Steelers win ugly, but it could prove to be pyrrhic

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have taken the first step on their long journey back to respectability. They secured both their first victory, and the first takeaways of the 2013 season.

However, the Steelers secured their first win in a fashion even the most charitable should admit was ugly. And while a "win is a win, no matter how ugly", the Steelers' real test will be how much better prepared they are to take that next step when they face division rival Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field next week.

Even the most beer-goggled homer has to admit this was an ugly win. Sure Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger survived the game and achieved a passer rating of 113.8, but he was again sacked or hit multiple times and the Jets' defense stopped the Steelers' runners in the backfield or at the line too many times. Sure the Steelers were able to run the ball at times, even effectively once or twice, but they only averaged 2.8 yards a carry and Roethlisberger's 10 yard scramble for a first down was the second longest rush of the game for the Steelers, by only a yard.

The ugliest aspect of this win was a continuation of the offense's incredibly poor start to yet another game, a trend that began in the opening game of the 2011 season against the Ravens and inexplicably continues in 2013. The Steelers first two possessions netted 6 yards and 2 yards respectively, resulting in two 3-and-outs each time, the second time punting from their own 4 yard line giving the Jets a short field to work with towards their first of two field goals.

Overall the Steelers had to settle for two field goals while in the Jets' Red Zone after putting together drives of 9 and 12 plays in the second and fourth quarters respectively. It was enough to win given how the Steelers defense was able to shut down a rookie quarterback who was missing two of his weapons, but still the offense is not showing enough to be confident that against a more prolific offensive opponent this new version of the Steelers is capable of holding its own.

On the other side of the ball, the dreaded "third and long" scenario reared its ugly head numerous times, but while the Steelers' defense bent against the Jets' rookie QB Geno Smith it did not break to allow a touchdown, something they have been unable to achieve up to this point. While this was a positive sign, again it was against a rookie QB who has been inconsistent in his short tenure in the NFL.

The Steelers did avoid the ignominious honor of being the only team to go five games into a season without a turnover, with the Ryan Clark interception coming during the Jets second possession of the second half, and Lawrence Timmons' interception to seal the victory late in the fourth quarter. Clark's interception was especially apropos given his public comments regarding what the Steelers, and the offense in particular, needed to accomplish coming out of the Bye week. Indeed, it was particularly satisfying that Clark registered the Steelers first takeaway of the entire season as an unnecessary validation of Clark's right as an accomplished and valuable member of the Steelers' defense to speak out, regardless of whatever umbrage many in Steeler Nation took in him daring to speak his mind.

All in all, a win is a win, no matter how ugly. But the victory came at a cost. Recently acquired LT Levi Brown injured his triceps during pre-game warm ups, the same one that caused him to miss the entire 2012 season. Tight end David Johnson injured his hand or wrist early in the first quarter, which is the only legitimate reason why David Paulson was lined up next to Kelvin Beachum at the Steelers own 4 yard line on their second possession of the game. Beachum, who couldn't beat out Marcus Gilbert at right tackle during training camp, was apparently sufficiently "above the line" during practice this past week to start ahead of Brown, and fortunately so. But that does raise the question as to just what the Steelers plan on using Guy Whimper for, if he's not being prepared "above the line" but is still given a game-day helmet.

While the win was crucial from a psychological standpoint, if the Steelers are not able to overcome the injuries incurred from this game and put together a better offensive line performance, and a more rigid defensive performance against Flinging Joe Flacco or Rambling Ray Rice of the Ravens next week, Steeler Nation may look back on this victory against the Jets as a pyrrhic one. With Brown possibly out for several weeks, if not the rest of the season, the Steelers may be forced to yet again in Mike Adams accept a player set aside for performance reasons onto the starting roster. There is logic and precedence for sitting a player who seems overwhelmed by the game in order to allow him time to get his head straight; the Steelers did it with Ike Taylor in 2006 with positive results.

Unless GM Kevin Colbert somehow pulls another rabbit out of his hat as he did with Fernando Velasco, the loss of Brown and Johnson will force the Steelers to play Paulson consistently if they don't want to activate Adams and put him in as a blocking TE, a move which could prove to be even more confusing for a second year player unable to secure his normal role as a tackle. Paulson has proven over the first four games to be unprepared to handle a rushing attack by even an average NFL defensive end or linebacker; the thought of him trying to protect the Steelers franchise quarterback against Terrell Suggs or Elvis Dumervil would be enough to give even Ben Roethlisberger pause before taking the field.

In the past, when the Steelers played up to their decade long reputation, "ugly wins" were accepted as the occasional sign that a championship caliber team is sometimes a little bit off. After an 0-4 start, this team is anything but championship caliber as it struggles through its transition from that team of old into what it will become over the next several years under Mike Tomlin; a transition that is a long time in coming, but a natural occurrence nonetheless. There were few positives to be taken from this victory, but what few there were are encouraging: Roethlisberger is about as good as he has been in recent years at dealing with whatever adversity his offensive line allows through to him and finding Heath Miller or Antonio Brown when a catch is absolutely needed, and the defense showed signs of regaining its ability to bring pressure on the quarterback from multiple directions, which in turn created the situation by which our first interceptions were achieved.

The distance remaining to be climbed for the Steelers to return to dominance in the AFC North is long, and fraught with many obstacles in orange, brown and purple, but the first step has been taken. There may be many more missteps along the way, and this may not be the season for this group of Steelers to return to the halcyon days of past, but at least the first step has been taken.

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