Ok, so we're not going undefeated. That much was probably obvious, but yesterday's game also indicated that this football team still has some glaring weaknesses that they won't be able to ignore all season. We can get into some of those weaknesses in more formal detail, but I first wanted to share the notes I scribbled down throughout the game:
* As I watched the first quarter, it was abundandtly clear that this one wasn't going to be easy. Both teams came to play, and even though we staved off Arizona's first drive and picked up a couple first downs ourself on our opening drive, it was obvious that they had an idea of what they wanted to do on offense, and were ready to compete and be physical on defense.
* Man, I couldn't tell if we were playnig in Pittsburgh or in Arizona early on. Impressive that Steelers fans showed up in such big numbers and drowned out the AZ fans for awhile there in the first half. To their credit, Birds fans made some noise in the second half and definitely played a role in the victory. Nevertheless, another reminder that Steelers Nation stretches far and wide.
* Najeh Davenport did a good job in pass protection. Good thing to, because our offensive line certainly had their problems holding back the Arizona pass rush.
* Nate Washington continues to frustrate me. He clearly has the big-play ability that incentivizes coaches to keep him around, but he just doesn't do the little things very well. I forget the exact situation, but on one crticial third down play, Nate didn't look back for a Big Ben pass quickly enough. If Nate's head was in the game, he would have realized the Cards were bringing max pressure and that Ben would have to get rid of the ball quickly. Instead though, he was late turning back for the ball, and wasn're prepared to catch Big Ben's throw as it went by him.
* On a similar note, Willie Reid got his first taste of significant action in the passing game. I like how he went from 1st to 4th gear quickly after securing the ball and picked up positive yardage. The temptation for young players trying to make an impression is to dance around trying to do too much, instead of taking what was given to him. There's already been significant grumbling about letting Cedrick Wilson go. Wilson is more expensive and more moody than Reid, so his days may very well be numbered. We'll see.
* One final thought about Washington and Reid. Both better work harder on their run-blocking assignments if they want to stick around. I saw Willie and Nate on their rear-ends far too often, and when they were upright, they were typically doing their best matador impersonation, merely waving their defenders by them in run-blocking situations. WRs don't necessarily make-or-break a running game's success, but it's no coincidence that the Steelers running game has been so good for so long AND Hines Ward happens to be the best run-blocking WR in the game. His presence was missed yesterday, and the AZ CBs and safetys made too many plays in the running game because of it.
* Ike Taylor was responsible for the Steelers first truly bone-headed play in 2007. The taunting penalty in the 3rd quarter officially changed the momentum of the game. The Cardinals were already marching and in FG range, but that extra 15 yards put them just about at our 10 yard line and we never really recovered afterwards. For a guy who was having issues all day, the last thing Taylor needed to do was to draw more attention to himself for the wrong reasons.
* Penalties, penalties, penalties. A week after writing that some data suggested penalties weren't the end of the world, I'd have to say that penalties played a big role in us losing. Leaving aside all the false starts and holding penalties, I'll mention the one that cost us most dearly: the ineligible downfield kick penalty on Carrey Davis that allowed Steve Breaston and Arizona to have another crack at returning one. No complaints about the job Sepulveda did booming the ball yesterday, but if he's going to consistently kick the ball 55 yards down the field, we're going to have to do a superior job in punt return coverage. And, we certainly can't expect our guys to excel if they have to run down the field on consecutive punts because a penalty forces us to rekick.
* Make no mistake about it, the better team won yesterday. Give the Cardinals tons of credit for taking our best shot early and bouncing back in the second half. Kudos as well to the Arizona coaching staff for effectively using two QBs. Such shuffling isn't usually reccommended in the NFL, but both Leinart and Warner were ready when they had their number called in the second half.
* However, now that I've given credit where credit is due, I'll finish for now by saying that we were just a few inches away from winning this game. Had Big Ben and Nate Washington hooked up on either one of those deep bombs, the game would have probably ended up differently. It's usually not productive to say, 'coulda, shoulda, woulda', but honestly those throws were missed by just a handful of inches.
More to come on what I'll call Big Ben's 'Superman Syndrome' yesterday, the play of the offensive line, and what we'll need to correct if we're to beat a Seahawks team next week that looked extremely sharp on both sides of the ball yesterday.