A Tale of Two Teams - the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers, Game 9

This is the (rather delayed) continuation of my game-by-game analysis of the 2010 Steelers season.  If you have missed the previous eight posts and want to check them out, the links are at the end of the article. 

 There's no help for it - it's time to look at the infamous game between the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a shame that the group we fielded looked more like our AAA players than the team that had grabbed the #1 spot in the AFC North some weeks earlier. The choice of photo of Ron Gronkowski celebrating a TD is something that we saw a LOT - Gronkowski, a Pittsburgh native, had three touchdowns that night.

This game was especially painful for me because I was in attendance. The ticket was my Christmas present from my husband. Fortunately, both my husband and the Steelers made it up to me with more gratifying gifts in December. But let's get this over with:

Game 9 - Final Score: New England Patriots 39, Pittsburgh Steelers 26

General Game Overview:

The Steelers had just played a three game road series, ending with a Monday Night Football game against the Bengals. (They won 2 out of 3 of the road games - @ Miami and @ Cincinnati, and lost @ New Orleans.) This meant that they came into the game off a short week, after three weeks away from home. Despite this, they were the favorites, by between 3.5 and 4.5. After all, the Steelers were at home, the Patriots were a mostly young team that were considered to be somewhat in a rebuilding phase, and the Patriots had also just laid a huge (34-14) egg in Clevelend against the Colt McCoy-led Browns.

But there were two statistics that should have given pause to the people setting the odds. The first is Tom Brady's win/loss record against the Steelers.  It is probably fair to say that Brady owns the Steelers - he was 5-1 against them, (now 6-1) beginning with the 2001 AFC Championship game.  (It's not just us - Brady is 16-3 against the AFC North.) Brady has an average 100.7 passer rating against the Steelers - the highest of any quarterback in team history that has thrown at least 150 passes.

The second is the Patriot's record after a loss. Since the beginning of the 2003 season, the Patriots had lost a total of 25 games in the regular season. In the week after a loss, they had only lost a second game 3 times, and one of those was a playoff game (the first after the end of the regular season.) That's a pretty stunning statistic. Apparently Bill Belichick doesn't like to lose.  (I picture him in a dank chamber deep in the bowels of the Foxboro practice facilities, "discussing" with offending players the deficiencies in the previous game, but that's pure speculation ; ) 

Whatever motivational tools the New England staff used, the Patriots came out ready to knock heads and take names. The Steelers appeared to have more pressing business elsewhere. The statistics don't tell the whole sorry story, because the Steelers picked up a bunch of passing yards after all hope was basically gone. The Patriots took the lead after their first series and never relinquished it. The fourth quarter began with the score NE 23, PIT 3, so I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that the final score doesn't look any worse than it does.

As noted in the review of the previous game, it was the last time we saw what was supposed to be the starting O line, and the Game 9 line was the fourth starting configuration of the season.  It featured Jonathan Scott at LT, replacing the IR'd Max Starks. Scott was at this point a fifth year veteran in the NFL.  He was drafted by the Lions with the 151st pick in the 2006 draft.  He was waived in 2008 and picked up by the Bills, and was signed by Pittsburgh in 2010, apparently at the suggestion of Sean Kugler.  During these five years he had accumulated 15 NFL starts. Injured LG Chris Kemoeatu was replaced by Ramon Foster in his 5th NFL start. Trai Essex, for what he was worth, was back at RG.  Mewelde Moore and Isaac Redman both suffered concussions in the Bengals game - both played in this game. Rashard Mendenhall's carries were limited, as he had some sort of shoulder issue (although he never showed up on the injury report.) Heath Miller sat out Wednesday and Thursday practice with fluid on the knee, but played. Jeff Reed also sat out Wednesday's practice with an illness. During the game Emmanuel Sanders was injured, but returned. Hines Ward received an (unflagged) helmet-to-helmet hit during a catch and stayed on the ground for a heart-stopping 5 seconds before trying to get up. It was initially ruled a completion, but Bill Belichick, fount of charity that he is, challenged, and it was overturned. So Hines not only had to leave the game with a suspected concussion but ended his streak of 186 consecutive games with a catch, which began in November of 1998(!) and was the third longest such streak in NFL history.

