Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer carved his way to five consecutive scoring drives during the Raiders' 34-31 win at the Week 3 buzzer. He led his team back from a 10-point deficit, gaining the important yards instead of the piles of yards his adversary, QB Ben Roethlisberger, was putting up for the Steelers.
Many have blamed the lack of pressure generated by the Steelers defense. Many blame the perception of soft coverage.
Maybe the result of both of those things together caused the lack of splash plays the Steelers had in the second half. Perhaps it's all of the above. In fact, it most likely is. The cause of that void is what's compelling.
Maybe the root of all defensive evil is simply a quarterback who got hot and rode that momentum through to the end of the game.
The most compelling but least talked about stat when comparing the Steelers' Week 2 win over the Jets to the Week 3 loss at the Raiders is this: In both games, the Steelers failed to register a sack and force a turnover in the fourth quarter. The Steelers got a LaMarr Woodley sack early in the third quarter against the Jets, and an interception off Palmer on the first play of the game.
Why, then, was Palmer able to have so much success when Sanchez looked like he was more capable of slinging hash down at the local truck stop?
Because Palmer is a much better quarterback than Sanchez.
Quick decisions and a quick release will defeat nearly any pass rush from any point in history. Excellent and perfectly timed throws beat coverage from nearly any secondary from any point in history. Both Palmer and Sanchez made quick decisions and got rid of the ball with a sense of purpose.
Palmer's purpose was to pepper the Steelers' defense in the flats and at the sidelines, looking to throw nearly indefensible passes while asking his receivers to make difficult catches.
Sanchez's purpose is still a bit unclear, but the results - 6-of-22 in the second half, no touchdowns, no scoring drives - were pretty obvious. At least some of this can be fairly placed on the Steelers' defense, but considering the waves of panic spreading through SteelerNation in regards to a defense playing without its two best players the last two weeks seems shortsighted.
Palmer took his team down the untamed path on his scoring drives. Six yards, here, eight yards there, Snap, step, step, release, BANG, completion. No yards after the catch, but a lot of short completions. Death by a thousand dinks and dunks. He barely challenged the Steelers deep, needed multiple plays at the goal line twice to punch it in, and was forced to fight for every yard he earned.
He won that fight. Sanchez never even answered the bell before the fight began.
We want to believe the Raiders are a horrendously poor team, doomed to the legacy of busted draft picks left by their deceased owner. It's somehow more comforting to call out a defense ravaged by injuries to this point in the season (James Harrison hasn't seen the field, Casey Hampton barely has, and is playing his way into shape, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark haven't played a game together since Week 17 of the 2011 season).
Some blame certainly deserves to be spread on the unit failing to get the Raiders off the field on seven of their eight plays run on third down in the second half. Equally true is the credit deserving to be given to the same defensive personnel that allowed just one third down conversion in seven tries during the last 30 minutes of Week 2.
Yet, the common denominator is the lack of splash plays. Both offenses dictated how they were going to play the game. Sanchez had open receivers he missed. Those receivers dropped passes. Their offense generally did not work in efficiency the way Palmer did.
Palmer didn't let himself be sacked. He didn't make poor decisions or bad throws. That's mighty tough for a defense stop - although it needs to find a way.
To give zero credence to his play, and scream to the heavens about the end of time and the Steelers defense, is inaccurate. Palmer played with the game in the balance on every throw. One misstep, one missed read, one blown blocking assignment or drop on third down over the final 20 minutes of the game could have ended his team's chances.
None of those mistakes were made.
Moving ahead, the Steelers host Michael Vick and the Eagles in Week 5. Then they travel to Tennessee for the erratic Jake Locker and the Titans.
Both of these quarterbacks are closer to Sanchez than Palmer. The odds of the mistakes Palmer avoided increase substantially with the return of Harrison and Polamalu. Splash plays will be made by the guys getting paid to make those splash plays.
But when a quarterback is on, he's on. Palmer was on much more obviously than the defense was off.