Congratulations to the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers. The 31-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns was the first shutout of the year for the Steelers defense, while the offense ran for 176 yards on the ground, the highest total of the year since Week 1 against Houston. A few bullet points on this one:
* The big news of course is the concussion sustained by Ben Roethlisberger near the end of the first half. I presume that Ben was going to play just one half of football Sunday, so it's extremely unfortunate that he made it 90-95% of the way through his alloted playing time before getting sandwiched by two Browns pass rushers. Roethlisberger was carried off the field in a stretcher, but no neck or spinal cord injuries were sustained. The decision to strap him down was merely precautionary, and for now, it appears that Ben will be back in time to play at Heinz Field in the Divisional Round.
* I'll be writing about this more, but ugh, let's just hope Ben is either a 100% green light or a clear no-go two Sundays from now. The worst would be him rushing back because of the high stakes of the moment, only to cost his team a potential victory with groggy decision making. It's too early to speculate, but this will most certainly be the $1 million dollar question surrounding the team over the course of the next two weeks.
* Willie Parker recorded his 4th 100+ yard game of the season, and just his first since Week 9 against San Diego. Parker finished with 116 yards on 23 carries and 1 TD - a 34 yard scamper that was the team's longest rushing play all year. Sad in a way, but it was good to see Parker run with a bit more authority and burst. If you have read Jim Wexell's latest book, you'd know it's unwise to give up on Willie Parker. His whole football career has been a struggle, and he's just found ways to persevere and deliver time and time again. I sure hope he has one more magical string of games in him in the playoffs.
* I hate to say it, but even on a day when we did lots of things right, I'm still miffed at our run:pass ratio. On the day we ran the ball 35 times, while passing it 27 times. Mind you, 2 of those rushes were kneel downs by Dennis Dixon at the end of the game as well. There were plays to be had in the passing game, no doubt, but on a day when we were averaging 5 yards per rush, it's hard to comprehend why exactly we weren't grinding away more in the running game. Bruce Arians may just be married to the passing game.
* Congratulations to Hines Ward! #86 recorded 6 catches for 70 yards. He finished the regular season with 81 catches, pushing his career receptions total to 800 - already tops in Steelers history. Ward's 70 yards also pushed him over the 1,000 yard plateau for the 5th time in his illustrious career. I had no doubt that Tomlin was going to play Ward and make sure he got over that statistical barrier. Congratulations to Hines for an outstanding season. We are absolutely going to need some of his big game mojo if we're going to put up enough points to make a serious run in January.
* So much for Bruce Gradkowski giving his team the best chance at winning. Gradkowski finished with a QB rating of 1.0. In his defense though..actually, no, never mind. It's impossible to defend Gradkowski today but I will say that even the legends of the game would have had a hard time QB'ing that team to victory under similar circumstances.
* Tyrone Carter with 2 INTs, including 1 for a TD. We may be in trouble if Carter is forced to start for whatever reason, but for the amount of money he makes (very little), Carter continues to carry his weight as a veteran reserve on this team.
* I was impressed with Bryant McFadden's play today. He seemed more eager to seek out contact than in his previous outings. That bodes well for us in the playoffs, particularly if we face a team like Indy that is scary in the passing game. As much as I like William Gay, I think I may be leaning towards datruth4life's assesment that the team should try to re-up the talented young CB.
* 0 sacks allowed by the offensive line. Hard to dismiss that stat, but we were playing the Browns, and Big Ben did get his bell rung several times in the pocket while he was still in there. Nevertheless, a very solid game for the offensive line heading into the playoffs.
* Great day by the special teams. Mitch Berger had a great game, 4 punts averaging 46 yards per kick. Joshua Cribbs was held completely in check in both the kickoff and punt return games; and Jeff Reed made his lone FG attempt as well as all 4 XP attempts. That's sound stuff, and we'll likely need that type of performance when we next play against one of the league's better teams.
* The Browns have now lost 11 straight to Pittsburgh.
* If he were to be fired, Romeo Crennel would go down as the only coach in Cleveland history not to have beaten the Steelers during his tenure. Ouch.
* Man, I really hope we're starting to see a trend materialize with regards to Heath Miller's involvement in the offense. Big #83 had 5 catches for 55 yards, giving him 13 in the past two weeks, and 26 over the course of the past 6 weeks. I like our chances infestimaly better if Miller gets 5+ catches per game in the playoffs.
* Poor Cleveland. They set the NFL record for offensive utility by surpassing the 1974 Chicago Bear's streak of 22 quarters without an offensive touchdown. They will conclude the 2008 season having not scored on offense in 6 game's worth of quarters. Unreal. I guess it doesn't help when your offense only manages only 102 yards passing in the final two games. The lone bright spot I suppose is Jamal Lewis eclipsed the 1,000 yard plateau with his 94 yard rushing performance.
* To conclude, with their stifling of the Browns on Sunday, the Steelers defense wrapped up the Passing Yards Per/Game category; the 3 sacks today pushed the team total to 51, good for 2nd in the league, and the 2 Ty Carter INTs gave the Steelers an even 20 for the year, easily good for top ten in the league. The shutout also secures the top Points Per Game Allowed mark in the league for Pittsburgh at just under 14 points per game, more than 1/2 point per game better than the runner-up Tennessee Titans. Awesome stuff!
* Much more on a whole bunch of subjects as we ramp the coverage back up to full throttle in anticipation of the 2008 NFL Playoffs. Who else is extremely excited for the drama of a 12 team single elimination tournament pitting the best teams and athletes in the world in a battle for the elusive Lombardi Trophy? I sure am.