PITTSBURGH PA - JANUARY 23: LaMarr Woodley #56 and Brett Keisel #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrate after sacking Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets during the 2011 AFC Championship game at Heinz Field on January 23 2011 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Well, it was a crazy week in the NFL—or crazier than usual. Coach fights, anyone? Tampa Bay beating the Saints? Cowboys almost beating the Pats? The Dream Team finally pulling one out of their, er, camisole? It may all be unnerving, but you can't say it isn't entertaining. But enough about the rest of the league—how did the Steelers do?
Last season I did a series of game recaps called "A Tale of Two Teams." The Steelers seldom seemed to manage a game in which they were completely dominant, but on the other hand they seldom got completely dominated either. This game would have fit right in to that series, as it had a distinct Dr. Jeckell/Mr. Hyde flavor.
After a highly satisfying win over Tennessee last week in which the Steelers controlled the field from start to finish on both sides of the ball, Steelers fans were hoping to see more of the same this week over a struggling Jacksonville team. I say that fans were "hoping"—note that I didn't say they were confident. I'm not sure that anybody is certain that they have the 2011 Steelers figured out at this point.
So our collective glasses are either half full or half empty, according to taste. Yes, we won the game, and if it had been over at halftime we would have all been feeling very confident today. But games are 60 minutes long, and especially in the second half there were a lot of things to concern even the most cock-eyed optimist. So let's break it down a bit.
1. A Big, Fat "W."
The Steelers are now 4-2. Given that this means we're tied for 2nd place in the division with a surprisingly good Cincinnati team, it was a win we really needed. Did anybody see Cincinnati coming? Half the players awaiting their jail sentences, franchise QB retires rather than play another season with them, red-headed rookie QB? It's just part of the general craziness this season, I guess.
2. Born to Run.
Rashard Mendenhall looked like an elite back out there. He had a personal-best 68 yard run. His 146 yards on 23 runs gives him an average of 6.35 YPC. And for the "yes, but" people that like to remove the long run from the average, the YPC without that was still a respectable 3.55. Maybe Tomlin should "rest" him more often.
3. It Takes a Licking and Keeps on Ticking.
The O line wasn't perfect, but I for one am happy with "adequate." They made some holes for the running game. They had some unbelievable moments of pass protection, such as the snap when Ben apparently was looking for an open receiver in a different game. All this while losing yet another member of the starting lineup for the day.
4. Gutter Balls
The defense held The Bowling Ball to under 100 yards rushing and no TDs. That may not sound like that big a deal if you've been asleep since last season, but I'll take it. Troy stuffing him in the backfield for a loss in the 4th quarter was one of the prettier plays I've seen since, oh, Troy's insane jump of the snap count to almost sack Gabbert during the 2nd quarter..
5. The Return of the Scary Old Guys.
6. I'm a Lumberjack and I'm Okay
Woodley had 2 more sacks and continued to be a force for good.
7. Next In Line
Did anybody notice that Chris Hoke left with a stinger partway through the 2nd quarter? Steve McLendon stepped up in his place without a noticeable dropoff.
8. No Give and Take
This entry will also appear under the "Bad" column. Ben had no interceptions and gave up one fumble. Fortunately the fumble was recovered by Trai Essex, so no harm, no foul, I suppose. Yes, Ben "almost" was picked off at least three times. But strangely enough, nobody keeps a stats list of "almost" picks. And there were at least three "almost" picks by our defense as well, so I suppose this indicates some sort of cosmic balance was being maintained. The main thing is that the Steelers managed to hold onto the ball.
9. Just Make It Stop
After giving up scores on the majority of the opening drives this season, the defense stopped Jacksonville on the 46-yard line, forcing a punt, the first of many for Jacksonville.
Although Jacksonville is a struggling team, they are an NFL team comprised of professional football players, some of them more professional than others. For whatever reason the Jags have had the Steelers' number, beating them in their last three visits to Heinz Field.
