A Tale of Two Teams - the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers, Game 7

NEW ORLEANS - OCTOBER 31: Julius Jones #21 of the New Orleans Saints and Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers exchange words during their game at Louisiana Superdome on October 31 2010 in New Orleans Louisiana. The Saints won 20-10 over the Steelers. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)

I chose the photo at left because it shows something that you won't see often - Troy Polamalu tussling with another player.  Troy knocked down Julius Jones. Jones took it personally and pulled Troy's hair. Troy appeared to be having words with Jones. I expect that Troy said that his mother looks older than Troy's mother, or some similar observation that cut him to the heart. It resulted in an Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty for Jones.  

It was an interesting incident.  Brees threw the ball towards Jones, and Troy headed for Jones full tilt and did one of his patented flying moves, which resulted in a tackle.  The only thing was, Jones didn't have the ball, as it fell incomplete behind him because James Farrior batted it just enough to deflect it.  I can see why Jones would be offended, but nobody touches The Hair, especially now that it is insured.  In watching this play a number of times to try and sort out what happened, I found myself thinking that if the re-worked launching rule passes, Troy is going to have to change the way he plays. And speaking of player safety issues, I noted that 1) the announcers were sure to mention the Harrison fine for the hit on Massaquoi several times, and 2) a montage of the big hits in the game (Steelers/Saints, that is) was played near the end of the third quarter.

But now on to the game: Game 7 - @ New Orleans Saints - Final Score Steelers 10, Saints 20

General game overview:

This was the second game in a three-game road series for the Steelers. It was a game the Saints really needed to win. The reigning Super Bowl champions had fallen to third place (5-2 Atlanta, 5-2 Tampa Bay, 4-3 Saints) in their division and things were starting to get desperate.  It was a game that the Steelers would have liked to win, but wasn't critical in the same way.  Basically, it was treated as more or less a throw-away game by many of the pundits. 

The game was more of a defensive slugfest than one would predict from the final score, or the fact that the Saints were one of the contenders, or the fact that Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger are pretty fine quarterbacks.  The Saints were pretty much out of cornerbacks - they started the game with one healthy corner, who managed to get injured on the opening play.  One would expect the Steelers to be able to take advantage of that fact, but one would be wrong, because the Saints defense spent pretty much the entire game with 8 or more guys blitzing. It is an interesting point, however, because in the Super Bowl we saw the offense unable to take advantage of injuries to the Packers defensive backfield.

Upon review, I decided to call this game "A Tale of Trying Too Hard." The ultimate example of that was Heath Miller. It was 6:37 in the fourth quarter, the Saints are leading by 3, and Bryant McFadden and LaMarr Woodley had given the ball back to Pittsburgh at the PIT 27 with a forced fumble/recovery.  A completion to Matt Spaeth had picked up a first down, and a 2 yard Rashard Mendenhall run made it 2nd and 8 on the PIT 41. Ben throws under pressure to Heath. That's the last time I'm going to write "Ben throws under pressure," because he scarcely made a single throw in this game when he wasn't running or otherwise under serious pressure.  At any rate, Heath catches it at the PIT 47 and takes off.  He eludes one tackle, and then another at about the NO 45.  He sees several guys coming for him, and spins off one guy.  But the ball got a bit loose, and the next hit popped it out, giving the ball to Darren Sharper. If Heath plays it safe and goes down, there might have been a different ending to the game.

But this is not the only example of trying too hard during this game by any means.  Emmanuel Sanders had two instances as well.  The first was during a kick return.  It was 8:24 in the third quarter, and the score was PIT 3 NO 6, which tells you all you need to know about the above-mentioned defensive slugfest. Garrett Hartley kicks off to -5 and Sanders returns it 42 yards.  However, in the last few yards there were a ton of defenders around him, and again, instead of going down he tries to spin and squeeze out a few more yards.  Instead he gets the ball knocked out.  It could have been much more serious, except that St. Redman was playing for the Steelers, and managed to grab the ball at the 40 yard line.  Sanders' second infraction had much more serious consequences.  It was about 4 minutes later, at the end of the series that began with the fumble.  The Steelers were now at the NO 40.  It was 4th and 4 and Ben threw to - who?  It initially looked like he was throwing to Sanders, who didn't catch it, but it was worse than that - Ben was actually throwing to Hines Ward, who had a clear shot at the end zone.  So they turned the ball over on downs and the Saints were still winning. Ben was not amused.

