What, you didn't really think it was going to be that easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers, did you? Like they've done the previous two weeks, Pittsburgh roared out of the gates in the 1st half. Only this week, the Steelers offense capitalized on their early success and marched in for touchdowns rather than settling for field goals. And for the third week in a row, the Steelers stumbled late, only this time, their stellar play to start the game, plus a game-clinching drive by their dominant offense was enough to hold on to the victory. The Steelers 38-28 win at Heinz Field was their eighth straight at home and improved the defending champions' record to 2-2 through the first quarter of the 2009 season.
My initial post-game thoughts to start the week.
* Rashard Mendenhall will get all the headlines, but the game ball here goes to the Steelers offensive line. WOW!!! Guys and gals, if the Steelers offensive line is really improving like this, then we are going to be one ridiculously scary beast of an offense. Credit goes to every last one of the big uglies - Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Trai Essex and Willie Colon. They paved the way for Mendenhall's 165 yards, opening up running lanes with stunning regularity. That's not something we've seen in a long, long time. And man, was it fun and beautiful to watch. The line also did an outstanding job in pass protection. Roethlisberger was officially sacked three times, but two of those three were those frustrating sacks Big Ben takes most games when holding on to the ball for so long. Now, it helps that San Diego was missing some key bodies and we'll have to see if the Steelers can put that type of performance together against more stout defenses. Confidence is a funny thing though, so here's hoping that they have another monster game or two in the upcoming weeks before squaring off against some of the better defenses on the schedule a bit later in the year. The bottom line is the offensive line was A+ tonight, their best game by far since the majority of them started playing together at the start of last season. Much more about them and what their improvement means to this team moving forward.
* To another unlikely hero - Bruce Arians! Congratulations to him for a superlative game plan. 33 passes for Big Ben, 36 rushing attempts. That's balance. And the running plays were well-designed and just what the doctor ordered for Rashard Mendenhall, who needed to just hit get some early confidence by putting his head down and running hard in to the hole. Arians also finally kept going to the well when things were going right. Too often, I've felt Arians has abandoned things that have been working. Not tonight. With the way Big Ben was humming, I could easily have envisioned a situation where Arians only got the ball to Mendenhall 18-22 times rather than 29. He also had some exquisitely crafted plays in the passing game, which we'll take a look at later this week. And of course, we also finally saw some well conceived razzle-dazzle when Mewelde Moore threw a touchdown pass to Heath Miller.
* Congratulations Rashard Mendenhall. Welcome to the family! Hopefully this is the first of many more to come for him in Pittsburgh. Sometimes it just takes one to get a competitor started. He's got work to do still, but it was a relief to see him finally get an opportunity and then deliver. Comment of the night from the open thread that pretty much summed up my thoughts about how hard he ran:
Rashard Mendenhall is EATING.. tomlin made him sleep with deebo in the warehouse all week.. You can tell.
* 497 yards of offense tonight for Pittsburgh. 251 for San Diego. Let that sink in. Not just for how dominant the offense was. Think about that 251 for San Diego and realize that the defense really wasn't totally to blame for the collapse late in the game that led to a flurry of Chargers points. The blame instead falls on the special teams. We don't need to point fingers because the Steelers definitely won this game behind the contributions of lots of players, but that fumble by Logan and the gaffe by Ryan Mundy were both extremely costly. We'll see if the Steelers defense is able to overcome special teams miscues and an offense that scores more field goals than touchdowns when Troy Polamalu returns, but they're decidedly not able to at the moment. Particularly not against veteran quarterbacks that don't take costly sacks or force the ball in to bad spots under pressure. Anyway, some may disagree with the ruling on Logan's fumble, but the reality is that he had no business trying to return that punt under those game circumstances. Punt returners aren't always expected to create a spark for their team with a big return. Ball protection is sometimes more valuable. Certainly when you're up 28-0. That punt was short and Logan had to catch it under-handed out in front of him. It was an impressive, clean catch but it was not the right time to try to fight for extra yards or to force anything. Big mistake there and I'm sure Tomlin will be in his ear about it.
* Let's hope Chris Kemoeatu is okay. He returned after what appeared to maybe be an unlucky and ugly knee injury. But he also got burned and had to commit a holding penalty on the next play he came in on. Then again, he blew up Chargers defenders on that final series in the running game, so hopefully he's just fine. It's not that we couldn't afford to lose Kemoeatu despite how great he's been playing. It's just that this line is really starting to click now that they've been playing together for some time. No time now to have that chemistry disrupted.
* Excellent to see Jeff Reed make that game clinching field goal. I was a bit perplexed about the time out taken by Coach Tomlin before the kick. Obviously the thinking is to take as much time off the clock as possible, but not sure that one or two seconds really makes much of a difference. I suppose if Reed knew that Tomlin was going to take the timeout, than whatever, makes sense. Regardless, Spikey delivered like we're so used to him doing.
* I said it in the open thread as we got the ball back up 7 for the final time that there was no way that the offense wasn't going to deliver the W for us. Too dominant all night. The commitment to the run had led to us finding something that was working over and over. Bread and butter from the running game!?! Hard to believe, I know. And then the way Big Ben was playing last night and has been playing all season..there's just no way we don't deliver one final time there and get that victory. The team, and the offense in particular, had played too well to let that one slip away. Kinda like how the defense did all of last year.
* Speaking of the defense. A nice 1st half for the Steelers once again. The Chargers had just 74 yards of offense at intermission. You hate to see the secondary get shredded again when the Chargers were in full fledged full court press mode late in the game, but hey, what can you say. First of all, San Diego's probably one of the two or three best playing from behind teams in the NFL. Philip Rivers makes a killing late in games when his team is trailing and in need of a big score. Much of the damage was done by Antonio Gates, who's a nightmare matchup for most teams, including us when Polamalu's not playing. He made some outstanding plays that are essentially unguardable. Credit also to Vincent Jackson for making some really tough plays with Ike Taylor draped all over him. More on the defense later. It's definitely still my number one cause for concern at this point, but I do think it will continue to improve as the year goes on. And frankly, if they peak later in the year rather than in the early months, all the better. We saw our defense peak early in 2007 before crashing and burning. I think we can and will avoid that same fate. We're just not there yet.
* Hines Ward 26; Heath Miller 24; Santonio 19; Mike Wallace 14. That's four guys on pace for over 50 catches, with Hines and Heath on pace to approach the century mark. This is a scary good passing offense. Big Ben is playing absolutely great football. He's clearly got a much better understanding of what's unfolding in front of him and he's making such better decisions with the football, even from a year ago. At 27 years of age, we're just now starting to see him hit his prime years. That's really exciting stuff for Steelers fans if you ask me. Because he's already done so many great things in his career. We're only getting started though with him.
Big Ben finished 26/33 with 333 yards and 2 touchdowns. By my count, there were three drops as well that would have made him a ridiculous 29/33. Ben was the league leader in completion percentage coming in to this week, and his 79% performance Sunday night isn't going to do anything but pad his lead.
* If you ask me, it's not such a bad thing the Steelers tripped on their own feet a bit down the stretch. All that means is that Coach Tomlin has plenty of fodder this week to keep guys focused. Plenty still to work on and clean up, and when you come a bit too close for comfort to blowing a four touchdown lead, you probably can't collectively look in the mirror and feel that all's completely well. Major props to Coach Tomlin for having this team ready to play this week though, even with the late miscues. I have no doubt he'll have them ready again next week.
* 2-2 and just one game back of the Bengals and Ravens. Everything still on the table for this team at the quarter pole of the 2009 season. Let's go Steelers!