Although many of us wondered for a considerable portion of the final quarter whether they were about to make that 4-0, the Steelers stopped them. Rashean Mathis was essentially a non-factor. MJD scratched us a bit but didn't gash us. Paul Posluszny and Blaine Gabbert got to make their friends and parents at Heinz Field proud without actually putting an L in our Win-Loss column.
1. The Disappearing Offense
After a terrific first 17 minutes in which the Steelers put up two touchdowns, they seemed to lose interest. The only other score was less than 3 minutes later, when we couldn't punch it in on 3 attempts from the JAC 2 yard line, instead settling for a field goal.
2. Special Teams Were—Special
There were a couple of big special-teams game changers, and not in a good way.
The first was early in the 3rd quarter. The defense had stopped the opening 3rd quarter drive, with a little help from an inopportune Jacksonville penalty, right where they began, at their own 20. The ensuing punt should have given the Steelers great field position.
I say "should," because a failed attempt to block the punt by Ryan Mundy instead gave the ball back to Jacksonville and put the defense back on the field. 14 plays later Gabbert threw a TD as Larry Foote got there a second too late. This not only made it a one-score game but seemed to give Jacksonville new life.
To be fair to Mundy, had he succeeded in blocking the punt, we would all be talking about that play very differently. But if you're going to try it, you at least have to make sure you don't get the penalty, even if you miss the punt.
The second was a shanked Sepulveda punt halfway through the 3rd quarter, giving Jacksonville the ball essentially at midfield. The Jags managed to convert it to a field goal.
There was also a third fail by special teams that could have burned us badly. At just over 4 minutes to play in the 2nd quarter, Shaun Suisham missed a 46-yard field goal attempt. This gave Jacksonville the ball at their own 36 with plenty of time to do something with it. Fortunately the defense forced a three-and-out, ending with Farrior's sack.
A holding call on the return team during the punt return at 3:23 in the 2nd quarter that backed the Steelers up to their 12-yard line wasn't all that helpful, either.
3. Good Ben, Bad Ben
After starting the game looking like the guy that torched the Titans last week for 5 TDs, Ben seemed to suddenly become concerned about the self-esteem of the Jacksonville secondary, and started throwing a bunch of deep bombs that weren't finding their intended targets.
I haven't had time to go back and study those in detail, and in any case it's usually hard to say definitively which of those were on Ben and which were on the receivers. One can certainly say, though, that it is fair to correlate the decreased number of short/intermediate throws with the increased number of sacks. He was sacked three times, despite a 55/45 run/pass ratio.
And what was with the Delay of Game penalty, Ben?
4. Calling Lawrence Timmons!
Was Timmons actually on the field yesterday? I'm pretty sure he was, but I sure can't find him on the stat sheet.
5. Go Back to the House, Young Man!
Despite a lot of talk, Antonio Brown not only didn't take one to the house, he didn't take one much of anywhere, with a 2-yard average on punt returns. To be fair, his one kickoff return was 34 yards. But at this point I would suggest he put a cork in it until he actually does have a return for a TD. And then I would suggest that he act like he's been in the end zone before.
6. No Offense
After out-gaining Jacksonville 315 yards to 68 in the first half, the Steelers only managed another 55 yards in the rest of the game.
7. No Give and Take
This entry also appeared under the "Good" column. Once again our defense came up short in the takeaway category, but they had at least three "almost" picks. In fact, Ike Taylor managed to defend a pick by Ryan Clark on the last play of the game, thus ensuring that Clark didn't show him up. On the other side of the ball, Ben was almost picked off three times, so I suppose this indicates some sort of cosmic balance was being maintained. Unfortunately, this cosmic balance still leaves us -10 in turnovers.
The game ball, in my opinion, goes to Keisel. Mendenhall had a great game, but Keisel was like a man possessed. Arguably the biggest play of the game was his sack with 1:01 left in the game that not only took 25 seconds off the clock but took the stuffing out of Gabbert.
Well, that's all I've got. I would love to diagram a play or two from the game, but tonight is the first dress rehearsal for my fall concerts, so it will have to wait. What were your yin/yang observations?