On the defensive side, Aaron Smith was out (for the rest of the season, as it happened,) and Brett Keisel was still out with the hamstring injury - they were replaced by Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason. Will Allen also sustained a concussion in the Bengals game, and didn't play. James Harrison had sat out practice on Friday with "back spasms," but was in the game on Sunday and was said to be "fine." During the game Lawrence Timmons left with a hip injury, Arnaz Battle left with a shoulder injury, and Crezdon Butler had a quad strain.

Game 9 Notables and Stats:

  • This game pitted the two active quarterbacks with the most Super Bowl rings and the highest winning percentage in the NFL against one another - Tom Brady (3 rings, a .763 win percentage) and Ben Roethlisberger (2 rings, a .700 win percentage.) The previous game featuring two QBs with multiple Super Bowl rings? Joe Montana vs. Jim Plunkett, in 1985.
  • The Patriots and the Steelers also had the best win/loss records in the NFL since the beginning of the free agency era coming into this game - NE 177/103 (.632) vs. PIT 175/104/1 (.627.) And who was #3? Green Bay, with 175/106 (.623.)
  • The Steelers' last home loss by more than a touchdown was in December of 2006, to the Ravens (final score 31-7.)  This was bad, but not THAT bad...
  • Passing, Tom Brady - 350 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT (Brady also rushed for a TD, giving him 4 on the night)

  • Passing, Ben Roethlisberger - 387 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT (the interception resulted in a return for a TD, making it even more painful)
  • Rushing, NE: 103 net yards on 24 attempts. This broke the Steelers defensive record of holding teams to under 75 yards per game. Average yards/rush attempt - 4.3. This also broke the record-low yds/rush attempt of 2.6 yards allowed.
  • Rushing - PIT, 76 net yards on 16 attempts.  The average yards/attempt figure was a respectable 4.8, but the truth of the matter is that 46 of the 76 yards came on 2 rushes - a 34 yard Mendenhall run and a 12 yard Roethlisberger scramble.
  • NE historically averaged a 27% to 73% run/pass average against the Steelers in the Bill Belichick era. In this game they had a 36% to 63% ratio.  The Steelers run/pass ratio?  25% to 75% (16/49.)

  • Final O line stats: NE - 0 sacks, 4 hits, 2 knockdowns, 0 batted balls.  PIT - 5 sacks, 8 hits, 0 knockdowns, [only because nobody can knock Ben down, I'm guessing,] 1 batted ball. Just about the hardest hit Brady took all night was from the Law Firm (BenJarvus Green Ellis,) who ran into Brady during the handoff and almost knocked him over. Hampton finished the job.Screen_shot_2011-04-25_at_4
  • Jeff Reed was 1/2 on field goals, missing what should have been at 26 yard chip shot. This, in combination with his 14/21 record for the 2010 season to this point, was undoubtedly the ultimate cause of his surprise release by the Steelers at the beginning of the following week. It is almost certain that his whining to the press after the game about the field condition and the crowd, combined with his uneasy relationship with the PA police and his penchant for embarrassing photos taken for publication on the internet didn't help his cause.
  • It may have sucked to be a Steelers fan, but it was a great day for the Gronkowski family, who live in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Pittsburgh. They have three sons in the NFL, one playing for the Cowboys, one for the Broncos, and of course Rob for the Patriots. All three teams won their game this week, with Rob grabbing all three touchdown passes in this game.  I wonder how the Gronkowskis can live with themselves : )
  • The Steelers defense allowed 211 yards of offense in the first half, the 2nd highest total since Mike Tomlin took over the team. The touchdown on the first NE offensive series was also the first given up by the defense in the first series of either half this season.  
  • Quote(s) of the week, first, from a non-swaggin' Ike Taylor: "It's plain and simple. We just got our butt whooped."  When Ryan Clark was asked how it happened, he said, in effect, that Brady executed at a very high level, and they just hadn't had an answer for him. When pressed, he said "You know how it is when somebody does something against us. The sky is falling and we anoint that guy Baby Jesus. But Tom went out and did what Tom is supposed to do. And we didn't come to play."
  • Team Jeckyll Play of the Week:

