clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Pregame Zone Blitz Part II: The Steelers

New, comments

Big games call for the PZB to step up. We're breaking out the big guns this week. We split this badboy into two parts, focusing on the Steelers' AFC Championship game opponent, the Jets, in Part I, which ran Friday. Today, we focus on the home team.

The Jets franchise hasn't won this game in a while. The Steelers have twice in the last six years.

History doesn't matter, though. Current events are a far stronger indicator of the near future. The Jets got the better of the Steelers in a hard-fought Week 15 victory. Excuses are useless too, but the Steelers are a more dynamic team when SS Troy Polamalu and TE Heath Miller are playing.

The Jets didn't get the Steelers defense or offense at 100 percent. And ultimately, it was a special teams touchdown that brought them to victory.

Are they confident they'll get that difference-making play again? It's more likely they'll get big plays from their receivers, Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards. With the injury of Bryant McFadden (listed as questionable when this was posted), William Gay and Anthony Madison will be thrust into bigger roles.

But are the Jets tougher? Do they have more heart? They're certainly talking like it, and stirring up the Wardnets Nest in the process.

It's about 32 hours to kickoff, and it's gonna be a great one.

Last Game

The second half of the Steelers 31-24 win over rival Baltimore in the AFC Divisional Playoff game in Pittsburgh was easily the most one-sided in these teams past six meetings.

And it shows a fatal flaw in what was perceived to be the Ravens biggest strength. Their personnel strategy.

Baltimore was faced with a 3rd and goal from the Steelers' 6-yard line. Flacco, under duress, locates an open Anquan Boldin, who signed a big contract this off-season (four years, $28 million) to get open in this scenario, in this game.

The ball bounced off his chest, onto the ground, incomplete. K Billy Cundiff did his job, tying the game at 24.

Boldin was front row-center to watch the Steelers, faced with 3rd-and-19, exploit poor positioning by CB LaDarius Webb. He saw rookie (6th round draft choice) Antonio Brown take inside position on Webb (a cardinal sin in that down and distance scenario), and slip behind him. He watched Brown make the catch, pin the ball against his helmet, and basically end the Ravens season.

Mr. 3rd-and-19 (or just "319") wasn't even considered an entry into the conversation of which AFC North rival had the better receiving corps going into the season. The Ravens threw their ducats at the problem, signing Boldin, Seahawks castoff T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Patriots and DMV castoff Donte Stallworth to join veteran Derrick Mason in providing Flacco with some vertical weaponry.

The results of that strategy? Boldin (one catch, -2 yards), Mason (zero catches, zero yards) and Houshmandzadeh (three catches, 38 yards) combined for four catches and 36 yards.

The 319 had 75 yards on three catches, including the one that will live forever in this rivalry.

The Ravens have one of the most respected player personnel and scouting departments, respectively, in the game. The one position that has eluded them throughout the years has been the wide receiver. After Houshmandzadeh's drop on the Ravens final drive - the drop that ended their season - the question of who has the better receiving group was answered.

To Baltimore's credit, they sold out to stop the big play, and for three quarters, 12 minutes and 53 seconds, they held the Steelers big plays in check, yardage wise. Roethlisberger was 18-for-31 for 168 yards to that point. But another key distinction between these teams rests in their abilities to make plays when it counts.

Credit to Ravens DL Cory Redding's heads-up decision to scoop up the Roethlisberger fumble and run it into the end zone, but the Ravens failed time and again to score touchdowns when it counted. Most of that was due to the third time this season Flacco progressively got worse as the game went on, and Roethlisberger's second example of getting better.

Five of the Steelers 10 biggest plays came in the second half. Only two of Baltimore's came in the third and fourth quarters. Four of Pittsburgh's went to rookie receivers.

The dropped passes by Boldin and Houshmandzadeh were good throws, but Flacco let OLB James Harrison chase him out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage (another cardinal sin the Ravens violated) on a 3rd-and-10 play, Pittsburgh up 24-21.

Flacco finished the first half 12-for-18 for 82 yards and a touchdown, only having been sacked once. His second half stat line reads 4-for-12 for 43 yards and one interception. He was sacked five times in the final two quarters.

When the rubber met the road, the Steelers got far more with less heralded receivers. And the Ravens were again disappointed by their quarterback, even with a massive financial investment in its receiving corps.

Us Against The World

How utterly ridiculous is it that James Harrison makes a football act and gets fined $75,000, and Richard Seymour, despite whatever happened to provoke him, slugs a player on national TV in full view of the cameras and knocks him to the ground -- and gets fined $25,000. Weak. Very weak.

Peter King

Former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, in a recent interview with WFAN Radio in New York, seemed to indicate he felt the Jets would win the AFC Championship.

Decide for yourself, but PZB doesn't really think he went as far as to make a prediction. He's doing what most analysts will do when they're offering their opinion to a news outlet outside of their own; toeing the line, and providing vague insight.

