Hmm, where to start. I'm going to let some of my initial thoughts be known, then open it up to you guys.
- Let's start with the defense, where there were both positives and negatives. The good? Pass coverage was again sound. Kellen Clemons really couldn't get anything going all day after his 51-yard hook-up with Laverneus Coles on the flea-flicker. As I suspected, the Jets were going to need to strike on several big pass plays to put up a big number on us, and they weren't able to.
Now, what I didn't count on was us tackling Thomas Jones so poorly. It's not like Jones is an All-World runner either. Our inability to bring him down on first contact was mystifying and very uncharacteristic of this group. Overall, I wouldn't say there is too much to be alarmed by, because this unit simply has no track record of poor tackling. The question makr heading into this season was pass coverage, not run defense. You don't go from an elite run-stopping squad to an abysmal one overnight without injuries, so no need to panic just yet. As the saying goes, if it happens once it's a fluke, twice it's a coincidence, and three times....Well, we're only at one, so hold the phone on any major concerns about this defense.
Ike Taylor, Deshea Townsend, and Bryant McFadden all played well yet again. Tyrone Carter is proving to be more than just a big-hitter, and Anthony Smith is filling in for Ryan Clark just fine. Could we have been in better position on several of Jones' runs? Sure, but this was more a matter of tackling than anything else.
- How about the penalties? 8 total for 100 yards. Ike Taylor was flagged for a costly pass interference penalty on the Jets' third series. Starks and Mahan were each flagged for holding. Clark Haggans unnecessarily held a Jets player on the goal line when Kellon Clemons fumbled the ball into the endzone. Troy Polamalu had coverage behind him if Haggans had just let go. Those 3 points were huge for the Jets. Aaron Smith was flagged for roughing the passer on an incomplete third down play. The Jets didn't score on the possesion, but it killed the momentum we had rightfully won with our 11 play 6:36 opening drive of the 2ndt half. Championship teams don't make that many mistakes, and I'd suspect the Steelers players pay dearly for it during practice this week.
- As for the banter about the play calling in the previous thread and in the diaries. At least for this game, there's not much ground to stand on in opposition to the argument that Bruce Arians had a very poor day calling plays. However, it would be an unfair assesment to say that we just ran the ball time after time on 1st down. Of the 29 first down plays we ran today, 15 were runs and 14 were passes. That's a plenty reasonable ratio for this team. Let's not forget that the Jets are worst in the NFL against the run, yielding 152.2 yards per game. Any notion Arians had of pounding the rock against the Jets was very reasonable. Only problem was we got out-manned up front by a more hungry, physical front-7. Is this disappointing? Hell yeah it is, but honestly it shouldn't come as a total shock. By now, anybody who's watched the games closely knows this offensive line isn't elite. And when you factor in the fact that the Jets have had two weeks to prepare, and two weeks to be reminded by the New York media just how putrid they've been, it shouldn't come as a total shock that we were beat in the trenches today. Finally, we obviously had major issues protecting the quarterback today. One way to stop a pass rush is to run the ball effectively. Perhaps a few too many runs, but the general plan on exploiting this depleted Jets' run defense was not the problem. Execution was. Again, very disappointing, but our line is what we thought it is: not much better than average.
- Now for my grievances with Arians play-calling, not just this week, but for the bulk of the season: I don't like that we're constantly trying to throw the ball down the field. Here's the yards per catch breakdown of our Big 3 today:
Holmes - 15 ypc; Ward - 23.5 ypc; Miller - 18 ypc.
Some might ask, 'But Blitzburgh, what's wrong with throwing the ball down field and having a high yards per catch average?' Well, nothing if you have an elite offensive line and you're completing a high percentage of your passes (Big Ben finished at 60%, but 4 checkdowns to Davenport inflated that number). But if your line is just so-so, you're asking to get your QB killed. And on those days when the running game's not clicking, only throwing deep makes it awfully tough for an offense to find any rhythm.
I also noticed that on most of the checkdowns to Davenport, Big Ben was initially trying to make a big play down the field before dumping it off. You have to be able to stretch the field in the National Football League to be successful, but in my mind, our propensity to try to make the big play is getting out of hand.
There's several major problems with the strategy, the biggest one being that our offensive line is not very good in pass protection. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that deep plays take longer to develop. The O-Line's not great, but it's not Houston Texans circa 2003 miserable. We'd be doing Big Ben and our offense a big favor by throwing some more shorter, timing patterns.
Let me take you back to one of our better executed pass plays of the afternoon. The situation was 3rd and 4 on our own 25. Roethlisberger recognized the Jets blitz scheme, and quickly unloaded to Cedrick Wilson, who was running a quick out. 9 yards and a first down. Unless I'm forgetting something, that was the last of the short stuff we would run, save one quick hot read to Holmes along the line of scrimmage.
