Friday, December 08, 2006

Cleveland v. Steelers: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

Breaking News: The Steelers go to 2-0 on Thursdays!

On a day when two bad teams played for nothing but pride one team exhibited plenty of that while the other played as if the cold weather was just too much to bear.

While many fans can no doubt identify with Cleveland's pain (the weather at kickoff included a temperature of 18 degrees, 10 mile-an-hour winds, and a wind chill factor of 6 degrees), their pathetic performance enabled the Steelers to appear to be world-beaters despite not playing their best -- though they were pretty darn close.

What am I talking about? Let's explore the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good
Ben Roethlisberger, nice job! The numbers aren't particularly impressive (11/21, 225 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, a 106.2 passer rating), but for one off the few times this miserable season he looked like the Ben Roethlisberger of old. Specifically, he moved around in the pocket to create time to throw the football. He looked confident and in control, and his 49-yard touchdown pass to Nate Washington was beautiful.

In his post-game comments Bill Cowher discussed his belief that Willie Parker is one of the premier running backs in the NFL, and after an absolutely amazing performance Thursday evening it's hard to argue the point. His numbers from this game have been widely reported (32 carries, 223 yards, 1 touchdown), and for those fortunate enough to see his performance you know that on more than a few occasions he managed to turn nothing into something. It was an amazing individual performance.

However, the real credit -- both for the success of the running game, and to a lesser extent the passing game -- has to go to the Steelers' beleagured offensive line. The Browns clearly missed Orpheus Roye, and the Steelers' offensive line punished the left side of the Browns' defensive line mercilessly. Indeed the Steelers' net rushing yards for the third quarter (109) exceeded their total net rushing in seven of their previous games. And to prove that Willie Parker's performance was no fluke, Najeh Davenport added 62 yards of rushing and Ben Roethlisberger was never sacked.

Also earning plaudits is Santonio Holmes, both for his receiving (4 catches -- one of which was just spectacular -- for 81 yards) and his punt returns (3 for 31 yards -- only the second time this season Pittsburgh punt returners have averaged 10 or more yards per return). Indeed, given the goodwill that a win generates, here's to all the receivers! Nate Washignton, who according to some reports is playing for a spot on the 2007 Steelers, had the play of the night (not the best double-move route one will ever see, but not bad), and there were Sean Morey and Walter Young sightings!

Defensively the team hit hard and often, and a suddenly young secondary (i.e. Anthony Smith, Tyrone Carter, and Bryant McFadden -- along side Deashea Townsend and Ike Taylor) performed capably.

Most impressive on the defensive side of the ball for the Steelers was their defensive line -- Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith are Pro Bowl-caliber, and Brett Keisel has proven a talented replacement for Kimo von Oelhoffen. Last night these three were the main reason that Cleveland never had more than 8 yards rushing in any single quarter. To describe their collective performance as "dominating" is an understatement.

The Bad
Despite how well the defensive front played the overall defensive effort was pretty poor, and if it hadn't been for an absolutely disgraceful performance by the Cleveland receivers (except for Joe Jurevicius -- and if you don't believe me read this piece from the Akron Beacon) -- I counted six dropped passes, many at key moments -- the Browns might well have been able to make more of a game of this contest.

Most frustrating of all was the Steelers' inability to generate any significant pass rush against the Browns' patchwork offensive line -- a line against whom the Steelers managed five sacks in their previous meeting last month. Yes, the Browns went to a "max protect" approach, but the lack of pressure allowed Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson to look like a seasoned veteran -- and a good one at that.

Of course, no game analysis is complete without calling-out Chris Gardocki. His net average Thursday night? 29.5 yards, and his longest kick was 35 yards. "Pathetic" doesn't even begin to describe that performance. Because of his role as place holder for Jeff Reed it is unlikely that he will be dropped during the season, but there is no reason that Mr. Gardocki should be the Steelers' punter in 2007.

The Ugly
I don't usually spend space discussing opponents, but Kellen Winslow Jr. is a punk, and his cheap shot/late hit on James Farrior should have resulted in an ejection. Of course, it is a measure of the player that he is seemingly incapable of such hits when play is actually underway.

Also ugly was the blocked field goal. The left side of the Steelers' offensive line -- at least on that single play -- caved in like a West Virginia coal mine.

Epilogue
It may not seem like much but the Steelers are 2-0 in December, and are 4-2 in their last six games. Given how far down the playoff ladder they are, it is still highly unlikely that the playoffs are in the team's future (the website Cool Standings calculates that there is a 0.2% chance of a Wild Card berth). However, no one should discount the value of a strong finish this season carrying over into the next. Barring a miracle, that's all we have left to hope for.

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