    It seems as if it would be pretty hard to find a good play this week, but after all the Steelers did get 3 TDs.  But before we look at any particular play, let's look at some numbers.  Literally. 1.7; 2.8; 2.9; 1.6; 2.4; 2.3; 2.3; 3.0.  Compare that list to this one: 1.2; 2.2; 1.8; 1.1; 2.2; 1.6; 1.1; 1.1.  If you were to venture a guess as to which list detailed the number of seconds between the snap and the pass for Tom Brady's first 8 passes and which list was Ben Roethlisberger's first 8 passes, which one would you guess? Well, you would likely be wrong, because list #2 is Ben, according to my times with a stopwatch.  I think this explains a great deal about this game. I timed both QBs' passes for all of the first quarter and a good bit of the second quarter before I ran out of patience, and the only pass plays in which Ben held the ball for more than a fraction over 2 seconds he was sacked. We expect Brady to get the ball out in good time, and he did, but even in cases where he held the ball for over 4 seconds he wasn't sacked.  Ben, on the other hand, spent the game dancing with whichever of the NE defensive players made it through the line on any given play.  It's not terribly surprising that the offense never seemed to settle into a good rhythm. But here are a few plays we can enjoy:

    It is 9:08 in the 2nd quarter. A couple of short Mendenhall runs have made it 3rd and 6, and Ben scrambles for 12 yards to the left of a stellar Maurkice Pouncey block. Another short Mendenhall run picks up a yard for 2nd and 9, and here's the lineup for the next snap. That's Mendenhall in the backfield again:
    Screen_shot_2011-04-25_at_3
    The next thing we see is Mendenhall skipping past a NE defender who has just been hulkerated by none other than #88, Emmanuel Sanders. (Perhaps that should be Hineserated.) Mendy is just crossing the "9" of "2nd and 9." You can also see Matt Spaeth with great contain on the edge in front of Mendenhall:
    Screen_shot_2011-04-25_at_3
    A couple of quick changes of direction to avoid a road block, and all that remains is to at least temporarily outrun Devin McCourty:
    Screen_shot_2011-04-25_at_3
    And just like that, he picks up 34 yards.  A nice touch was Ryan Clark jumping up on the sidelines to make sure that McCourty and the other DB didn't take their tackling to the next level, as it were. The next snap is vintage Roethlisberger.  The snap is on the NE 29 yard line, with Redman in the backfield, and Ben fakes the handoff. However, at least one member of the defense isn't fooled, and comes after Ben, grabbing him by the left arm:
    Screen_shot_2011-04-25_at_3
    Ben shrugs him off and throws on the run as yet another Patriot comes after him:
    Screen_shot_2011-04-25_at_3
    and Heath catches it on the NE 11.  The announcers gave the rather astonishing statistic that Ben's career passer rating when throwing from outside the pocket is 137.8.

    Unfortunately, that's all the awesomeness the Steelers offense can muster in this series. It ends with 3 incompletions, and Jeff Reed is brought out for a field goal attempt, which he fortunately makes, giving the Steelers their first score of the night.

    The rest of the game was not devoid of good plays, of course - it's just that they were few and far between.  But before we move on to Team Hyde, I want to share one more picture: Screen_shot_2011-04-25_at_4
    Despite what you may think, Ben (just behind Pouncey) is not trying out for Dancing With the Stars by demonstrating his best arabesque - #95, Tully Banta-Cain, has a hold of his right leg and is doing his best to pull him down as Ben throws to Redman for a 2 yard completion.  There's also a rather nice play in the third quarter where Brady has to throw it away because Hampton is chasing him.

    Team Hyde Play(s) of the Week:

    Since the idea isn't to wallow in misery, but to try to find the seeds of what went wrong in the Super Bowl, I'm not going to show a whole lot of stuff that demonstrates how badly the Steelers were playing. It would be easy enough to do - there's ample material.  But we all know what happened - Tom Brady methodically carved up our defense, while the Patriots defense kept our offense off balance.  How did this happen? Well, I think there are several reasons why, and I think they are also the reasons that Aaron Rodgers was able to do the same in the Super Bowl.

    But first, let's give the devil his due. Before the game, Tom Brady was quoted as saying "You have to be perfect on every play - you make one mistake and you can't beat the Steelers." Brady was very nearly perfect, thanks to an O-line who gave him enough time to throw and precision route-running by his WRs, TEs, and backs to pick up yardage in little, and sometimes big, chunks. (The few times they didn't run their routes precisely, Brady could be seen tearing them a new one on the sidelines.)