The Jets had two defenders on Holmes, Ward and Washington just about every time they went deep, yet we didn't adjust and take what was given to us. Think back to our first TD pass to Holmes. It was a quick swing-out to Santonio, and he waited for Heath and Hines to lock in on their blocks on the edge before turning on his jets and heading to the endzone. That kind of stuff can work when you have WRs who catch the ball well in traffic (Holmes and Hines), and a QB who is tall enough to not get a bunch of passes batted down at the line.
Perhaps Big Ben's success at pulling off the miraculous so often this season has convinced him that there's no play he can't make. I don't know, I'm not inside his head, but it's plausible considering his personality. It should also be noted that Big Ben has more input on game-planning and audibling this year than in year's past. It's not inconceivable that he's been influential in this development.
I'll finish with the play-calling by saying that I hated the two 3rd and long draws we ran to Carey Davis. The first call was less egregious, because we were facing 3rd and 17 and were on the Jets 24. It's hard to squeeze a pass in there when you're in that part of the field, and no sense in falling out of FG range with another sack. 3 points ties the game, so fine, run something conservative. But why Davis? Does he have the burst to even have a chance at picking up that first down? No, he doesn't. Here's an idea. Why don't we take away 3-5 carries from Parker when we plan on plowing straight ahead, and keep him fresh for situations where defenses are thinking pass.
The second time we ran the draw to Davis was much harder to swallow. Facing a 3rd and 14 from inside our own 20, we ran the same play for 6 yards. Basically we conceeded the ball to the Jets. It's not like we were playing the field position game either. Phil Simms tried to justify the situation that way, but what's 6 more yards when the opponent is going to field the punt at around the 35 yard line anyway. You have to go for the first down there. Very, very passive call. Basically in my mind, we were overly aggressive when we should have been patient and methodical, and timid when we needed to let it all hang out.
- Weekly update on special teams. I found it sad we resorted to the pooch kick. That's great and all that it minimizes the chances of a huge return, and there's definitely times when that's appropriate. But on every kickoff? Sure we took Leon Washington out of the game in kickoff returns, but we also basically gave them the ball past the 30 yard line on each of their possesions following a score. Again, another sign of weakness displayed by the Steelers on Sunday. I'd rather us figure out which guys we need in there rather than pooching it and giving them the ball past the 30 every single time. Remember, 30 yards per kickoff return is just about good enough for tops in the league. So to just willingly give your opponent on the 30 yard line every time is a sign of just how little confidence we must have in that department of the game. Pooching it in my mind is just putting on a band-aid, not disecting and fixing the cause of the problem in the first place.
As for Jeff Reed? Perfect again, as Spikey continues his very steady 2007 season.
Finally, rookie punter Daniel Sepulveda's mediocre punt in overtime set up the Jets' game winning FG score. It was not Sepulveda's finest day as a pro, that's for sure. He did pin the Jets inside the 20 twice, but he wasn't able to muster any of the booming kicks we've grown to expect this year from him. It cost us in overtime. If you get a chance to see a replay of that return by Washington, you'll notice Najeh Davenport make an asbolutely pathetic effort at containing Washington. First off, why is Najeh Davenport a gunner in our punt coverage? I like him in certain offensive situations, but he's got slow, slow feet, and honestly, not the best instincts out there. Recent acquisition Anthony Madison saved a TD on that return, and had an overall solid game, but Tomlin's got more work to do finding the right guys to put in there.
- What about the offensive line? Well, it was offensive that's for sure. That's for another post, I've written enough for now. 7 sacks, multiple holding calls, no running lanes created, and it's not like it was a hostile environment. (Jets fans, you're pathetic by the way. That was the least inspiring home crowd I've maybe ever heard since the Bengals or Buccaneers crowds of the early to mid 90s.) Again though, the line will be mauled by the media and by the fans, but they were hamstrung by poor play calling and Ben's unwillingness to throw it away when the pocket collapses. A sad showing by the line nevertheless.
Let me finish by saying that despite all that, we had a chance to win this game on the road. We had costly penalties, called a poor game, turned the ball over, didn't tackle well, didn't finish off drives inside the red-zone, and still had a legitimate shot to pull this one out and improve to 8-2.
Are we a great football team? We can be, absolutely, when everything's clicking. But we also have major flaws that have been exposed for the rest of the league to analyze and attack. Fortunately for us fans, this team has shown flashes of brilliance in all departments, including along the line, so there's plenty of reason to think we could get hot at the right time and make a run in January. The flip-side of that coin for us fans is there's going to be the occasional clunker mixed in there. We just don't have the personnel, and lately, the evolving gameplans, to be consistently great.
No need to panic yet though, and I could not disagree more with those who believe that Mike Tomlin is not the right guy for this job.
These are but one man's thoughts. Discuss. Remember though, Steelers Nation prides itself on being informed, intelligent football fanatics. Let's be appropriately critical, but save the vitriolic lazy bashing for other less fortunate fanbases.