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Turnover Battle Costs Pittsburgh Chance At Homefield Advantage Throughout

Some more thoughts on the Steelers 31-14 loss to the Titans in Nashville:

* First of all, congratulations to James Harrison for setting the Steelers single season sack record with 16. He deserves some time off next week to rest up that beat up hip. Even though he may want to go head hunting against Cleveland, I hope he sits out and gets ready for the playoffs.

* The streak of quarters without an offensive holding penalty called against an opponent comes to an end in the 2nd half. We got a few other holding calls on special teams, but eventually the streak did come to a halt. If our defense is in fact starting to wear down a bit, we'll need the refs to continue to call a more fair game. It's remarkable really that our defense was able to avoid so much trouble this year without opposing offenses being in 1st and 2nd and 20 type situations frequently at all.

* Lendale White is kind of a thug and a prima dona. But that's not really news, so I'll just leave it at that with regards to his desecrating a Terrible Towel. Football's entertainment so let's not incidentally embarrass ourselves by making a bigger deal out of it than it really is, but at the same time, that's Lendale White for you. Complaining when not getting carries; disrespecting opponents and traditions when times are good. Karma's a bitch! Color me eager to get another crack at them when we're not still dizzy from a 12 round prize fight with the NFL's better teams.

*It's funny how a team that just completed one of the most difficult 9 game stretches imaginable (starting with NYG game) could be so thoroughly ridiculed by a chunk of such a successful team's fanbase. Sickening. Want to know what the combined record of our opponents has been in those past 9 games? 83-49.  All but one game has been against a playoff contending team. New York Giants, Washington, Indianapolis, San Diego, New England, Dallas, Baltimore, Tennessee all were huge games. What's even crazier is the last three games have really been high stakes, with two of them being road games. That's a lot of physical and emotional toll for a team to endure, only to have to travel again to take on a Tennessee team that was A) angry after losing to a mediocre Houston team the week before B) has not played in any gut wrenching emotionally draining games recently, and definitely not any 2-4 week stretches of all tough games. Tennessee's opponents records in the past 9 games is 52-80. They had the division clinched weeks ago, but even still, their past three opponents have been absolute cupcakes - Houston, Detroit, Cleveland. They were the more fresh team as a result.

There's more...


We have a chance to recharge our batteries starting next week in Cleveland. I think Ben Roethlisberger should play at least a half, to get a chance to make some good decisions and throws against a terrible Browns secondary. But generally speaking, we can now get into full rest mode. We need it. The team has earned it. They've fought so valiantly, scratched and clawed for every inch so tirelessly, and overcame some early season demons by winning a number of tough close games down the stretch. We paid the emotional and physical toll for that impressive streak today.

Guys like Polamalu were a step slow; same with Harrison, Woodley, Farrior, Aaron Smith, Big Snack, Foote, and Ryan Clark. They didn't play poorly. Any statement that Ryan Clark had a horrible game is erroneous. DId you see the Cowboys Ken Hamlin against Baltimore? That's horrible safety play. Clark and his running mates didn't make any huge mistakes or miss any assignments drastically. We were just doing a lot of reacting and absorbing of contact from Tennessee's offense. It's usually the other way around. The Titans though had the upper hand thanks to smart play calling early, and physical tough running late when they had us on the ropes. We'll get back up from this stumble. We have before.

Moving on to some other thoughts, but seriously, if you've ever played sports...hell, if you've ever taken final exams, finished a big deliverable for work, sold a house and moved, or countless other exhausting projects that take lots of hard work and energy over the course of several days, weeks, or months..then you know that there's peaks and valleys in human performance. It's just nearly impossible to maintain that 'edge' each and every week, even in activities that are far less violent and physically taxing as football.  Teams like San Diego, Miami, New England, and Baltimore - they are still on the clock expending maximum energy to make the playoffs. All have huge games next week, and none will have a BYE in the opening round. When one of them makes their way to us most likely in Round 2, they will be dealing with many of the fatigue issues we dealt with today, while we'll be fresh as can be with no major setbacks in the injury department.

* Lost in all the hysteria of the loss seems to be any recognition of the passing game having its best game of the year. The 331 yards were a season high for Ben Roethlisberger. My gut told me that we were going to have great success moving the ball against this Titans team through the air. We definitely did, starting on that nice pitch and catch to Hines Ward that put us inside their red zone. Willie Parker's best run of the game got us even closer, then the Ben fumble. As I wrote in my last post, Tennessee then inhaled a big chunk of yardage and time off the clock.

* It really is funny. All of the 'life-long' fans that come out of the wood works after a road loss - the Steelers only 2nd road loss of the year in 2008 - to claim how broken everything is.  What's most pathetic though is the folks who are ready to bench Ben Roethlisberger or give up on him in any way shape or form. One week after a 92 yard TD drive to win a division title on the road. I read comments that Ben can't ever be trusted in big situations. Haha. No comment, I guess. Ben still has development to make, and I think we'd be best served starting fresh next year with a new offensive coordinator while Ben is still a few years short of his physical prime.

