We have two long weeks before the Pittsburgh Steelers return to action against the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV. The two historic franchises will meet for the first time ever in the SB, with the Packers gunning for their fourth Lombardi, and the black and gold aiming to add to their record setting collection of hardware with a seventh Lombardi. So, let's pace ourselves a bit. If you thought this past week was a long one waiting for the Steelers AFC Championship Game tilt with the Jets, just wait and see how painful this next 14 days might be for us. I'll, like always, do my best to keep you sufficiently entertained, informed and distracted while we wait.
Even though I want to leave plenty of bullets in the chamber for the early stages of this week, let's get to some of the big picture talking points of the Steelers' 24-19 win over the Jets on Sunday night.
* All week long, both in my writing and especially in the numerous podcast and radio shows I joined, I said that I was nervous about this game. I stated time and again that I thought the Steelers would win by 4, but that the New York Jets would not hand them the victory, and that Pittsburgh would have to play close to their A-game in order to emerge victorious.
Well, Sunday's AFC title game didn't exactly unfold as I imagined it would, but once all 60 minutes had been played, the prognosis more or less held true. The Steelers jumped out on top of the Jets early thanks to their 15-play opening drive that consumed over nine minutes of clock and resulted in an early touchdown. Talk about a statement drive by the Steelers to start. Pittsburgh emphatically declared that they were going to out-physical the big, bad Jets with some good old fashioned, Steelers football. On the 15-play march, the Steelers ran the ball 10 times, averaging 4.6 yards per pop. The only negative aspect of the opening sequence was the fact that rookie Pro Bowl center, Maurkice Pouncey, was lost for the game with a high ankle sprain. At the time, I was concerned he perhaps injured ligaments in his knee, so when I heard it was just an ankle, I was extraordinarily relived. We'll see if Pouncey is able to recover in time to play in the Super Bowl, but it's certainly a possibility despite the apparent severity and pain of the injury.
* Before I go any further, let's all give a HUGE Steeler Nation salute to the collective play of the offensive line. Their play was absolutely the reason why the Steelers took control early and then held the Jets off late. I said on Lance Williams' podcast this week that I thought the Steelers O-Line might play their best game of the year. Of course, I qualified that statement by saying that might be wishful thinking. Man, even I couldn't have expected the no nonsense, take no prisoners attitude of the big eaters up front. Every last guy in the trenches played lights out, and I couldn't be more proud and happy for them as a unit.
Rashard Mendenhall, who we'll get to in just a moment, was outstanding, but it was the line who deserves immense credit for giving No. 34 room to operate in all evening. Ben Roethlisberger, who also played one hell of a game (stats be damned), was only sacked twice, and not really under duress too many other times outside of the two sacks -- which, mind you, came in consecutive plays on the same series. In other words, there were no repeated breakdowns that stalled the Steelers offense on multiple occasions. More on the play of the line this week, but wow, you can't say enough positive things about the way they rose up and collectively manhandled the Jets, particularly in the first half as they helped the Steelers roared out to a 24 point lead.
* Changing gears....hat tip to Mark Sanchez for a job well done tonight. Sanchez couldn't weather the storm in the first 30 minutes when his team really needed him to make a play or two, but it's not as if he folded like a cheap chair either. Sanchez and the Jets didn't turn the ball over in the early stages of the game; they just couldn't get on the field first and foremost and establish any sort of rhythm offensively. Not surprisingly (to me at least), Sanchez shook off the team's shaky first half and played lights out in the second. One of the points I also hammered home all last week was that I believed Sanchez is one of those truly elite competitors in the league -- at least in terms of his mental makeup and ability to forget the past and believe in what can be achieved in the present. Unfortunately for him and the Jets, 21 points is too much to overcome in just 30 minutes of play against the Steelers. that's why I felt more than comfortable booking my flight to Dallas at intermission, much to the chagrin of some of the more superstitious folks on the site:) Still, hate the Jets if you want; mock Sanchez for being so damn overpaid, eating hot dogs, whatever. But just wait and see. The dude will win a Super Bowl or two in his career before it's all said and done. He was very impressive in the second half after a brutally rough start to the game.
* Speaking of Dallas, yes, that's right, I'll be down in Jerry World bringing you all as much coverage as I can beginning the Tuesday before the Big Game. I'll be flying down to Dallas on that day, with every intention of staying busy on Radio Row in the final days of the week, then making my first ever appearance in the press box. Woot! As I recently wrote to two of Pittsburgh's most recognized and respected journalists, I've never fancied myself a journalist, and will continue love my place as a fan more than anything else. But man, I'm stoked to be heading down to Dallas with the chance to get some more exposure for our little site, talk to some players and coaches hopefully, and if all goes according to plan, bring something a tad different to the table than what you might otherwise get from the fine folks who brings us such outstanding coverage about the black and gold on a year-round basis.