I won't even mention the sacks that Ben took trying to make something out of nothing, because that's just how he plays. But there was at least one other example of trying too hard.  It was 4:24 in the fourth quarter, the Steelers were trailing 10 to 13, and it was 2nd and 9 on the PIT 42. James Harrison had a late hit on Drew Brees that drew a 15 yard Roughing the Passer penalty. Instead of the Saints having a 3rd and 1 on the PIT 35, they get a 1st and 10 on the 20 yard line. In Harrison's defense, he was held by the left tackle, and if he hadn't been held he would have made it in time to stop the pass, rather than getting there just after the ball was thrown. But "James Harrison was being held" is another one of those things that one doesn't really have to write, because one can infer from the fact that Harrison is on the field that he's probably being held. (Mind you, we return the favor on a regular basis, and don't always get called for it either.)

Injuries:

Brett Keisel was still out with the hammie, and once again Nick Eason played in his place. Aaron Smith was seriously injured, but wasn't put on IR, in the hopes that he could play in the post-season.  Ziggy Hood replaced him for, as it happened, the remainder of the season. Trai Essex was back, as was LaMarr Woodley.

Game 8 Notables:

  • The game took place on Halloween, and there was just as much weirdness in the stadium as you would expect.  The Guinness Book of World Records crew was there to record, and it qualified as the world record holder for a costume party, with them recording something over 17,000 costumed attendees before they quit counting and declared the record. 
  • Since 1950 only 3 teams have started the season with a 5-1 record when playing 3 different quarterbacks in those six games - the 1987 Chargers, the 1997 Jaguars, and the 2010 Steelers.  The rest of the story is that the 1987 Chargers continued winning until they were 8-1, and then lost to all the remaining teams on their schedule to finish 8-7 (remember that this was a 15-game season, beginning with a player's strike.) One of the teams they lost to was the Steelers. The 1997 Jaguars finished the season 11-5, as did the Steelers, but lost first place in the division to the Steelers due to the Steelers' better division record. (The Steelers were then in the AFC Central division.) 
  • Mike Tomlin threw a challenge flag early in the game. It was noted that in his previous 3 seasons he had thrown an average of less than 4 flags per year, the least in the league. This play began at 8:19 in the first quarter, when off-setting penalties forced Daniel Sepulveda to punt again.  The returner lost the ball after he was ruled down, and as a Steeler had picked up the ball, Tomlin challenged.  He lost.
  • During the previous punt return, at 8:27 in the first quarter, Stevenson Sylvester ran full tilt into the returner, which looked seriously painful.  This hit was not flagged, and was not one of the above-mentioned penalties.  The announcers said that "Sylvester Stevenson" made the hit.  The hit was replayed 3 times, which confused me, as the actions that drew the penalties were elsewhere on the field. Is it possible that the NFL was trying to exploit the violent hit?
  • Sean Payton also challenged a play - the TD by Atwaan Randle El that wasn't, as he was down at about the 1/2 yard line. What was bizarre was that the official completely botched the announcing. First he said that there was a challenge of the ruling on the field that the receiver was down before the goal line. If that had been the ruling, it seems unlikely that Payton would have challenged it. Then the official comes back and announces that the ruling on the field - that the receiver was down prior to crossing the goal line - was confirmed.  Er - what? If I were Tomlin I would have been tempted to throw the flag and see if I could confuse them into ruling it a TD after all. 
  • At the end of this game the Steelers defense still had not given up a touchdown this season on the opening series of either half.
  • Hines Ward managed to get an offensive PI call. You don't see a lot of those, although I recall seeing at least one later in the season, on our opponent.  I think it was in the Super Bowl, but time will tell.
  • There were two things that happened in this game almost as often as James Harrison getting held or Ben having to throw under pressure. First was the number of times that the announcers mentioned Ben's suspension (this after a long, drawn-out recap at the beginning of the game) - it was mentioned at least 6 times before I got tired of counting.  The second was the number of times they showed Heath Miller on the sidelines looking like he wanted to cry after his fumble.  I counted at least 10 times, including at the end of the game, long after the play in question.  Give it a rest, NBC. I don't watch the game in the hopes of seeing people humiliated, whether it is on the opposing team or my own. I hate those shots, and I wish they would stop.
  • Speaking of humiliation, the Cleveland Browns had just humiliated the Saints the previous week, and would go on to humiliate the Patriots the week before we played them. That game did not end well for us either. Fortunately the Browns returned to form.
  •  Quote of the Day: Coach Mike Tomlin: "I was hopeful that we would perform better than we did."  Apparently Coach Tomlin was having a bit of an off-day as well... 
  • Team Jeckyll Play of the Week:

    Offensively, the obvious play is the Rashard Mendenhall touchdown run, and I'm okay with obvious. I do want to state that I don't lay the fact that there was only one touchdown on Ben, even though as I recall people were saying he played a crappy game. Admittedly his numbers don't look great (17 completions on 28 attempts, 195 yards, 1 interception) but he was running for his life most of the game, with scarcely a pocket in sight. You're not going to get your best out of your quarterback under those circumstances. 

