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Steelers Bury Bengals Late, Improve to 5-1

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Congratulations to the 5-1 Pittsburgh Steelers. Just, win! That's the name of the game in this league. Us beauty judges want perfection but it's unreasonable. Instead, we should be content with the position our defense is putting us in each week, which is to close the deal late in football games with just enough timely offense. We've now done it three straight weeks after one of the more humilating losses in franchise history at Philadelphia. Since then? A win over a pesky Ravens team. And road Ws at Jacksonville and at Cincy. Fine, don't write home about Cincy, but you can't complain about not handling business against dumpy teams on the road (see NYJ game last year) if you aren't going to be pleased when we do in fact win on the road against the league's lesser teams. In my mind at least, these types of games are 'winnable' not because it should be expected that we'd march up and down the field at will against them. But rather, because they are games where we can still emerge victorious even with a bad quarter or two thrown in there, so long as the other quarters are great.

* On the Steelers opening offensive series of the afternoon, they embarked on a 9 play, 5:04 second drive that was capped by a 2 yard pass to Mewelde Moore. It was MM's first touchdown as a Steeler, and I suppose he enjoyed it so much he thought he'd do it twice more later in the afternoon. We'll get to that later, but back to that opening series for a minute.

Clearly Bruce Arians early script revolved around the short passing. The quick-hitting stuff that we seem to now be incorporating with regularity. Did you ever think you'd see the day? I know, me neither. But you have to give credit where credit is due. Things are not yet perfect, but Mr. Arians certainly has done a fine job figuring out ways to get the ball out of Ben's hands quicker. Let's look at the plays:

1) B.Roethlisberger FUMBLES (Aborted) at PIT 22, and recovers at PIT 24.

2) B.Roethlisberger pass short left to H.Miller pushed ob at PIT 28 for 6 yards

3) B.Roethlisberger pass short right to H.Ward to CIN 43 for 29 yards

4) B.Roethlisberger pass short right to M.Spaeth to CIN 37 for 6 yards (C.Ndukwe). CIN-K.Rivers was injured during the play. {Rivers came off the field on his own power} - Yo, Keith. The Most Violent Team Wins.

5) N.Washington left end to CIN 31 for 6 yards - Misdirection?!? WTF is going on.

PENALTY on PIT-C.Kemoeatu, False Start, 5 yards, enforced at CIN

6) B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete short middle to H.Ward.

7) M.Moore left end to CIN 34 for 2 yards

8) B.Roethlisberger pass deep left to S.Holmes to CIN 2 for 32 yards

9) B.Roethlisberger pass to M.Moore for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

First off, these are just the transcripts of the play-by-plays, but these actually provide fairly informative and accurate info about where specific plays take place on the field. Look at all those short passes to start the game, with the nice deep ball to Holmes sprinkled in. Is it just me, or have we been a very good first drive team for much of the Arians' era. Consistency goes down the drain after that, but even if I'm conjuring things in my head here, we have back-to-back weeks of nice drives early in the game. Ben got picked against Jacksonville on his first series but responded with a critical and message-sending TD drive immediately thereafter.

Several thoughts and talking points about this opening drive and the offense more generally for y'all to share your wisdom about.

1) Well, the first thing that stands out to me in this drive is the lack of running plays, quite honestly. One RB carry + an End Around on the entire series. The Nate Washington end-around was on 2nd and 4. Great call there, showing the Bengals something we haven't put on tape all year. Not a huge deal really. Just a 6 yard gain on a play that's probably designed with more like 10-20 yards in mind. But it signified that opposing defenses, in this case, Cincinnati, would have to do a little more reacting than they might previously be accustomed to in year's past.

2) More on Moore:

"We didn't get him to replace Willie," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We got him to be our scat guy, a guy to catch passes, and that's what he's been doing. And he's been doing a great job of running the ball. When we got him, I was excited because I knew what he could do. He's just kind of showing everybody what I've already known."

Ah, when a QB goes down to injury and his replacement strings together a winning streak, the replacement usually will stay in there. It's why Todd Collins started a playoff game for the Washington Redskins last year. And it's why it's the Kerry Collins show in Tennessse for the rest of 2008, barring injury. But when you're talking RBs, it's a different story. Willie Parker will immediately resume his duties as the primary ball carrier probably as early as next week when we host the New York Giants. So what about Moore? Well, he's a team first, non-ego type of guy, so don't expect to hear him say anything other than 'I am glad I helped our team win games in his absence'. But surely he's proven that we really need him contributing to our offense this year. It's not because he's a better football player than Willie Parker. It's apples and oranges. And because of all the other dynamics of our roster, it just so happens that Moore's abilities are in high demand.

Two things about Moore's game that has been so impressive.