    So what do I think went wrong on the defensive side? Well, the first hint is James Harrison and his "back spasms." Although the game-time word was that he was just fine, I notice that he spent very little time pass-rushing and most of his time dropping into coverage. I wonder just how 'fine' he really was. We found out in February that he had been playing a lot of the season with a piece of herniated disc rubbing on a nerve. I know someone that had this, and he said that the only thing he could do for the three days after it happened and before he had surgery was lie in the fetal position. And yet Harrison was out running around a football field. I have absolutely no proof of this, but I suspect that some days were better than others, and that this was a bad day. I also suspect that the medical staff spent the rest of the season pumping him full of whatever they could to put him on the field and dispel any rumors that anything was wrong.

    Then there is the perennial question of whether Troy was 100%.  The announcers made comments several times to the effect that "we'll certainly be hearing from Troy Polamalu," but in fact we didn't. The thing that he did that was most noticeable was the little extra whack he put on the TE he was tackling, who just happened to be Alge Crumpler. I expect that just looking at him made Troy's knee hurt. The gratuitous hit was certainly not characteristic of Troy - it's more like something Kemo would do. Troy also told a reporter before the game that Lawrence Timmons had taken over his free-lancing role, and he was consequently playing a more conventional FS style. Why is that? Timmons is an awesome player, no doubt, but nobody can do the things Troy does when he's on his game. I find it hard to believe that LeBeau would do this unless he was trying to protect Troy from further injury.  And while we saw a few flashes later in the season of vintage Polamalu play, he was soon re-injured, and was never really Troy-like for the remainder of the season, as I recall. He certainly didn't make any headlines in the playoffs (which is curiously typical for him.)

    Then there is the nagging question of whether BMac was ever 100% again after his groin injury in Game 1. It's easy to say that BMac just isn't the player he was before he went to Arizona, but we saw some great stuff from him at training camp and in the pre-season. During the rest of the season BMac periodically cropped up on the injury report with various related injuries, generally hip. As a defensive back, if you can't change directions quickly and easily, you're going to get beaten like a gong. The William Gay as #2 corner experiment had been a dismal failure the year before, and Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett had fizzled, so there was really nowhere to go. So BMac continued to take the field at what I'm guessing was considerably less than 100%, and whatever receiver he was covering continued to get open way too often.

    Then there was the issue of the D line, with 2 out of the 3 starters injured. It's all very well to say that "the standard is the standard," but realistically these people aren't the starters because they aren't as good. They aren't the starter in the first place because of either lack of experience or lesser talent. And, like the O-line, you can compensate for some drop-off, but only to a point. 

    I think the reason that the Steelers have never seriously addressed the defensive backfield, other than trading up for Troy back in, what, 2004, is that LeBeau's defense is mainly predicated on stopping the run and then getting to the passer. And really, they weren't doing all that much of either, particularly the latter. Have a look again at the stats for the NE O line - 0 sacks, 4 hits, 2 knockdowns, 0 balls batted. The NE O line was proving that it was very competent indeed, but part of that has to be the greatly reduced disruption from the Steelers defensive front.

    As far as the offense goes, the first problem was the puzzling lack of a run game. I gather that the coaches were trying to minimize Mendenhall's carries because of a lingering shoulder issue, but that doesn't explain why Moore only had 4 carries and Redman had none. Surely it would have made sense to try and keep the defense more honest, and the scoring deficit wasn't devastatingly large until the end of the third quarter. The score was still 10 - 3 at the end of the first half. 

    Of course, Ben lost Hines at the end of the first quarter. This took away yet another option for Ben, who was having problems just staying upright. Ben didn't play a bad game at all - a few of the incompletions were thrown a bit high and so on, but the Patriots defense just wasn't giving up much of anything until late in the game when it didn't matter much. Just going on memory, I would say that Ben played a distinctly better game vs. New England than he did against the Packers almost three months later.

    It's easy to blame injuries, and I realize that all teams are dealing with injuries at some level from Day 1 of the season. (As Mike Tomlin says, "It's a war of attrition.") But given that there were injuries to key players on both the offense and the defense, I thing there just weren't enough people to pick up the pieces. Another thing to think about it is age of your back-ups. Are they young and relatively untested? In this case they might have a substantial upside if they turn out to be more than a one-game replacement. Or are they older and just not particularly good? In this case their upside is probably pretty limited, even if they get substantial playing time. This is something that we will watch for as we round the bend into the home stretch.

    Here are the promised links to the previous game reviews:





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