* Seriously, if you have that little emotional stability or inability to analyze things both in the immediate and in the bigger picture, than I really feel sorry for you. It must suck to be so up and down with your thoughts and emotions in life. Get well, please.

That said, protecting the ball is priority #1 for Ben Roethlisberger. This was hammered home to him after the disappointing Indianapolis loss. To all those with selective memories, this was his first INT since the NE game, and only 2nd since the Indy game. He had thrown something like 131 passes without being picked, and you're right if you think that the diminished INTs this past 5 weeks was a huge factor in why we got hot. In the 5 Ws, Ben was 104/177 (59%), 1180 yards, 5 TDs, 1 INT. That's perfectly reasonable ball protection, and a good sign that Ben does have it in him to go long stretches without making mistakes with the ball.

* Where there does seem to be a repetitive problem is with fumbles. Ben fumbled in the Dallas and Baltimore game, then fumbled 4 times Sunday, losing two of them. The first fumble, as painful as it was for our chances in this game, I can live with. Ben was trying to make a play, sacrificing his body in the process. The other fumbles were harder to swallow. Obviously this will be a point of emphasis for Ben moving forward.

* One of the ways he can help his cause is by simply releasing the ball to his checkdown option when he has made it there in his progressions. In a typical play, Ben will have a primary option, or a couple of options based on a read he has to make. Then he goes to option #2 and or #3. By the time he's made it to his checkdown option, it's time to get rid of it. Today though, he actually had so much time on certain plays that he got tempted into abandoning his checkdown option, pump faking, then looking greedily back over the middle of the field for new developments. Just let it go, Ben.

I think it's important to remember if you're feeling antsy about Ben's development five years into his professional career:  Peyton Manning, the greatest QB to ever play the game in my opinion, still had problems with these same things even a year or two after where Ben is at right now (age 26). It is amazingly difficult to play QB in this league, even for the most well groomed, gifted and intelligent of QBs. In fact, Manning had 42 INTs in the two seasons that he was ages 25 and 26. At one point though, including in the playoffs, Manning decided to be smarter with the ball, not force as many things, and just give what's taken to him. He's brilliant at this now; same with Brady. Hell, even top flight QBs like Drew Brees struggle in this department. It's very tough finding the right balance of consistent discipline and timely risk taking. Ben does well at both at times. Sometimes even well at both at the same time for stretches. But it's still a work in progress. And that's ok.

One last thing about other QBs - I've heard some talk about Ben and his contract. True. The highest paid player deserves to be held to a very high standard. No doubt about it. There are two other QBs who recently signed mega extensions in the ballpark of Ben's deal - Tony Romo and David Garrard. Tony Romo as we all know, cost Dallas bigtime against us and again for 3 quarters of the Baltimore game Saturday. David Garrard...well, I don't even know what David Garrard has been up to this year, but it has entailed lots of losing and is certainly not worthy of that fat paycheck he's getting. Those two guys will also be ok, though, and that's my point. Perspective.

Here's the deal though y'all in my opinion, and please try to actually get your emotions in gear if you're still fuming at the offense enough to hear me out: the only way that Ben can even make those types of mistakes is if the offense is actually clicking. What do I mean by that? Well, think back to some of the uglier offensive games we've had where Ben has had decent, but not great games. The Dallas game might even be classified as closer to a poor game outside of his willingness to throw the ball away that day and not make a costly error. But in those games, there was very little offensive continuity for prolonged periods of the game like there were against the Titans. The 2nd Bengals game wasn't very pretty, and might have been even closer had Ben made a mistake with the ball.  And the 1st Browns game. Same with the Ravens game. It was tough sledding all day, but Ben picked his spots and didn't give the opposition anything cheap. We won last week because Ben didn't make the mistakes Flacco did.

Sunday though, Ben got a bit greedy. He tried to do a bit too much, I thought. Coming off his wide open checkdown options on multiple occasions confirmed that for me. It's also worth pointing out that all 4 of Ben's fumbles came on 3rd downs. To me, that tells me he just tried to make too much happen, not wanting to come off the field. And like I said, I get that - we were moving the ball more efficiently than we had for most of the season. The 5.4 yards per play were much better than the 4.8 yards per play we allowed against Indianapolis. That again just tells you how small the margin for error is in these games amongst top teams.

* Lost in all the hysteria of the loss is this statistic as well:

Tennessee Titans - 3/14 on 3rd Down (21%); 323 Total Yards; 0 Turnovers

Pittsburgh Steelers - 6/13 on 3rd Down (46%); 374 Total Yards; 4 Turnovers

* Mistakes: 1) 17 points off of turnovers for Tennessee 2) 3 blown points by Jeff Reed 3) 4 free points for Tennessee when we messed around with their signals on the FG attempt.

