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Steelers Afterthoughts - Week One

I was wrong.  Quite a lot of us were, actually.

I expected at least a competitive game Sunday between the Steelers and the Ravens.  I predicted an 11-point Steeler victory.  But expectations and reality, for one day, did not mesh.

The defense looked slow.  Troy Polamalu got beaten for a touchdown by a tight end.  This is a guy known for his ability to close on the ball, and yet he not only was beaten, but he wasn't even close.  The receiver was pulling away when the ball arrived.

James Harrison seemed to be a step too late most of the game, as did LaMarr Woodley.  Bryant McFadden did what he spent most of 2010 doing: giving up a constant stream of receptions because he can't play tight coverage.

Maybe this defense is getting too old.  The problem with that, though, is there is plenty of young to go around.  Defensive end Ziggy Hood, who played spectacularly last season after Aaron Smith was lost to injury, should have spent more time on the field, as should athletic freak Cam Heyward.  When the pass rush was not just ineffective, but non-exist, in the first half, changes should have been made.

They weren't.

To their credit, this one isn't entirely on the defense.  The seven turnovers by the offense, including an extremely uncharacteristic four interceptions by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, put them at a serious disadvantage more often than not.  But a defense that has been the stingiest in the league over the last six years was handing out yards and points like Halloween candy.  They shouldn't have been asked to carry the offense yesterday, but they were called and they never heard the phone ringing.

Joe Flacco -- an above-average quarterback whose abilities fall more in line with Kerry Collins or Carson Palmer, looked Sunday like Peyton Manning.  He had time to go through his progressions, and on nearly every throw had a receiver under less coverage than a Brazilian sunbather.

But as I said before, the offense shoulders just as much blame.  Three times they turned over the ball in the red zone.  An ill-advised pass to Heath Miller over the middle was, instead, undercut by safety Ed Reed at the goal line.  Ineffective blocking by newly christened starting right guard Doug Legurksy allowed Haloti Ngata into the backfield, and a quick swat deflected Roethlisberger's short pass into the waiting arms of Ray Lewis.  Terrell Suggs also took advantage of poor blocking by both Steeler guards to sack Roethlisberger and force a fumble.

Chalk up a good chunk of the blame to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, too, who waited until the second half to call for any downfield throws, allowing the Baltimore defense to stay close to the line of scrimmage and stop any chance of a big play.  Instead, he called a constant barrage of wide receiver screens, which more often than not resulted in gains of zero to three yards.

The only bright sports on offense were Emmanuel Sanders, who broke coverage for the team's only points with a catch in the back of the endzone, and Mike Wallace, who broke 100 yards receiving for the fourth consecutive regular-season game.  He showed more than ever that he can do a whole lot more than go deep with some nifty moves on the few receiver screens that were actually effective.

Roethlisberger was responsible for six of the game's seven turnovers, though the utter lack of blocking from everyone not named Markice Pouncey was the larger culprit.  He spent most of the day running for his life.  Though he made a career of making plays when the world is caving in around him, even he found it impossible yesterday, often under pressure before reaching the third step of his drop.  There was the deflection that led to an interception mentioned earlier, and there was a fumble when handing off to Rashard Mendenall when Haloti Ngata reached the offensive backfield so quickly he almost took the handoff instead of the runner.

Something needs to change.  Maybe this will be a wake-up-and-shake-up.  Maybe the Jonathan Scott experiment will end quickly.  Marcus Gilbert is a much better blocker, only being kept down now by inexperience.  Maybe Ramon Foster will return to the lineup, or maybe Trai Essex replaces Legursky.  Regardless, someone needs to do something because, far more often than not Sunday, Roethlisberger was limited to using only half the field because of the constant pressure.  That's unsustainable, even for the best of quarterbacks -- which, week one notwithstanding, Large Benjamin still is.

Defensively, a heavier dose of Hood and Heyward is needed, and perhaps flipping Woodley and James Harrison would be beneficial until Silverback is fully heeled.  Bryant McFadden should have been benched before the season started in favor of Keenan Lewis or even rookie Curtis Brown.  Rookies don't often start in Pittsburgh, but the fasgter he can get up to speed, the better, and there's no better way to do that than to play the games.

The next two weeks, at least, should allow the team to adjust without having to face elite competition.  With Seattle and a suddenly very mortal Indianapolis team upcoming, the time to test a new approach is now.  The sky is not yet falling in Pittsburgh, but if it does the guys currently in the trenches on both sides aren't going to be able to hold it up.

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