cleaned up. Youngsters learn through experience, and there's a good chance that these things will not happen again with them.
I liked the resiliency of Emmanuel Sanders. Being visibly hurt earlier in the play, he stayed in the game and did some good blocks on a few plays. Most of all I liked a beautiful short pass to Mike Wallace when he was positioned at the back of the trips formation with Hines Ward and Sanders as leading blockers. Beautiful.
I also thought that our secondary played a very good game. Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark stand out, both had good covrage all day (expect for the first drive, maybe), and Taylor was on the receiving end of a tough pass interference call in the end zone that led to the first TD of the game - that could have as easily been offensive pass interference on Owens.
Finally, it is becoming a routine to complain about officiating. I actually hate it, mainly because mistakes have always happened to refs too, but this is just too much against the Steelers. First, James Harrison was fined game in, game out. When the blood rivals (Ravens) stood up to him, the League seems to have changed their approach to the opposite extreme of not protecting the Steelers at all. There were at least two flagrant personal fouls by Cincy players on Roethlisberger, one a slam to the head during a sack, the other one an egregiously late hit by two (!!!) defenders way after Ben had thrown the ball. That's not the way to do it.
Now the Jets are coming. I honestly don't know what to expect from them even to a greater extent than it was the case with the Bengals. NYJ haven't scored a touchdown in 8 quarters, their QB looks vulnerable and confused, and the sideline staff uses dirty tricks to influence the games. The good thing is that there can be no trap game if the following one is the Panthers game. I fully expect the Steelers to be 12-3 going into Cleveland in the first game of 2011,