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Was there MNF Tonight? Steelers Win Something, Just Not Sure It Was A Football Game

I'm tempted to skip any and all discussion of tonight's totally idiosyncratic 'football game' against Miami and instead share my thoughts on why 8 wins might be enough for both Wild Card spots in the miserable NFC, or why the Collective Bargaining Agreement of the early '90s is responsible for the mediocre product being put out on the field by so many teams in recent years. I will resist such temptations however and lead off in what I expect to be a terse debate about tonight's 3-0 victory over the still winless Miami Dolphins.

Here's what I expect the naysayers to bring to the table:

1) Our offensive line once again was a disappointment

2) Our play calling was miserable

3) How the hell did we let this hapless Miami team hang around for 59+ minutes.

My responses to these questions?

1) Our offensive line wasn't nearly as bad as the numbers might suggest, and even if you want to believe they struggled tonight, at least realize that defensive pass-rushers had a remarkable advantage over the linemen due to the field conditions. Neither the Steelers nor the Dolphins have been prolific sacking the QB this year, yet both teams put pressure on the QB all night long. The Dolphins finished with 5 sacks, while the Steelers were able to bring rookie QB John Beck to the ground on 4 separate occasions. Farrior and Foote were in the face of Beck all night long, even though they recorded only 1 official sack between the two of them.

When you're forced to back-pedal and move laterally on that type of field against charging pass-rushers who have a clear idea of where they plan to attack, it's going to be nearly impossible to hold your ground. It's not like either team's linemen got burned on speed moves either. The bulk of tonight's sacks were the result of linemen simply being pushed back into the quarterback as linemen struggled to gain traction on the ridiculous track that was Heinz field tonight. The offensive line of the Dolphins has actually been one of the team's few bright spots this year, but tonight they looked terrible protecting the QB against a Steelers defense that has actually had its fair share of struggles sacking the QB for a #1 rated scoring defense. Finally, it only takes a few seconds for a pass rusher to get to the QB, even in sloppy conditions, but it takes much longer for WRs to run the precise routes QBs and WRs have worked on since training camp under such circumstances. That led to both Beck and Roeth holding onto the ball for just a second longer than they're accustomed to. You saw the consequences.

I was actually somewhat pleased with the play of the line. Before delving into the positives, I'll start by saying Sean Mahan just isn't very good. Period. He's not the most integral piece in pass protection schemes, but he sure is a liability in the running game. Willie Parker actually had a fine evening running the ball, but once again, there was little to no real estate up the gut. Now, for the positives. I wondered earlier this week whether it might be time to give Max Starks another chance. Turns out he was forced into action because of an injury to Marvel Smith rather than replacing Willie Colon, but for a night at least, I was pleased with what I saw from Starks. He contained Jason Taylor fairly well, especially in the first half. And he did an above-average job opening up a few holes for Willie Parker on the outside in the running game. As for Mr. Colon? He again got dusted on several occasions in pass-protection. Starks may not be the answer, but in my mind, neither is Colon. There's a reason tackles are the 2nd higheest paid position in the NFL (*registration required, but I highly reccommend you take the time to quickly register and read the article if you haven't already read Michael Lewis' fantastic book, The Blind Side). Unlike some positions in the NFL, coaching and intelligence will only help a Tackle marginally. As a Tackle, you are either born with the necessary skill set to be dominant, or you're not. In my mind, Willie Colon was not. He's close, but he falls short in the foot-speed, balance, and strength departments to ever be consistenly good enough to be a long-term solution for a proud-Steelers franchise.

But I digress. If you ignore the sack numbers for just a second and look at the rest of the game's statistics, you might come to a different conclusion other than that the Steelers offensive line was again pathetic. Willie Parker finished the evening with 81 yards on 24 carries, even though his longest run of the evening was a mere 9 yards. In many of the games this year in which Parker ran for 100+ yards, often times, 30-40% of his total would come in two or three plays, with the bulk of his carries resulting in disappointing 1-3 yard gains. Tonight, there were certainly plenty of ineffective 1-3 yard running plays, but for the most part, I thought the running game was much improved in terms of play-calling, blocking schemes, and Parker finding a way to fall forward for an extra yard or two upon first contact. Alan Faneca made a nice block when he was pulled to the right, opening a sizeable hole for Parker on the edge. Starks sealed his guy on the outside on several occasions for Parker, and despite being flagged for multiple costly penalties, Heath Miller did a good job blocking on the edge.

Whatever though. There are still plenty of reasons to be concerned with this line. Tonight's performance, however, should not be viewed as additional fuel to the fire.  