The bottom line is the better team won today. But it's funny how some want to throw every last person under the bus when really, two simple plays (the Reed FG and the dumb penalty) kept this game from being a 1 possession game instead of 2 with about 3 minutes left.  And that's before even mentioning ANY of the turnovers, including one on the goal line that's a guaranteed 3 points minimum. So yeah, we got beat by a more physical determined team today that protected the ball better. But even so, we were right there because of some of the successful things we were doing offensively, thanks to Roethlisberger.

* Isn't amazing how Heath Miller makes an impact when he gets balls thrown his way. The Titans were stuffing the box most of the day, and Miller was able to slip free for short but effective catches throughout the game. His 8 catches were a career high.

* Now may be a good time to talk about the running game, as I saw a number of y'all discussing Heath Miller's ability as a blocker. We don't have a running game. There's not much to talk about. I have more thoughtful insight as to why our running plays are so ineffective, but I think it's a combination of 1) play design and play calling and 2) personnel. Thus, no one person deserves all the blame if you ask me. I think Sean McHugh has played admirably, but he's not the answer as a lead blocker. Willie Parker still seems a bit banged up, and I'm not sure why Mewelde Moore isn't getting a few more carries. Finally, I hate that our running plays take so long to develop. That counter, trap draw from the shotgun is awful. The 'stretch' runs off guard and off tackle take too long to materialize if you ask me. I'll have to dig through the play-by-play, but I can recall only one play where we had a RB that wasn't real deep in the backfield taking a quick hitting 'dive' type run straight up the gut. If I recally correctly, it was for about a 5-7 yard gain.

The slow stuff doesn't really work in the NFL at all. It certainly doesn't work with an average line. This is where Arians continues to fall short, even in games and stretches of games where he deserves some kudos for improved play calling in the passing game. We're still not able to mix-and-match and put together complete games with both the throw and the run. Teams like the Colts in 2006 were not able to stop the run for 16 games before getting hot defensively out of nowhere, so never say never with our running game in the playoffs. I'm afraid though that any playoff run we may make has to be predicated exclusively on efficient passing, opportunistic defense, and excellent intangibles like special teams and turnovers.

As for Miller's blocking skills since I started with that? My take? He's neither great nor poor in my opinion, but I do think he's a fantastic talent catching footballs. Notice how many QBs who rely on their TE often just throw it up the seam knowing their TE will be physical going for the ball? Roethlisberger doesn't yet have that same trust I don't think. Combined with Arians not looking Miller's way enough, we can at least begin to understand why he has been underutilized so much the past few years. Today though, on our biggest passing day of the season against a stout defense, Miller was huge. We'll need that moving forward, without question.

* Can everybody who was bagging on Santonio Holmes accept the fact that he's an explosive play maker when the offense is clicking? The 3rd year guy had a few down moments during a very choppy season collectively for his offense - big deal. He's still very gifted and generally a very focused competitor out there. The TD catch was gorgeous of course, but he made other big plays all day. He finished with 5 catches for 96 yards and that 1 TD. He also had a huge recovery of a Hines fumble. Just a great game all around for him. I hope he's back returning punts come playoff time. We needed him to win that Dallas game. We might need him to turn a game in our favor in the playoffs back returning punts as well.

* Couple final thoughts - this game really reminded me of a 2006 Steelers game. Some entertaining success moving the ball through the air; costly turnovers; and a few key lapses on defense. I'm really glad that in 2007, Ben found a way to cut is INTs in half. You could tell it was priority #1 for him. He got away from it in the playoff game last year and has had a few struggles in 2008 compared to 2007, but this game in particular reminded me of Ben in 2006. We've seen him bounce back. He'll do it again.

* These kinds of games though are why Bruce Arians continues to frustrate Steelers fans. Now, even without Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vandebosch, our offensive line had a really hard time winning the line of scrimmage in the running game. Part of that though is because the Titans spent a lot of defensive capital trying to stop the run. That left lots of opportunities for Ben Roethlisberger to find his WRs for sure. The Titans gambled that their front 4 would generate some pressure by themselves without having to blitz much. They did on several occassions, particularly in the 2nd half against Justin Hartwig. And they gambled that Ben would make a few mistakes and would not just continue taking what was given to him, like a more experienced Manning or Brady might do. Ben will get there, but you absolutely can not let opposing teams get away with deploying that strategy. It worked today for Fisher's defense, even though it also allowed Ben to rack up big yardage in the air.

We'll see if there's a rematch, but no matter what the fickle impatient fans might say, this was a closer game than the score indicated, and another case study in the endless annals of NFL history about how NFL games are decided by turnovers.