1) Obviously the threat he poses as a pass catcher is money. He's got great soft hands that Ben can confidently sling it to under duress. You know those types of RBs that have the type of hands that often times leads to bobbled catch attempts and subsequent interceptions? Yeah, that's not Mewelde. He's smooth as silk yet he gets an iron grip on that ball with his hands away from his body than snares it in and really focuses on not fumbling. It's actually very visible how concientious an effort Moore makes to protect the ball as he's battling for YAC.

2) I've been shocked by his inside the tackles running. I would like to look at this more carefull throughout the week, but is it just me, or has Moore been pretty darn good picking up 4-5 yards in between the tackles, even when there's not that much there. I personally think the holes have been bigger, particuarly up the gut, than when Parker was healthy this year and last, but Moore I believe still merits applause for his toughness and ability to find small creases to slither into for optimal yardage in congestion.

More thoughts on the game after the fold.

A few things to start the week off with, followed by some more Bengals coverage early this week before looking ahead to our big primetime showdown with the New York Giants.

* My oh my. Since the Philly game, I think the narrative around here, at least coming from me, has shifted from one of negativity about the offense to one of complete giddyness about the team's defense. It's funny, when the Bengals drove the length of the field to end the 1st half only down 10-7, the near perfect game the D had been pitching up till that point was all but forgotten.

To be a Steelers fan. Something's broken. Right? Yes, true. But in the NFL in 2008, it's not helpful to know whether a team is flawed in one way or another. No, that's useless because every team is, including the lone unbeaten Tennessee Titans. A better question is 'what do you do really well?' And is that special attribute impactful enough on football games to really make a difference. There's some team out there with the best on-sides kicker in the league. He doesn't really matter much in the grand scheme of things. In 2007, the Patriots offense was so good, it masked any other trace of a blemish on the roster. This year, there's no real stand-out offenses. New Orleans is just too up and down based on where they're playing to be taken seriously, at least under Sean Payton. The once might Colts offensive machine has been rendered fairly lifeless for much of the year, save for huge spurts of productivity in urgent situations, as well as one complete game last week.

So what about defense? Well, there's two teams that have the league's truly elite defenses, at least in my opinion: the Tennessee Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers. I won't get into the stats at this point, but I will mention that the Titans have essentially hit the PowerBall Jackpot when it comes to injurys. Other than of course Vince Young, none. Zilch. If you're a Titans fan, please spare me the mentioning of Bo Scaife or some other guy who maybe sees 7 snaps a week. Bottom line is this team hasn't even had anyone to deactivate each week! It's just unheard of. And it might not last. Meanwhile, the Steelers have dealt with the absences of Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, DeShea Townsend. Legit contributors, if not multiple appearance Pro Bowlers in the case of Hampton. I have not done my homework on McFadden or Polamalu yet, so I won't comment about their potential availability next week after getting injured during the Bengals game. Anyway, this team has survived big losses already and is stil near the top of the pack. If we get a little lucky and keep a bunch of bodies come Dec-Feb, we may be viewed as the Titans are right now: as unequivocally the best defense in the NFL in 2008. If we're not #1, we're #1(a) or #2.

In other words, I think we play defense well enough..in fact, so well, and so much better than our competitors, that we should be considered one of the handful of teams that has a viable shot to win a Super Bowl this year.

Jumping around here.

* Congratulations to rookie Limas Sweed for his first professional catch! May there be many more in the Black and Gold.

* There likely will be many more for Sweed, if for no other reason than that he's learning from some pretty fine mentors. Hines Ward had a great afternoon and is quietly having a really nice season for a guy who had missed time the past two years. He's going to flirt with double digit TDs at this pace. Santonio! Finally. The stud WR out of Ohio State gets to feast on a team he feels all too comfortable carving up, chewing, and spitting out. I think Holmes will continue to get more looks in our re-tooled offense, where he no longer will need fantastic protection just to get down the field on the route he was assigned. And what about Nate Washington? I'll admit I was fairly indifferent about this player two years ago. Boy has he grown up. I dont like practice players in this league and I thought Nate might be one of them for awhile. He's not. He's been making plays for a couple of years now, and he's doing it with much greater consistency and far fewer mistakes thrown in this year than he was in 2006 and 2007. Congratulations to that hard working Steeler. Btw, how beautiful was that pass from Ben? If we REALLY truly show a commitment to the quick-hitting stuff, as well as find a way to mix in a few more unexpected runs that are successful, Ben should have his opportunities to wind up and deliver perfectly delivered deep bombs.

