Pregame Zone Blitz: Carolina Kitties Come To Town

Now we know how Baltimore felt, losing a game they thought they had won in the fourth quarter.

Such is the way of life in the AFC in 2010. Even with the loss, the Steelers clinched a playoff berth through a formula requiring the assistance of NASA-developed technology. With the Colts knocking off the Jaguars, there seems to be a growing divide from the top four; Patriots, Steelers, Ravens and Jets.

What's going to make this a great post-season is the fact all four of these teams have played each other this year. Familiarity breeds contempt.

The Patriots beat up on Pittsburgh and once against the Jets. They went down to the wire with the Ravens and lost to the Jets in their first meeting. Baltimore and the Jets had a nail-biter, as well as two tight games with the Steelers. Pittsburgh has dropped three of four against these teams, but easily could have won three of four.

First up for the Black and Gold, though, winning their fifth AFC North title since 2002 - the first year divisional realignments created the North. To do that, they'll have to take out an undermatched Panthers team on a short week.

Let's get after it, this week's special early release PZB.

Opponent Web Sites/Forums

Maybe this is arrogant, but as a Steelers fan, have you ever even considered drafting first overall? Charlotte-based media now cover Stanford's Andrew Luck regularly, and started doing it a few weeks ago.

The Charlotte Observer's outstanding columnist, Tom Sorensen, coined a catchy poem which symbolizes what the Panthers need to do:

Pass the ball!/Not the buck!/Lose this game!/Or you're out of Luck!

Nothing cute to mention about the fullback Cat Scratch Reader writes about after the Panthers signed him from their practice squad.

However, they were pretty excited about QB Jimmy Clausen's "adult-like" 7.1 yards per pass attempt in their 19-12 win over Arizona in Week 15.

Kind of sad...Sorensen wrote what seems like an obituary for Panthers coach John Fox after Sunday's win over the Cardinals.

Take one guess who Charlotte thinks will replace Fox.

For the second week in a row, the Steelers get to face a team with a representative who was recently fined for taking a cheap shot on an opposing player on a punt return. Panthers DE Tyler Brayton was fined $15,000 for an elbow to the head of Falcons player in Week 14.

Last Game

As SteelerBro put it after the game, "...hard to be excited after a loss, but since in the scheme of things it doesn't really matter I've decided not to kill myself."

Good thing, too. It'd ruin Christmas. His point though is the Steelers clinched a playoff berth despite the loss, they still control their destiny in terms of winning the division and getting a first-round bye (with two sub-mediocre teams on the slate to end the regular season).

But this one is still tough to swallow.

The great games always come down to one or two plays. The great teams are able to make those plays in all three phases of the game.

How great are the Jets? PZB isn't sure, but it's tough to argue with a kickoff return touchdown, a perfectly thrown deep pass (to Braylon Edwards, indefensible for CB Bryant McFadden) and a safety that forced the Steelers to burn 30 seconds and two timeouts late in the fourth quarter.

Great teams find a way to win games in which they're outgained 378-276. The Jets offense scored 13 points on offense, didn't turn the ball over and got nine more from special teams and defense.

In the end, the Steelers fell just short, unable to convert from the Jets eight yard line.

They fell just short, despite the offensive line's best performance to date and Rashard Mendenhall's first 100 yard game in several weeks. Despite Mike Wallace returning to the century mark for receiving yards. Despite Shaun Suisham hitting yet another 40+ yard field goal. They fell short because of their first special teams blunder this year. Because of a blown blocking assignment on an otherwise phenomenal performance by a battered offensive line.

It's a gut-wrenching loss, no doubt, but great teams make great plays in big games. We saw two great teams making those plays, one just made one more than the other.

As Rex Ryan and Mike Tomlin agreed after the game, these teams will see each other again. If and when they do, the Jets better hope they get another special teams touchdown and a safety, because they lost this game without them.

Us Against The World

How utterly ridiculous is it that James Harrison makes a football act and gets fined $75,000, and Richard Seymour, despite whatever happened to provoke him, slugs a player on national TV in full view of the cameras and knocks him to the ground -- and gets fined $25,000. Weak. Very weak.

Peter King

Most would agree Ben Roethlisberger is a pretty good quarterback. It's amazing how many times receivers were nowhere near the vertical passes he threw.

Apparently, clutching and grabbing isn't against the law on Revis Island.

Mike Wallace and Manny Sanders, for example. It's shocking how the officials didn't once throw a flag on a secondary that was clearly overmatched athletically. Without any doubt, Sanders was held on his way to the end zone late in the fourth quarter, and that would have been a touchdown.

However...more of PZB's concern is the fact they threw/dropped/misplaced/shat out three flags in the first quarter, all of which they picked up.

Why are there flags on the ground if there isn't an infraction? Is this a geriatric lack of bowel control kind of thing? While this doesn't necessarily implicate Pittsburgh unfairly, it yet again crushes the credibility of the people paid far more than you and I are to regulate the game.

