Make it three straight victories for the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers. I wrote three weeks ago after the Steelers lost to the Bengals that we should remember how dynamic and fluid the 16 game NFL regular season is and to just hope that the team posted some victories as they sorted through some of their problems on both sides of the ball. The Baltimore Ravens were 3-0 when I wrote that, but I suggested that we wait and see how they fared on the road against New England and Minnesota before we anointed them certain AFC North champions. Well,, three weeks later and Baltimore is 3-3, while the Steelers are 4-2. With the Bengals having lost as well this afternoon - at home to the mercurial Houston Texans - the Steelers now find themselves tied with the Bengals atop the AFC North. Cincinnati of course holds the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh for the moment, but there's still plenty of football to be played and all three teams still essentially control their own destiny moving forward.
A few initial thoughts from me about the Steelers victory over the Browns at Heinz Field.
* 36 rushes, 35 passes. That's much more like it Mr. Arians. There were a few instances where I didn't love the play calling, but for the most part, Arians designed a solid and well reasoned game plan. The Steelers averaged 3.9 yards per rush on those 36 attempts. That's a very respectable average. Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore all had a few nice runs on the afternoon. Nothing necessarily to write home about, but 160 total yards rushing on the day for Pittsburgh. Not bad. Not bad at all.
* How about Big Ben and the passing game? Well, Roethlisberger finished 23/35 for 417 yards and 2 TDs. The 417 yards were the most by Roethlisberger since the game against the Broncos in 2006 where he threw for 433 yards. That impressive feat came in defeat though. Big Ben is simply playing at a level we haven't seen him play at thus far in his already decorated 5+ year NFL career. More on this later, but Roethlisberger probably was a bit too willy-nilly with the football today on multiple occasions. He had just one interception but easily could have been picked off at least one or two more times. He also coughed up and lost one fumble during the victory. Once again, even when the Steelers play dominant football, they're still collectively doing just enough little things wrong to keep things more interesting than we perhaps might like as fans.
* Nice to see you Lawrence Timmons. 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles. That's three sacks in his past two outings. This should be a very welcome sight for Steelers fans far and wide. Maybe I should temper my enthusiasm for his performance though. Derek Anderson did after all just dangle the ball out there for anyone to swipe at. He's really not very good at anything other than slinging the ball with impressive velocity.
* As for Troy Polamalu - it didn't take long for him to make an impact, did it? Polamalu intercepted Joshua Cribbs late in the 1st quarter after the Browns had recovered a fumble inside Steelers territory. Polamalu wasn't his usual self out there today, but you could already tell the difference he is going to make for this defense moving forward. Let's hope he has a good week of healing and practice in preparation for next Sunday's showdown with undefeated Minnesota.
* How fun is it watching Hines Ward make opposing secondarys look absolutely silly. He and Big Ben are really on the same page right now. That touchdown pass to Ward over the middle of the field - in between multiple Cleveland defenders - was perfectly timed. By Ward that is. It actually appeared as if Ben was looking in the direction of Santonio Holmes. But in swooped Ward and he caught it in a small window and had the leg up on the sprint to the endzone. Ward is doing some ridiculous things at this point in his career. He now has 41 catches, 599 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns through six games. By the way, those 599 yards are tops in the NFL as of Sunday evening. As impossible as it may have sounded before the start of the year, Ward now has a chance to surpass his career year in 2002 when he caught 112 receptions for 1,329 yards. It likely won't happen, but it's sure fun to watch him just explode out of the gates to start this year.
* A quick word on Santonio Holmes - first of all, congratulations to him for his 2nd 100+ yard receiving game on the season and first since the opener against Tennessee. Holmes had 5 catches for 104 yards but it wasn't anything he did with the ball in his hands that impressed me. Instead it was his downfield blocking that I noticed. There's no way Ward has the day he had without Holmes blocking as diligently and effectively as he did. I'll see if I can get some stills of the dirty work he did. HUGE sign for Pittsburgh if you ask me. Many wondered if Holmes would be a 'me-first' kind of guy this year if he didn't get more looks and glory than in previous years. Well, he's been plenty involved, but probably not as much as he'd like. Nevertheless, all we've seen from him is his willingness to put his head down, keep taking care of the little assignments he has while waiting for the game to come to him in the passing game.
* I hate the fact that the Steelers were too scared to kick it to Joshua Cribbs after the Pro Bowler took one to the house early in the game. There was one kickoff where the Steelers just squibbed it and it was picked up cleanly by one of the upmen. Cleveland had the ball at the 40 yard line or so. That's just gift-wrapping very good field position in exchange for the small possibility that Cribbs would bust one again. Obviously it'd be preferable to just shore up the coverage units. But just handing opposing teams the ball at the 40 yard line isn't sustainable. By the way, I'd love for Cribbs to land somewhere else. What a player! And by all accounts, a great guy too. Too bad he's stuck in such a mediocre situation.
* Jeff Reed seems to be back on track. He was 2 of 2 today and I believe he's now made his past four kicks. Keep it up Jeff, we're going to need you I'd imagine more than we have in recent weeks later in the year.
* I miss Anthony Madison.
* I'll address the zany end to the 3rd quarter soon enough, but the Steelers running backs obviously need to protect the football better than they did today. There's a certain segment of the fanbase that will point to this as an example of how 'our coaches are letting the guys be lazy' or how this team 'lacks mental toughness.' Well, this team most certainly could play more consistently, and perhaps part of the problem is there's not quite the same sense of urgency being the defending champs. But I just don't buy that. Mistakes happen - the Steelers just seem to be making a few of them in different facets of the game each week. In the first couple of games it was red zone execution. Then it was poor 4th quarter defense, the inability to pressure the quarterback or get turnovers. This week it was ball protection. But on the flip side, the Steelers were much better in some of those other facets they had struggled with earlier in the year. Two steps forward, one step back. But we're at least not stuck in neutral or reverse.
* By the way, Pittsburgh only had two fumbles prior to today so let's not get too worked up about their poor performance today holding on to the ball.
* Mendenhall sure does look smooth catching the ball out of the backfield. Parker conversely - bless him - stumbled after making his lone catch of the day. I know people are down on him, but this football team will need him this year if we want to win another championship. Mendenhall may now be 'the guy', but Parker can still fill an important role on this team. I hope he maintains a championship attitude for the rest of the season and helps us get that seventh championship.
* 543 yards of total offense today! That's crazy. Obviously you want to put up more than 27 points with those kind of numbers, but turnovers were responsible for keeping our number on the scoreboard low. This is the NFL though - you have to take the good with the bad, and for three straight weeks now, there's been much more good than there has been bad. Win and move on.
By the way, the last time the Steelers racked up 500+ yards? 2006. The opponent? The Cleveland Browns.
Yes sir. Love it.
4-2 with a bigtime showdown at Heinz Field next Sunday. Can't wait.