* For those of you who may have bet on the game, how relieved are you that the Jets opted not to go for two following their last touchdown in the fourth quarter. I, like Jim Nantz, wondered why New York didn't try to make it a four point game in that situation just in the off chance that they scored, and then scored again, which would have made it a three point game in their favor. Doesn't really matter. I'm just glad that those of you who took a position on the Steelers didn't have to endure an agonizing push after the black and gold dominated so convincingly for most of the contest.
* Alright, that's long enough without talking about the marvelous performance of third-year running back Rashard Mendenhall. Maybe Mendy read Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column last week and took offense to the following statement by King: "I think Rashard Mendenhall, two touchdowns Saturday and all, is just not a big-time back."
I respect Mr. King actually. Quite a bit in fact for someone who tries to cover the NFL scene on a national scale. Above all, he seems like a genuinely nice man, and I've heard first hand from colleagues that he's one of the most generous and hard-working men in the business, or any business for that matter. But that's just a bad assessment, I must say. Mendenhall has had an outstanding year in 2010, and he's done so running behind an offensive line that''s much improved, but still a few big steps away from being considered an upper crust unit.
Against the Jets, Mendenhall rushed 27 times for 121 yards and 1 score. He also caught 2 passes for 38 yards, both of which went for first down yardage. Simply put, Mendenhall was special against the Jets. It helped that he had some decent lanes to run through at times, but at others, the former Illinois product simply willed his way to positive yardage. His fine effort deserves a post of its own, so I'll leave it at that for now and save a bullet or two in the chamber for later.
* What about the play of Ben Roethlisberger. First, let's look at the numbers just to remind ourselves that they don't necessarily always tell the complete story, or anything close to it in some rare instances. Tonight was one of those nights. To the numbers real quick:
Passing: 10-of-19, 133 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
Rushing: 11 rushes, 21 yards, 1 TD
Again, judging by the numbers alone, Roethlisberger had an off night. Couldn't be father from the truth. Big Ben was exceptional against the Jets. Perhaps his most valiant effort of the season in certain respects. Roethlisberger suffered an obviously painful stinger to his upper leg in the first quarter on one of the first of many clutch plays made with his feet. Roethlisberger escaped contain, rolled to his right, then surprised the stadium and viewers at home when he flipped the ball to Mendenhall option-style to Mendenahll for a big gain. Roethlisberger had a Jets defenders' knee smash into his leg, and he was visibly in pain afterward. But like he's done time and time again , he sucked it up, played through the pain, and didn't allow the discomfort to alter the hard-nosed and fearless way he went about his business.
Neither of Roethlisberger's two interceptions proved to be that costly. The first was on a 4th and 1 from the Jets 32 early on in the second quarter. It was disappointing only in that it ended yet another impressive, methodical drive. But I loved the decision to go for it there on 4th and short, and even though we'd had great success running the football, I didn't necessarily shake my head at the play call.
The second pick came in the third quarter with the Steelers still up by two touchdowns. However, the Jets had scored on their opening sequence, and Brodney Pool's pick of Big Ben near the goal line gave the Jets their first glimmer of hope all game. Still, even on that drive, the Steelers had managed to pick up two first downs and more importantly consumer over four minutes of clock. In effect, the INT was like a punt, as it pinned the Jets inside their own 15 yard line. A quick three and out later by the Jets and it was a no harm, no foul type of turnover for the Steelers.
Here's where Ben was really special on the evening. His vision and toughness running the football. Ben had 11 rushes on the evening for just 21 yards. Is it just me or do those final numbers seem off? Of course, Big Ben had three kneel downs for -6 yards in the final moments of the game, so his adjusted rushing starts were 8 carries for 27 yards. Still seems low considering some of the huge gains he had with his legs. Large Benjamin got things started with his clutch 12 yard run on 3rd and 12 on the opening drive. Mind you, this was just moments after Roethlisberger suffered the stinger to his leg. So much for that limiting his mobility or willingness to roam free and do whatever he had to do to make a play for his team.
On his second run, Big Ben made a perfect read near the goal line and took it in for a 2 yard score and a 14-0 lead. On his fourth carry, No. 7 picked up a crucial first down with his legs on a 3rd and 4 in the third quarter. Even though the Steelers didn't go on to score points, that gutty pick up allowed the Steelers to drain nearly 5 more minutes of clock. Huge. More on Big Ben this week and next, but again, don't let the numbers fool you. Roethlisberger was outstanding on Sunday night. A once in a generation quarterback we have my friends.
* There's so much more to cover, but let's cut it off here for now. Like I said, two weeks to go my until the Super Bowl. We've got all the time in the world to revel in what's transpired so far, and plenty of time left over to get ready for the Pittsburgh Steelers' Super Bowl encounter with an (almost) equally popular and legendary franchise, the Green Bay Packers.