Monday, November 20, 2006

Cleveland Still Sucks: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

In my more lucid moments I have been known to argue against the Steelers winning any more games this season. After all with each win by Baltimore, San Diego and/or Denver the chances of the Steelers making it to the playoffs this season become more remote. But something comes over me during the games, and I find myself rooting for the Black & Gold with the same fervor as though winning the division was still a possibility.

Such is the lot of a Steelers fan.

And Sunday's game against Cleveland was no exception. Like any good fan of the Steelers I revel in defeating the Browns, no matter how hapless (or helpless) they might happen to be. But as enjoyable as the outcome of Sunday's game was getting to that final outcome proved far more difficult than almost anybody had anticipated. Perhaps in this game more than any other the Steelers were good . . . and bad . . . and ugly at various times, and in various ways. With that in mind, here is some of what I saw in Sunday's game.

The Good
It is as amazing as it is rare when a football team can win a game in which its offense played one quarter. Sunday was such a day for the Pittsburgh Steelers. So, before launching into a critical dissection of the offensive unit let us celebrate all that went well in the fourth quarter.

For the entire game the Steelers gained 338 net yards, and 236 of those were gained in the fourth quarter (69.8%).

For the entire game the Steelers ran off 66 offensive plays, and 37 of those were in the fourth quarter (56%).

For the game the Steelers were 6-for12 on third down conversions, all six of those occurred in the fourth quarter (100%).

For the game the Steelers offense possessed the ball for 27:47, and 12:02 of that occurred in the fourth quarter (43.75% -- and even more amazingly the Steelers' offense had the football for 80.13% of the fourth quarter).

Finally, and most importantly, the Steelers scored 24 points in the game, 21 of those in the fourth quarter.

Obviously the individual performances of the Steelers' offensive players reflected the amazing play in the fourth quarter, none more so than the Steelers' embattled quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. His 6.439 QB rating in the first half really did say all that needed to be said about the absolute terrible quality of his play. At the same time, however, his fourth quarter statistics (18/19, 224 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 109.0 QB rating) also speak volumes of how spectacular he was during those final fifteen minutes.

Another statistic that underscores both how well Mr. Roethlisberger played in the fourth quarter, and how much better his supporting cast (i.e. his receivers) played is how many different receivers caught passes. In the first half three different players -- Najeh Davenport, Santonio Holmes, and Hines Ward -- caught balls. In the fourth quarter six different receivers were the recipients of passes.

And thanks to the improved offensive output the Steelers defense also enjoyed their best stretch in the fourth quarter. After giving up 87, 103, and 81 net yards respectively in quarters 1, 2, and 3 the defensive unit held Cleveland to 31 yards on 9 plays in the final stanza of the game.

Also earning "Good" status this week was my whipping boy, Chris Gardocki. Though his net average was a pathetic 33.8 he managed to keep the ball away from Denis Northcutt (who had one return for six yards on the day), and very nearly pinned the Browns inside their own five-yard line with one of his kicks.

And while we're celebrating the kicking game, here's to Sean Morey! His 50 yard average on two returns is terrific; and had it not been for Mr. Roethlisberger's intercepted pass that return would have been an even bigger play than it turned out to be.

Finally, the defense performed wonderfully in limiting the Browns, on those occasions when they had opportunities to score, to the minimum. On six different occasions the Browns had the ball at or inside the Steelers' 35-yard line. However, they managed to score a total of only six points, and turned the ball over twice.

The Bad
Ben Roethlisberger has earned all of the criticism sent his way, but it is only fair to point out that neither is he getting much help from some of his receivers; and chief amongst those is Cedric Wilson. It appeared that the third intercepted pass hit Mr. Wilson in the facemask before it was picked off by Daven Holly. Like his quarterback, Mr. Wilson made plays in the fourth quarter (i.e. all three of his catches on the day occurred in the fourth quarter), but he has a way of disappearing for much of the game that is maddening in a veteran receiver. It has been argued here before that at least some of the blame for the poor play turned in by Mr. Roethlisberger has to be laid at the feet of the receivers. And while that can be expected from young receivers more is expected of the veterans. Despite early struggles Hines Ward has 53 receptions on the season for 753 yards and 6 touchdowns. Santonio Holmes is beginning to flash the ability that motivated the Steelers to draft him, and he has 29 catches for 455 yards and 1 touchdown. Cedric Wilson is third in receptions (26 catches, 384 yards, 1 TD). Not what one would expect from an experienced receiver, and indeed he has the same number of receptions as Willie Parker, two more than Heath Miller, and three more than Nate Washington. However Willie Parker, Heath Miller, and Nate Washington have three receiving touchdowns each.

Also bad was Ike Taylor's attempt to defend a second quarter pass to Braylon Edwards that turned into a 63 yard pass play. Offenses are going at Ike Taylor with a gusto usually reserved for stealing candy from small children, and he just doesn't seem to be able to respond effectively.

The Ugly
The running game, what there was of it, was pretty poor. The Steelers ended the day with 77 yards rushing, but 20 of those were from a scrambling Ben Roethlisberger. Willie Parker and Najeh Davenport combined for 57 net yards on 18 carries (3.17 yards per carry); and while I can appreciate a coaching philosophy that embraces taking what the defense is giving (something quarterback coach Mark Whipple alluded to in his post game comments), what is it that defenses are doing this season that they have never done before?

But ugliest of all was the kick coverage. The Browns averaged 32.4 yards per return, and the Steelers allowed them to score a touchdown immediately after the offense had scored its first touchdown, thereby drawing to within three points. Giving up special teams scores has been occurring regularly for the Steelers for the last five or six years so it isn't a surprise anymore when it does happen; but to give up a score at that point in the game is inexcusable.

Epilogue
As good as it feels to see them win, the Steelers are still a game below .500 and now travel to Baltimore for what is always a tough matchup -- even when they are playing well (and they are obviously not doing that this season). On the other hand the Steelers have managed to put together back-to-back wins for the first time this season. But unless they can figure out how to sustain a ground attack (the Ravens' defense is third in the NFL in average rushing yards allowed, and eighth in average passing yards allowed), then Ed Reed and his friends are likely to add to Ben Roethlisberger's woes.

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