I'm assuming Cowher also thought he was going to beat the Patriots in 2001 and 2004.

Or perhaps Cowher's quip with his "new" home city radio station was intentional. He knows full well how to motivate Hines Ward (more on him in a minute). While Cowher's relationship with James Harrison was said to be strained, he saw enough of him to know he, like Ward, plays with an enormous chip on his shoulder.

In other words, Cowher knows how to push the right buttons in order to create the Us Against The World mentality. Ward responded to Cowher's comments by saying "Coach Cowher's not our coach anymore. I guess we'll have to prove him wrong too."

That's a big statement. An obvious one, but the fact he mentioned Cowher's lack of involvement with the current team shows where Ward's head is in regards to the team. All Ward needs is a reason to bust his butt to prove people wrong. Cowher should know that better than anyone.

As for Harrison, he summed it up perfectly when he said, in regards to listening to predictions, "We'd be 8-8 and third in our division."

Steelers Spotlight: WR Hines Ward

Last week, Jets CB Antonio Cromartie expressed his feelings for Patriots QB Tom Brady with a few profane words. Brady didn't do much when the game was still competitive.

Cromartie seems to be taking the same approach this week, now directing his angst at Ward.

In a radio interview, Cromartie said Ward takes shots at people when they aren't looking. That seems to play in the Steelers favor, because if Ward is blocking, he doesn't have the ball. If Cromartie is watching Ward, he's not actively pursuing the ball carrier.

Not that he supports the run very well anyway.

In a transparent effort to rile up their opponents, the Jets defensive coordinator decided to act as if he matters, and threw a shot at Ward as well.

It's another example of the value Ward provides without the ball. Cromartie called him out for something that ultimately affects his team, and he's going to ensure a replication of Ward's battles with Ravens FS Ed Reed last week. Granted, Ward was given a 15 yard penalty for being taken to the ground, but he's going to be gunning for Cromartie now, and until he gets that chance, he's going to be gunning for Revis.

Does anyone have confidence that an offensive player will get a flag over a defensive player?

It's not wise to taunt the one guy who's going to call you out on the field. But Cromartie obviously can't leave well enough alone, so he's forced Ward into a larger position of prominence in this game. The team's most productive receiver is Mike Wallace. The guy who's improved the most is Manny Sanders.

Ward is still the glue that keeps the offense together. Whether it's a big third down reception, or a tough, physically earned touchdown reception in the red zone, or just being the guy who takes the initiative to fire the team up with a post-whistle skirmish, Ward is the heart and soul of an offense that will be physical if they're inspired to do so.

It will start early, expect Ward to block his assignment intensely on the first run, followed by some grappling, some jawing and shoving. After that, watch him do it again.

Then watch the Steelers offense start to ram the ball down the Jets' throat.

All he needs is a reason, so don't be surprised if Steelers fans are thanking Cromartie for his stupidity after the game.

I See You

Like many classic games, it seems easier to point out who PZB did not see.

Was it the previously mentioned 319's enormous 58-yard reception? Was it Roethlisberger's ability to rally the offense to 17 straight points in the second half? Was it Hines Ward's constant battles with Ed Reed, thus reducing a typically focused defense to jelly? Was it the other rookie WR, Manny Sanders, for three big third down chain-moving receptions?

Despite fantastic efforts from these players, this was actually the easiest PZB ever given.

I see you, Ryan Clark. I see you for having, without a doubt, the best game you've ever played. You had two tackles for losses in the first half, and you forced two turnovers (one forced fumble of Ray Rice, one interception of Joe Flacco) on Baltimore's first two possessions of their most disastrous quarter of the season.

Even better, those two interceptions both led to touchdowns in a game where 7 pointers are hard to find.

You're used to playing around all-Planet safety Troy Polamalu, but Saturday, it was you, not him, playing head and shoulders above everyone else. The Ravens averaged 1.9 yards per carry, which isn't too strange considering the Steelers run defense, but the 2.6 yards per pass they managed is amazing, as is the 21-12 first down advantage your team held.

You stepped up, big time, Ryan, and to think, it's only a year since you scuffled with the media in regards to criticism of the Steelers pass defense. We can tell you took that personally, and you brought your best effort for the post season.

Truth be told, I left the bar at halftime, hoping a change of venue would spark you guys, and when the broadcasters on the radio crowed about your interception, I nearly crashed the car. The good news is, now, every time I am about to turn into my street, I can hear Dave Sims of Westwood One Radio (did a great job, incidentally), nearly screaming, "Intercepted by Ryan Clark!"

One of the beautiful aspects of radio is the ability of a good play-by-play guy to capture moments you can't see. But I see you, Ryan, even if I didn't see you.

Key Stats

  • The Steelers targeted Manny Sanders seven times, as many as Mike Wallace
  • Only one team in history has beaten the Steelers twice in Pittsburgh (Jacksonville, 2007)
  • The Jets are 0-3 in the AFC Championship Game since 1982