    But back to the touchdown.  The series it culminated began at 12:55 in the 4th quarter. The score was Steelers 3, Saints 13. This was a beautiful little series. It began with a kick return by #33, one of the few times I recall him being used as a returner, and he brought it 20 yards to the PIT 32.  (One of their special teamers, Leigh Torrence, was hurt on the play, but came back in at the end of the game, just in time to intercept Ben Roethlisberger on the final Pittsburgh drive.)

    Flozell Adams came back into the game at this point. The first play was a 9 yard pass to Matt Spaeth. The second was 12 yards to Hines Ward. The third was 9 yards to Mike Wallace. And finally, the coup de grace - at the NO 38 Ben hands the ball to Rashard Mendenhall, who is behind David Johnson, who is lined up as a fullback:

    Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_8

    You can see that there's already a nice crease, thanks to Flozell and Heath.  Hines is about to engage the guy on the right, and Johnson breaks off to seal the edge:

    Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_8

    Mendenhall scarcely has to shrug to get rid of the lone guy left. Hines signals a TD, despite the fact that Mendenhall has about 15 yards to go:

    Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_8

    Hines then turned around and walked off the field, because there was no doubt at all about it.  Sweet!

    The Defensive Team Jeckyll play had lots of contenders, but I chose the remarkable goal line stand.  This happened early in the third quarter, when the score was still 3-3 (!) The opening kickoff was returned 39 yards, giving the Saints excellent field position on their own 44. Seven plays followed which brought the Saints to the PIT 3 yard line for 1st and goal. Brees hands off to Chris Ivory and Farrior is on him like a freight train, for the loss of a yard. Hampton helped out, taking not only his own guy but an extra linebacker and shoving them into the runner. On 2nd and goal Brees throws to Lance Moore in the endzone, but Troy has deflected him and bats the ball down.  Unfortunately, the "deflecting" part gets him a Pass Interference penalty, and the ball is placed on the 1 yard line, 1st and goal.  Then the heroics really begin. Woodley was headed for Brees, and he threw sooner than he wanted.  His tackle that had reported eligible couldn't get into position quite soon enough for the throw, which went a good ways over his head.  

    It's now 2nd and goal, and we see that Chris Hoke has been taking a leaf out of Hampton's playbook. Brees takes the snap and hands off to Ivory.  Here is Hoke just after the snap:

    Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_8

    He plows through the middle and heads for Ivory (#29):

    Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_8

    He grabs him, and boom, -4 yards:

    Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_8

    All of a sudden we're at 3rd and goal at the PIT 5. They tried giving Betts the ball to run it left, and here's what happened:

    Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_9

    Timmons and Harrison said "I don't think so," and they brought out the field goal unit.

    The Good from Game 7:

