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A Tale of Two Teams: The 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers, Game 1

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As I thought back over this tumultuous season, the thing that struck me was that as the season unfolded, we saw what almost seemed like two teams, and we were never entirely sure which one was going to show up to any game, or even at any given moment in a game. So I am going back through each game and looking for a play or a drive that illustrates both Steelers teams - the irresistible juggernaut and the Keystone Cops.

I'll also look at the injury status and other factors that might have influenced things, for good or ill, as well as milestones achieved in the game.  For those of you that are regulars, there will certainly be more information than you need, but I want to make these comprehensible for someone dropping in who doesn't follow the Steelers all that much.

Since that's a lot of information for each game, I'll post them one at a time, and I'll put links back to the earlier posts in each one, so that you can refer back if you like.  That's a lot of posts, but after all, it is the offseason - an offseason that might last rather longer than usual.  So here we go, as they say:

Game 1 - vs.  Atlanta Falcons    Final Score: 15-9 Steelers

General game overview - Week 1 was dubbed a 'defensive battle,' - neither team scored a TD in regulation, and the score was tied 9-9 (3 FG apiece) at the end of regulation.

: There were two injuries prior to the game that affected the roster: Willie Colon's Achilles injury during the off-season that landed him on IR, and Byron Leftwich's knee injury in the preseason.  Colon was replaced by signing Flozell Adams prior to training camp. Dennis Dixon replaced Leftwich, theoretically until he could play again.  Chris Kemoeatu had a foot injury and was listed as probable for the game, and in the event he played the whole game. Casey Hampton left with a hamstring injury at the beginning of the third quarter and did not return. Max Starks left with an ankle sprain during the final Pittsburgh drive in the third quarter, and was replaced by Jonathan Scott, thus foreshadowing the revolving door at O line for the season.

Another harbinger of things to come, but good ones this time, was Michael Turner being limited to 42 yards rushing.  Turner had seven 100+ yard games in 2010. The only team that held him to fewer yards during the season was the Ravens, who were able to confine him to 39 yards in a game that Baltimore lost anyhow.  The total rushing yards for Atlanta at Heinz Field that day was 58 yards on 25 attempts, with 4 tackles for loss, giving an average of 2.3 YPC.

The Steelers made 26 pass attempts for 236 yards and 31 rush attempts for 143 yards. Dixon's QB rating was 81.6.  Matt Ryan's QB rating was 67.6, his lowest of the regular season except, surprisingly, a 67.3 rating in a week 4 win against the 49ers.


Game 1 Notables:

  • This was the eighth straight Steeler win in the opening game of the season - the longest such streak in the league.
  • Jeff Reed made his first field goal attempt, a 52 yarder.  It was the longest field goal in an NFL game ever at Heinz Field, and 1 yd short of Reed's career high of 53.
  • This was the third Pittsburgh/Atlanta game in a row that went into overtime.
  • Hines Ward posted his 26th game of over 100 yards receiving - a Steelers record. 
  • Atlanta TE Tony Gonzalez had his 1000th career catch during the game, which put him 7th in NFL history for catches for tight ends.  He didn't have a catch in the game until the 3rd quarter, and his first catch was ruled out of bounds, but his second catch (and the only other catch he had in the game) a few plays later counted.
  • This game is also notable for a coaching injury - Falcons head coach Mike Smith pulled a muscle while frantically calling a timeout late in the 4th quarter.  You don't see that all the time.
  • My favorite post-game quote, from DE Brett Keisel: "Teams are going to test us. We're old and washed up and teams are going to see if we can still play."

Team Jeckyll Play of the Week:  Mendenhall's 50 yard run for a TD to win in overtime.  Another strong contender was the Troy Polamalu interception with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter, Atlanta at their 21 yard line, and a tied score.  Although it was a critical play, as Atlanta could very possibly have won in regulation without it, I still have to go with the run, which was pretty exciting for fans that had been distressed by the running game being MIA the previous season.

This game was the first game of the four that the Steelers would play without Ben Roethlisberger. Everybody, including the Falcons, were well aware that the Steelers were going to have to depend on their running game to generate yards and points, and indeed the Steelers had 31 rushing attempts in that game, resulting in 143 net yards.  120 of those were gained by Mendenhall.  However, if you remove the TD run, the average carry was just 3.1 yards.  It was enough, though, and the final run was a thing of beauty, with fantastic blocking by Ward, Miller, Kemoeatu, and Johnson to provide a hole that even I could have run through. Only one defender even got close, and Rashard ran unhindered into the end zone.