Again, they aren't asked to negotiate a truce in the Middle East. They aren't asked to erase the federal deficit by next month. They're asked to interpret the rules set in front of them, but they show time and again they are unable to do so.

Absolutely no reason a flag wasn't thrown on Sanders, especially when three of them just happened to land on the ground for no reason at all. Unless...there is a reason, and the NFL just can't stand the fact the team in black and gold beat their superior marketed opponent.

Opponent Spotlight: RBs Mike Goodson and Jonathan Stewart

Some PZB trivia...how many opponents outside of the AFC North have had the Spotlight placed on them more than once?

One. Carolina's Mike Goodson. Called out for the final preseason game of 2009 after a solid training camp, he was pretty much the only interesting player worth a look in that throwaway game.

Sadly for Carolina, the same thing is pretty much true now. While he's not the featured back, he's certainly the most explosive. He has yet to rush for under 100 yards when given 20 or more carries, and has an attention-grabbing 4.8 yards per carry.

Complimenting him in Carolina's ground and pound rushing mentality is Stewart, who's racked up 99, 133 and 139 total yards, respectively, in his past three games. He blew up against Arizona in Week 15, lugging the rock 27 times for 139 yards in a rare Panthers victory.

Stewart and Goodson have both run well over the past few games, and while no running back should expect success in yards gained at the end of a game against the Steelers, Jets RB LaDainian Tomlinson proved being effective in doses is possible, and it can contribute to big road victories.

With WR Steve Smith falling off his typically dominant production measures, and QB Jimmy Clausen just being ineffective, the Panthers are going to rely on power running and ball control to hang with the vastly more talented and experienced Steelers. It's hard to suggest either (maybe not even both combined) will rush for 100 yards, or score a touchdown, but the Panthers are simply going to hook the plows to them and see how far they can pull.

Steelers Spotlight: The Offensive Line

PZB is breaking tradition and shining its 1,000 watt spotlight bulb squarely on the trenchermen. While it's likely no one else praises the Five Up Front, their collective performance against the Jets was something from the golden age of Steelers football.

Chris Kemoeatu put up the best individual performance of his career, once flattening LB Calvin Pace with a hit he's still likely feeling in Week 17. He also pancaked Jason Taylor (unfortunately, not  when Mewelde Moore was stuffed in the end zone). Flozell Adams performed brilliantly to Kemoeatu's left, and Maurkice Pouncey did a phenomenal job recognizing the Jets' blitzes.

With that kind of confidence, imagine what they can do to a defense surrendering 125 rushing yards and 25 points a game?

With the exception of DE Charles Johnson (nine sacks, resembles a thicker and slightly taller James Harrison) the Panthers front seven isn't particularly tough, especially not for the kind of teams soon-to-be-former Panthers coach (and Steelers assistant) John Fox is used to producing. Despite the loss, and the Panthers win, the Steelers offensive line should have a world of confidence going into a game where, on paper, they don't appear to be overmatched.

Even better, it looks as if TE Heath Miller will be back. While Matt Spaeth will likely get dogged for a drop and one missed block, he also flattened a few Jets players during the game. David Johnson has filled in Spaeth's spot well also, but clearly, Miller is the best all around player of the three of them, and his presence should give the Steelers even more reason to rest the game on the shoulders of the warriors up front.

I See You

I see you, Emmanuel Sanders. You put forward a monster game, grabbing everything that came near you. You did that so well, the guy covering you followed suit, unfortunately, and a more zealous and awake officiating crew would have seen that.

I also saw the fact you were being covered on the last drive by The Great Darrelle Revis. And even he had to grab you to slow you down. You would have scored on that drive, Manny, had he not clearly pulled your jersey when you burned his butt on a fly pattern.

Looks like Wallace isn't the only Steelers receiver who can create separation on a fly pattern.

A career-high seven catches, drawing the game's greatest clutch-and-grab cornerback on a drive your opponent needed to have more than you did (Jets are outside the playoffs if they lose that game), that's a big game, Manny. Throw in a few perfectly read hot routes (your counterpart Antonio Brown missed a few of those), and you've officially become an emerging player.

(nod to TE Matt Spaeth, who barely lost out to Sanders, for an excellent job blocking, and a huge touchdown reception. He was crushing Jets defenders all game, and there was very little chance any wide receiver, let alone tight end, could have pulled in that last pass Roethlisberger put up and prayed for.)

Key Stats

  • Week 15's loss to the Jets was the first time this season the Steelers had a 100 yard rusher and receiver, and did not turn the ball over.
  • Pittsburgh is 29-8 when Troy Polamalu starts, and 5-8 when he doesn't.
  • Carolina is averaging 167 rushing yards over their last four games.
  • A win and a Ravens loss at Cleveland would give the Steelers their fifth AFC North championship since 2002.

Quick-Hitters

If The Playoffs Started Today: 1. New England*; 2. Pittsburgh*; 3. Kansas City; 4. Indianapolis; 5. Baltimore; 6. New York Jets. Wild Card round: Jets at Chiefs; Ravens at Colts.

*Clinched playoff berth  

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