    • Mike Wallace was demonstrating that he wasn't just a one-trick pony.  He only had a few catches in this game, but they were in serious traffic, and were followed by some hard-won YAC, particularly the one at 11:33 in the fourth quarter, when he got the ball 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage and rumbled with a lot of guys to get 12 yards, for a 9 yard gain.
    • Mike was blocking like a Steeler as well, and was part of the reason for the Isaac Redman 15 yard run during the first quarter, as well as the Mewelde Moore 18 yard run, also in the first quarter.
    • There was an actual Ike Taylor interception! Luckily for our hopes for re-signing him, this trend did not continue.  There was some thought that it could be attributed to the pink gloves.
    • The Saints tried a few trick plays, and they didn't work.  
    • There were 21 run plays, gaining 108 net yards.  That would look even better if you took the Roethlisberger rush for -1 yard out of the total - then you would have 20 rushes for 109 yards.  Leave it to the professionals, Ben! (j/k)
    • The Saints also rushed 21 times, for a net - wait for it - 30 yards.  It was actually pretty surprising that the Saints kept trying, as over 1/3 of that stellar yardage was on a single Julius Jones run of 11 yards.
    • The returns were awesome. Sanders had 3 kick returns for an average of 32 and a long of 41. He also had a punt return for 38 yards, his only attempt. Redman also had a kick return of 20 yards. 
    • Team Hyde Play of the Game: 
      As you might expect in a loss, there are plenty of plays to choose from on both sides of the ball. As noted above, the Steelers were unbelievably good against the run as usual, but the pass defense was displaying some weakness. Drew Brees commented before the game that he was going to try to fool Troy into guessing wrong, since he liked to guess, and indeed he managed to look Troy off the correct receiver a couple of times. Troy's tackling was spotty as well, and overall this wasn't one of his better games.  But the play I'm picking is the TD ending the series that spanned the 3rd and 4th quarters.  Brees obviously decided that it wasn't a good idea to get the Steelers too close to the goal line (this series followed the goal line stand detailed above.) 
      The Saints began at their own 41 yard line, because of the turnover on downs from the Sanders "interception" of Hines Ward's touchdown pass. The score was Steelers 3, Saints 6. Brees begins moving methodically up the field.  The pass defense was good - passes were gaining 1 or 2 yards, mostly, with a few longer passes which weren't getting any YAC but unfortunately were moving the chains.  Then came a 7 yard pass right down the middle to Jeremy Shockey, who had gotten away from Troy and got another 7 YAC before Troy and Ryan Clark got him down between them. Now they are at the PIT 27, and this is not good. A short pass and a run for no gain later, they have a 3rd and 1 on the PIT 18.  The linemen double-team the left end of the d-line:
      Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_10 
      They manage to get the tiniest of creases:
      Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_10
      And he squeezes through - I couldn't catch a shot before he disappeared into the maelstrom behind the guy Woodley is blocking:
      Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_10
      This was huge, and now we're at the PIT 16. But Brees doesn't mess about, and throws to Colston, who is covered by McFadden:
      Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_10
      Colston makes a little move to his left and McFadden bites:
      Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_10
      Colston takes off to his right. He's got a step or two on McFadden, gets a few more, and hauls in the pass at the PIT 3:
      Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_10
      All that remains is to get the remaining few yards and make sure to get the ball over the goal line in bounds:
      Screen_shot_2011-03-27_at_10
      Oh, bother, as my English husband would say.  

    I would show you an offensive play too (although that TD was pretty offensive if you ask me), but I have a wretched cold and just want to take some Nyquil and sleep it off, so I'll skip showing you some of the less impressive plays by Ben and the O line. Just suffice it to say that Ben managed to get picked off in Custer's Last Stand, which began at 2:31 in the 4th quarter, with the Steelers down 10 points.  And don't get the idea that I'm blaming this loss on the defense.  It's a lot to ask of your defense to win a game when you only manage 10 points on the offense.  And it's a lot to ask of your quarterback to throw a lot of good passes when the last pocket he saw was when he changed out of his jeans before the game.  The Saints had a great game plan, and they executed it increasingly well as the night rolled on, and the Steelers offense didn't have an answer for it.  One does wonder why the run to pass ratio (21 to 31) was so low when the running game was seemingly so effective. But I guess that's why I'm not a football coach, and I can imagine that there are all sorts of good and sufficient reasons for the run/pass ratio we saw in this game. I just can't think what they would be...

        The Bad and the Ugly from Game 7:

        • There were 4 penalties on the Steelers, and some of them were very costly, like the Jonathan Scott holding penalty that turned a Ben rush for 3 or 4 yards on a 1st and 10 into a 1st and 20, or the Harrison late hit that moved the Saints from the PIT 35 to the PIT 20.
        • The Steelers lost the TOP battle big-time - 25:54 to 34:06
        • 3rd down efficiency - 30%
        • Fourth down efficiency - 0%
        • Average gain per running play - 5.1 yards; average gain per passing play, 5.5 yards.
        • Number of Reed kickoffs in the endzone - 0/3
        • Percentage of field goals made by Reed - 50%.  Admittedly, the one he missed was from 51 yards, but he was kicking in a dome.  
        • The sack of Ben at 8:59 in the first quarter. About 2 seconds after the snap the first guy gets past Flozell. Ben knocks the first guy over, but now there is a guy in front, a guy in back, and another guy runs in from Ben's right. The three of them land on Ben, and a fourth guy comes running up and launches himself onto the top of the pile, just to make sure that there is the maximum possibility of hurting Ben.  There was no flag. (Mind you, the guy may have learned that from studying film on Kemo.)

           

          A couple of random things that intrigued me:

        • Apparently Sanders was a DB in college, and had only been playing WR for a year and a half. That was news to me.
        • Mike Wallace had a average of 25.4 YPC as of the beginning of this game, the best in the league. This game did not help that statistic. Nonetheless, if I recall correctly he kept that distinction until the final game of the regular season, when the returner from Philadelphia whose name escapes me surpassed him with a punt return for a touchdown.

      2010 'Tale of Two Teams' Game Reviews

    • Game 1 vs. Atlanta
    • Game 2 vs. Tennessee
    • Game 3 at Tampa Bay
    • Game 4 at Baltimore
    • Game 5 vs. Cleveland
    • Game 6 at Miami
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