Family obligations prevented me from posting a weeks 4-5 edition, but I'm back this week -- and, after a thorough trashing of a top-tier defense last week, there isn't much change needed, right?
The Tennessee Titans had been, through four weeks, one of the big surprises this season. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, traded away from the team that drafted him, oh, seven eons ago, was supposed to be old and washed up. With only Kenny Britt catching passes, there wasn't supposed to be much of a vertical passing game. And the defense had plenty of questions, too. Really, it was supposed to be about a heavy dose of runningback Chris Johnson, a member of the elite 2,000-Yard Club.
But Hasselbeck has thrived -- even though he lost Britt for the season. The quarterback looks like a younger version of himself, throwing accurate passes with the touch he is known for. And it all came despite an utter lack of production from their star -- and now much richer -- runner. Johnson had a single 100-yard performance through four games and averaged fewer than 50 per game in the other three. But, thanks to a revived quarterback and a defense that has rated among the best in most categories, they entered their contest with the Steelers with a winning record and building confidence.
But on Sunday, these oft-floundering Steelers finally figured it out.
They put a whipping on the Titans in every aspect of the game -- that is, after we all thought it would be "another one of those days" after Johnson ripped off a 21-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage. After that, though, he averaged fewer than 2.5 yards per carry and Ike Taylor & Co. made Hasselbeck look more like his Seattle replacement, Tarvaris Jackson, than the NFC Championship QB he once was.
They looked so good, despite numerous injuries before and during the game, that the opportunities for improvement seem limited on the surface. But they are there.
Bruce, Don't Change a Thing!
It sounds weird to say that one of the best changes to make is to not change anything. But last week's offensive gameplan worked wonders. To a lot of us, the changes that were made seemed obvious: more three-step drops for Ben Roethlisberger; more short, timing-based routes; taking Jonathan Scott out of the running for Left Tackle, etc. For me and others, we've been calling for many of these changes all season long because they minimize the flaws along the offensive line.
The biggest change of all, of course, was bringing Max Starks back to start at left tackle. Honestly, a decent-sized trout may have been a better option than Scott at left tackle. It's not that Scott is a bad lineman; it's that he's not a natural lefty.
As I've said here countless times already, Scott would succeed and, possibly, excel at right tackle. And, thanks to an injury to rookie Marcus Gilbert, that's exactly what happened. Scott proved that he knows how to block well as long as he isn't facing off against a speed rusher whose sole intent is to attack a quarterback's blindside.
The line continues to face challenges, but the adjustments made by coordinator Bruce Arians and the personnel changes along the offensive front will definitely go a long way toward changing the group's reputation around the league.
Stop Using Your Inside Voice, Lawrence!
Lawrence Timmons definitely split the fanbase when he was drafted. He is a physical specimen, to be sure, but he was drafted at a position of lower need than others at a time when the team was coming off an 8-8 season. Many thought the new head coach was already showing how bad of a personnel guy he would be.
But Timmons has, over the last four-plus seasons, proven many wrong. He led the team in tackles in 2010 and has an early lead again this season. But last week, after James Harrison had surgery to repair a broken orbital bone, Timmons was moved to the outside -- and I, for one, was excited.
The team's pass rush has been lacking in 2011, and putting the most physical player we have at a position where physicality is your best weapon not only seemed like a good choice, it was a no-brainer. With Larry Foote backing up the two inside guys, we were in good hands if Timmons moved. And, despite not getting to the quarterback for a sack last week, Timmons spent the entire day creating pressure on Hasselbeck. It was as good a first week as he could have hoped for, and will have another 3-5 weeks at least to show more.
The question then becomes whether or not he should stay outside. He may be a better fit there, because of how coordinator Dick LeBeau uses outside 'backers. Both LaMarr Woodley and Harrison spend a healthy amount of time in coverage as well as rushing the quarterback, thanks to the zone-blitzing schemes employed by the Steelers. Timmons' athleticism would allow him to be a force at both rather than his current role, which is a mix of coverage and making most of the tackles in the running game, with a little pinch of rushing the passer thrown in. The downside is that outside linebackers are easier to find, but with Stevenson Sylvester also available inside, it's not as big of a deal as it could be. And, let's face it: Deebo is getting older, and he's now had surgery three times this year.
Hey, Hey, Hey(ward)!
One of the most pleasant surprises of the Tennessee game was the play of rookie Cam Heyward. The young defensive end, playing in Aaron Smith's stead, had two sacks. Only one was credited thanks to Hasselbeck taking an ill-advised intentional grounding penalty, which ultimately cost him more yards than the sack would have becaue the penalty is applied from the spot of the foul. But aside from those two plays, Heyward did a fantastic job of sealing the edge and disrupting runs, as well as pushing the pocket backward, contributing to the team's four other sacks. Given his play last week, if that trend continues I would insert him into the lineup a lot more often, keeping both he and Aaron Smith fresher as we get deeper into the season, in much the same way as Ziggy Hood has done with Brett Kiesel.
Where Was the Deep Ball?
Yeah, yeah, I'm aware of the 40-yard touchdown by Mike Wallace. But it was the only attempt of more than 15 yards from Ben Roethlisberger all game, despite outstanding work by the offensive line. Arians has stated publicly that he wants to try fou or five times per game to hit the deep pass, so this one left me scratching my head. With Jacksonville's limited ability to rush the passer, I would take more than my fair share of deep shots this week.
The Steelers win this week, and rather handily. The Jaguars are scrappy, no doubt, but the Steelers are the defending AFC champions and, last week, finally played that way.
Prediction: Steelers win, 31-13.