Just like last week, let's take a minute to recognize some of the Pittsburgh Steelers who played important complimentary roles during the team's 19-11 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Nashville this past Sunday.
- Chris Hoke - Though I didn't include him in my poll regarding defensive player of the game last Sunday, I certainly took notice of the fine work Hoke did at the point of attack against the interior of the Titans' offensive line. The stars behind Hoke put on a show, but just like Casey Hampton does most weeks, Hoke set the table beautifully with his rugged, physical play. Author maryrose made a good point in a recent comment when he said: "What that man did all day in the heat of those trenches, supposedly as a back-up, was extraordinary. He was the centerpiece of that phenomenal defense. Let’s also not forget how he made certain the referee saw the holding penalty against him that kept the entire game in the Steelers’ favor. He created the penalty that may have saved the day. I love Hokey." The Steelers are now a remarkable 15-1 in regular season games that Hoke has started dating back to 2004.
Arnaz Battle - The wide receiver caught no passes on offense, and registered no tackles on special teams. So why include him on the list? Well, by my count, Battle was the very first, or one of the first two down field on every kickoff on Sunday. Even though he didn't get credited for any tackles, he was responsible for either blowing up the return single-handedly for a teammate to clean up, or for slowing down the Titans' return man sufficiently to ensure against a big return.
In this first frame, Battle does a little bit of that blowing up the return that I was talking about. Very impressive display of speed, not to mention willingness to head-hunt recklessly.
In this second picture, Battle dives to make the tackle, barely missing. However, Mariani is now off-balance and unlikely to get his feet underneath him quickly enough to make it through the lane that has actually materialized for a moment. I also put a box on Stevenson Sylvester because he displays some of his sound instincts here. Sylvester is correctly in his lane up until the precise moment that it's clear Mariani has committed to a running lane other than his own. It's at this point, with Mariani not in full-control of his body, that Sylvester sheds his block and closes down the hole that Mariani is eying. Sylvester would get credited with the tackle, with assistance from Keyaron Fox.
Back to Battle though real quick - it's not about the stats on special teams. It's about doing your job intelligently and fearlessly at the same time, and doing so 100 percent of the time. Battle's done just that so far, and it's a welcomed addition to a team that was historically poor on kickoff coverage a year ago.
- Jeff Reed - Some might wonder why not choose Daniel Sepulveda over Jeff Reed here if I feel the need to mention another special teams contributor. I actually though Sepulveda had a below-average performance against the Titans, which I'll mention in a different post. I suppose Reed played more than a 'quiet' role considering the Steelers' scored just one touchdown, while getting there other 12 points off four Jeff Reed FGs. None of Reed's makes were particularly challenging (36, 34, 25, 27) or pressure-packed (all came with the Steelers holding a lead), but it was important in my mind to see Reed get back to his usual reliable self after two misses the previous week. One of those misses in Week 1 was from 55, and the other got pushed wide by a gust of wind, so it's not exactly as if Reed looked disconcertingly off. But man, every year without fail a kicker that's generally be solid his career goes into the tank inexplicably. I wasn't exactly nervous about Reed's psyche, let's just say I was pleased to see him look picture-perfect on his four kicks Sunday. He also continued with his new trend of longer kickoffs, though considering the hot, humid air in Nashville, I suppose we should hold our excitement until we see how he fares when the air turns colder and the ball becomes heavier and harder.
- Ryan Clark - I haven't spent much time analyzing the plays he's been involved in, but that's exactly it. Clark hasn't been involved in too many plays this year, and frankly, that's a very good thing. All that means really is that running backs aren't getting to the second and third level very often, that the two cornerbacks are doing their jobs admirably, and that Clark isn't taking unnecessary gambles that expose him and the defense to the long ball. Good times. Stay patient Mr. Clark. Your time will come to lay the lumber on someone and make a game-changing play. Until then, keep on doing what you're doing!
- Aaron Smith - The perennially underrated (but widely appreciated within Steeler Nation) defensive tackle was only credited with one assist on Sunday, but don't let that fool you. Smith's impact was all over the game. The Titans like to run Chris Johnson in all sorts of sets and formations, but one of their favorite ways to spring C.J. is on those stretch runs off-guard and/or slightly off-tackle. (The Indianapolis Colts used to like to run Edgerrin James in this way. Not sure if they still do; can't stand watching them play.) Anyway, Smith did an amazing job disrupting the blocking schemes of the Titans on those types of runs in particular. Smith, of course, was engaged with blockers all afternoon, so he didn't have his name called but once. Obviously Smith's coaches, Tomlin and Dick LeBeau, will give credit where credit is due for the job Smith did helping to slow down Johnson. If only fans and writers across the country realized just how special Smith is.