2) This post is already becoming too lengthy, so I will try to limit my initial reactions to the play-calling for now as I eagerly await all of your takes on the game, but this is basically what I thought of the play-calling. Allow me to cut and paste from a comment I made in the open-thread:

As for those who wanted more passing plays on first down. Perhaps, but realize that our two most negative plays were on passing calls - the pick, and the fumble by Ben on the snap. Absolutely nothing negative happened in our running game, and as abysmmal as it was to watch - it made sense not to give Miami any charity with overly zealous play calling in the passing game. Had Ben not thrown that early pick, and had we not fumbled on a subsequent potential scoring drive on a shot-gun snap, we might have seen a different, more aggressive offensive philosophy for the remainder of the game. You know what though? Tomlin & Co. don't give a damn about style points. It was crystal clear that John Beck and Jesse Chatman were not going to do anything against our defense. I don't blame the coaches for minimizing the possibility of a game-changing turnover, and instead relying on this veteran defense to do their thing and provide the offense with a scoring opportunity in the second half.
This reality may be hard to swallow if you fixate on how successful Ben was accuracy-wise throwing the ball. Harken back to our initial drive however: Big Ben threw the ball well to Hines and Cedrick on our first possesion. The play-calling seemed crisp and appropriately agressive. Then came the pick inside the Dolphins 30. From that point on, we tightened up a bit, but in all actuality, it made sense not to force the issue. Here's all you need to know: Armed with two timeouts and two minutes left on the clock in the first half, the Dolphins elected to run out the clock despite connecting on a positive pass play on the second play of the drive. The 21-yard completion to TE David Martin with 2 minutes remaining put the Dolohins at the their own 35 with plenty of time left to muster a drive that might at least result in a possible FG attempt. Instead of forging ahead, the Dolphins ran out the clock and forfeitted any potential momentum they may have seized with that final drive of the first half. With that decision, it was clear that the Fins had no confidence in their offense, and that the only way we were going to allow them to score was if we presented them with outstanding field position.

While I was not really disappointed with the pass-to-run ratio tonight, here's what I was disappointed with, and what I imagine I'll continue to be disappointed with for the forseeable future: Najeh Davenport, in my estimation, is not a reliable short-yardage option behind this line. Some want to believe he provides the necessary counter-punch to Parker in the running game with his superior bulk, but I contend that this guy has some of the worst instincts and slowest feet running the football in the entire National Football League. Granted, the line didn't give him much to work with when his number was dialed, but can Arians please stop believing that Davenport is capable, individually, of picking up tough yardage up the gut in obvious running situations. In my mind, Davenport should be spelling Parker on those drives that we have conceeded as unsuccessful, as well as on the occasional screen pass and in blocking situations. Running Davenport on 4th and 2 from the Miami 40 was a terrible call when you consider how successful we had been throwing the ball. I'm fine with keeping the clock moving with the running game for the better part of the game, but when it's 4th and 2 and you have a chance to seize control of the game with a scoring drive, please, please come up with something better than a HB dive up the middle with your back-up RB.

3) In response to those who are upset that this Steelers team could possibly let an 0-10 Miami team hang around all night (and even threaten to take control in the early stages of the 2nd half), I would say: A. punt. stuck. in. the. ground. like. a. javelin. End of story.

This was barely a football game. Instead, this was a butt-ugly war of attrition and patience that I'm oh-so-happy we won. Forget style points and making any sort of 'statement' that last week was an anomaly. Each week is a new week that presents unique challenges and circumstances. Occasionally, as was the case tonight, field conditions, injuries, and other circumstances rear their ugly head at the last minute, when it's far too late to change a week's worth of preparation. All I know for sure is that this offense came out throwing the football agressively on its opening drive. We marched down the field quite succesfully, and I, for one, believe that we would have continued to fool the Dolphins defense with a nice combination of throws and runs had the elements not forced our hand in another direction.

SteelerFan made a relevant analogy to me that I'll end with for now:

Tonight was like a hockey team showing up to play a game at the rink, discovering an ice-free pond, and being tossed a yellow ball to play water polo. Yeah, maybe the blue line passes were bad like they have been in the past, but it still has no bearing on Steeler football.
That comment was off the cuff and perhaps not as entirely analogous as it could be, but the basic premise is spot on: sure this was ugly, but tonight's game barely resembled a football game. Problems that have plagued this team appeared again at times tonight, but then again, most everything went wrong for both teams all night, and it wasn't due to a lack of effort. Intensity and focus were hardly the problem in tonight's war of attrition. Both the Steelers and the Dolphins were handed a crate of sour, rotten lemons. The Steelers just managed to find a way to make their lemonade taste just a smidge sweeter. And for this week, at least, that's fine by me. May normal, recongizable football resume next week!

Go Steelers!