The Good from Game 1:

  • Good Special Teams coverage throughout the game - a relief after the previous season.
  • The cute play on the opening drive in which Antwaan Randle El acted as a decoy and Mendenhall picked up 9 yards.
  • Good to excellent coverage by both Ike and BMac.
  • The exceedingly cool Tomlin timeout call in the second quarter - no strained hammies for our Mike... 


  • Eason and Hoke filling in for Hampton when he went down at the beginning of the third quarter, and doing a good job (although Atlanta did get 38 of their 58 rushing yards after Hampton went down.)
  • The 52 yard Wallace catch from play action with great O line protection for Dixon, right after the 2nd Atlanta field goal.
  • The fantastic early 4th quarter catch by Hines of a tipped ball - it was way in front of him, and he made a huge leap to come down with the ball for a big third down conversion
  • Great blocking by J. Scott and Essex for a 13 yard Mendenhall run a few plays later.

Team Hyde Play of the Week: It's tempting to use as my illustrative play the interception of a pass intended for Heath Miller that ended a 58 yard drive in the second quarter. However, I decided not to use any plays that could be laid at the feet of the QB in the first four games, since I'm looking for things that we can apply to the season as a whole.  I also eliminated missed field goals, since we changed kickers in mid-stream.  Therefore, my vote is for two plays in a row - the two sacks that bracketed the 2 minute warning, forcing a punt with 1:48 left in the game.  If not for Troy Polamalu's interception of Ryan on the very next play, there might well have been an L next to that first game.

The first question, under the circumstances, is why call a pass play on the first snap?  A short pass to Heath had picked up 5 yards, so they had a perfectly manageable 5 yards on 2nd down.  As Dixon looked for a receiver, Curtis Lofton beat out Heath and got to Dixon for a sack and a 9 yard loss. Bruce Arians called a great game for the rest of the day, but that was a mystifying call.  So now it is 3rd and 14, Flozell gets beat like a rug by Cory Bierman, and the ball goes back to Atlanta with plenty of time for a drive.  The worst of it is that the Falcons were only rushing 3 men.  You might think it was a coverage sack, but Bierman had Dixon on the ground in under four seconds.  Adams barely slowed him down.  The O line for that series was J. Scott, Kemo, Pouncey, Essex, Adams - the exact same line as for the winning TD run.

The Bad and Ugly from Game 1:

  • The number of penalties wasn't horrible, (4 total penalties for -25 yards) but the Matt Spaeth false start that backed up the beginning of the third drive to the PIT 23 was annoying. The false start penalty on Flozell Adams in the 3rd quarter was worrying because of his history in Dallas, but fortunately turned out to not be the first of multiple penalties to come.
  • The Steelers were 0 for 2 in the red zone - something that would plague them much of the rest of the season.  (By the end of the regular season the total was 25/50 - a vast improvement from 0/2, but not what one would like to see.) The only comfort was that Atlanta was 0 for 1 in the red zone.
  • Jeff Reed's two missed field goals.  One was a 55 yard attempt, which the coaches knew was a very low percentage kick in Heinz Field particularly, but he made a 52-yard kick earlier in the game and points were at a premium and so you can see why they would give it a try.  He gets a pass on that one from me. The other was more troubling - the missed 40 yard attempt with under a minute left in the game.  Those three points would likely have won the game in regulation.
  • Kemo shoving an Atlanta defender, long after Mendenhall was already on the ground at the end of a run, for which he fortunately wasn't penalized. What is it with that?  Somebody please make him stop.

Final Thoughts:

So do we praise the defense for this win, or blame the offense that it was so close?  Well, it seems to me that the defense kept the game under control and the offense generated just enough points to win the game. Since Atlanta only lost to two other teams all season, in retrospect there was no shame in a close win.

There was a lot in this game that was encouraging to Steeler Nation, given that we were being told that our team might well be 0-4 by the time Ben returned.  This was a win that Steeler Nation was thrilled to take.

And finally, I have a question for those of you who have watched a lot more football than me.  LaMarr Woodley was slapped with a pass interference penalty early in the game.  Is that common? I would think that you don't see a lot of LBs getting PI penalties, but I couldn't find any statistical breakdowns on types of penalties/type of player.