* When I saw Chad Johnson start to do his thing in the second quarter - making tough catches then standing up to our DBs who were relentlessly hitting him after the catch - I felt much better about our chances to come out and play better in the second half after a VERY disappointing second quarter. Why, you might ask? Well, I don't want to get too off track but it's occurred to me more and more lately that, in this league, psychological intangibles mean a ton, at least compared to college athletics, MLB (Congrats Rays fans, but spare me this comparison. The D rays aren't just scrappy. They're really really good players), or even the NBA at times. At the college level, it don't mean a damn if you're in the proper frame of mind to compete or if you have a new coaching staff that has sold you on the fact that there's a fresh start ahead of the team to rewrite any chapter it wanted. If you play for Sam Houston State and you're going up against Ohio State. You're too small and you're too slow,...period.

In the pros however, where talent is dispersed relatively equally and each team has a fixed amount of money they can spend on salaries, the gradiations between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' are extremely small. The most important reason I think for this reality is that, at the individual level, everyone can play. Properly motivate any group of these world-class athletes and anything can happen. Now, granted, Brad Johnson, Tony Romo's replacement in Dallas for the time being, has NO business starting games in this league, but who were those St. Louis Rams we've seen the past two weeks? The previously 0-4 Rams just beat two NFC East heavyweights? How in the hell did they do that? Throw in new coach Jim Haslett - a coach that had experience lifting up beaten down teams, as evidenced by his near run to the playoffs with the New Orleans Saints in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina - and all of a sudden the Rams are playing with suffocating amnesia. They have no idea they're very mediocre, really. And because the NFL is systemically structured to keep the talent disparity very narrow across the league, it's foolish to matter of factly categorize any one team in this league monolithically. No, the Rams do not suck. At least not all the time. And no, the Colts, Chargers, Cowboys, Steelers, etc should not always expected to play what us fans might call an 'elite' level of football.

Blah blah blah I go. Back to Johnson. Say what you want about him. He's a competitor. He's out there battling for his team. Laying out for overthrown deep balls. Absorbing viscious hits from Bryant McFadden, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, and Troy Polamalu. And bouncing right back up after every one. As his QB got a little confidence and found some rhythm on the team's last offensive series before the half, you could see Johnson break the huddle a little more briskly. And he found a way to share some words with some Steelers players without being a total jackass and costing his team penalty yards. Quick mental exercise: In all our jubilation about the Steelers' last two wins, I think we were all guilty of forgetting that two BONE-HEADED 15 yard penalties by our opponents served as major catalysts in our wins.

Johnson is the type of athlete that can get everybody around him focused on individual excellence. Opponents too. We get up to bang on him Housh - remember last year? Ben Roethlisberger hasn't once lost on the road in Cincinnati. Remember, this Bengals team was considered a top 3-top 6 AFC team for most of the Carson Palmer era. They haven't beaten us once in their own house since Big Ben took over the reigns at QB. It's pretty damn hard to accumulate playoff appearances and winning seasons (Marvin Lewis has very few of either) when you can't beat one of your divisional rivals...even at home. You try making the playoffs handicapped with an 0-2 start.

Johnson = making plays and engaged => Steelers respond.

5 of his 8 catches came on that TD series for Bengals at the end of the half. He had one meaningless catch in the early part of the 1st half and then just two catches in the second half. I heart Ocho Cinco for no other reason than he brings out the best in our team. No more Chad Johnson until we play them later in the year. I promise.

* LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, ladies and gentlemen! Absolute terrors out there. I'm not working with any footage here, but do you remember the second sack Timmons had, I believe in the 4th quarter? WOW. It wasn't even good technique. He just decided he was going to get to the QB and there was not much else to say about it. The OT trying to contain him picked up on that vibe, because he didn't offer much resistance to Timmons. Remember a few weeks back when Aaron Smith said that Timmons was going to eventually be the best player on the team and the best defensive player he'd ever been around? Seemed a little over-the-top at first, but Jim Wexell explores some of Aaron Smith's upbringing in his new book, Steeler Nation, and believe me, he's not one for embellishments. His words aside, we're starting to see more of it manifest itself on the field. Without analyzing any tape of him exclusively, I think I would say that he sometimes still doesn't -quite- know his gap assignments in the running game and where to attack while blitzing. But he's still tackling very soundly, his closing speed is disgusting, and you can tell that even though he's a quiet dude from all accounts, he's definitely got a nasty streak that's necessary to kick ass as a inside linebacker in this league.

Man, how dominant is James Harrison playing? Two more sacks for him today, bringing his season total to 8.5 through 6 games. His wingman on the other flank, LaMarr Woodley also notched two sacks against the Bengals, bringing his season total to 7.5 through 6 games. So, even though we have a looong way to go, we have less than 1/3 and James Harrison is officially on pace to break the single season sack record, with Woodley currently on pace to finish just a few back with 20.

How f'n incredible would it be if Harrison was around Woodley's or Timmons's age? Shame on me for not just enjoying what we have for the moment, but a part of me is eager to know what Harrison's future holds. Common sense says he'll walk, but I think in his case, things will play out differently. Presumptous from an outsider, but it doesn't seem like money or attention are objects of his desire. From what I've read about him and been told, he likely would be just fine avoiding another major transition where scores of new relationships and customs would have to be adopted. This is home now and I think he would love to run with LaMarr Woodley, Troy Polamalu, and Lawrence Timmons for as long as he's able to.

* Max Starks alert! You know how NHL dudes won't shave during the Cup run, or how some mid 20s guys who still wish they lived in the fraternity house will wear the same t-shirts or socks that they were wearing when they hooked up with a respectable young lady while sober for the first time since....anyway. 0 Sacks today of Big Ben. A buck twenty on the ground for Moore. We can't take him out! Honestly, I could wax poetic about what I think should happen, but the whole Starks saga has been so impossibly unpredictable and bizarre that at this point, it's best we cut our losses. Starks was good against the Bengals. He opened up a few running lanes, he pass-protected well, I saw him hustle his trimmed down self down the field to find some one to block at the next level. He was just active, eager to hit while being in control. A fine performance. We'll see if he's back to the bench next week when Marvel should return as the Steelers welcome the G-Men to Heinz next Sunday.

* I didn't have access to the sound of the Steelers game. Well, not entirely true. I could faintly hear the accouncers emanating from the small set the game was showing on. Who would have guessed that my neighborhood Seattle sports bar (Wallingford, 45th st) is a Bears bar. My God. Did you see the boxscore from that game? Check it out if you haven't, then you'll understand why I barely could hear myself think, let alone the announcers yesterday, as about 4 dozen or so Bears fans screamed in agony and jubilation what seemed like every 180 seconds.

* Raise your hand if you like seeing old-school vintage Roethlisberger lines like this:

17/28 (60.7%) 216 Yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs

Here's what I liked about the game-plan, as it relates to catering to Big Ben's particular ticks as an athlete and QB. Actually, let's here what Big liked about it::

"It wasn't easy," Roethlisberger said. "Those guys brought a lot of different blitzes. I think they blitzed us every play. That's the way we should play offense. That's us when we're really clicking."

Well, I wouldn't get too ahead of yourself Ben. You 'clicked' for moments, no doubt. But this was merely a very positive step in the right direction. Still lots of refining and experimenting to do. But I do like that this approach keeps Ben's fantastically fast-paced and often jumbled mind, engaged. He has LOTS of ownership of the offense when he's the one deciding which quick read to hone in on before the snap is made. Before, Ben was VERY involved in our offense, but for the wrong reasons. If he didn't make a would be sack seeker miss, we were screwed. That's involved, all right.

* Your Darnell Stapleton Weekly Update! Count on it. I un-intellectually tried to argue that maybe just one guy like him could make all the difference. It's more complicated than that, but it's still a nice fairy tale story line for our twistedly fanatical minds. In case you forgot: 0 sacks today! Booyeah! Wasn't sure if I'd ever heard the words again.

Remember Mewelde Moore's second touchdown of the game? The run he broke off tackle to the left side? Well, Darnell was pulling on that play, and boy did he hustle to the edge. But it wasn't a Kendall Simmons I'm barrelling wrecklessly out of control with no real mastery of the physics of my mass. It was a purposeful and athletic yet controlled 8 yard spring to the other side of the line. And when he got outside, his responsiblity was to seal the defensive end (or maybe linebacker, you'd have to ask TheMostViolentTeam or some other meat-and-potatoes Xs and Os guru). What I liked from Darnell, and this is trivial Ron Jaworski type technique stuff that must irk his wife tremendously when it arises as conversation fodder at the dinner table, but Stapleton took the extra small steps to make sure his body got all the way squared around before he engaged the defender. It's easy for refs to pull a flag in that type of situation, when a RB finds himself with NO defenders around him on the perimeter. Must have been a hold! Well, when you take those small quick steps that some old coach we all had babbled on about, the ref has no choice but to keep the hanky in the pocket. That's all I got on Darnell from this week, as my environs were quite hectic, but so far so good from the 2nd year perserveror out of Rutgers.

* I've got more on this game, but I'll cut it off here for now.

My gameball goes to Bruce Arians, only because Moore probably already got every other pseudo gameball award from fans and journalists, and likely the actual game ball from Head Coach Mike Tomlin. There were frustrating chunks in the game, no doubt about it. And there was some situational tactics that I was disappointed in. But, we have a short passing game! We have a 3rd down back that Ben can check down to! Ben had already matured in his decision making but now imagine what it's going to be like keeping Ben upright 20 more times per season because he has an outlet option that he feels good throwing to. So money and much of the credit goes to Bruce. He's made some big adjustments since the debacle in Philly. We've still got so far to go, but all we can ask for is improvement and the willingness to make visible changes. We've done that and the results have fortunately paid dividends.

5-1! 1st place AFC North.

Go Steelers!