Monday, December 18, 2006

Steelers @ Carolina: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

The reality of the Steelers' situation is this: despite having gone 5-1 in their last six games they find themselves in eleventh place in the AFC Conference. Only slightly more galling is the fact that two weeks ago they were in tenth, but remain out of the playoff picture despite their two most recent wins.

But despite this sad fact this is a time for happiness and good cheer, and thanks to a wonderful effort by Pittsburgh the Good, the Bad, & the Ugly will not feature an "Ugly" section. Merry Christmas one and all!

The Good
Fans of the Black & Gold have an embarassment of riches this week.

But let us begin with those most maligned earlier this season -- the offense.

For instance, the offensive line (after some first quarter struggles with pass protection) performed wonderfully, providing Ben Roethlisberger ample time to throw (on those few occasions when he actually did throw) and more importantly opened holes through which Willie Parker ran wild. Indeed the offensive line and Willie Parker have been rounding into form during this six game stretch (i.e. Willie Parker's rushing statistics for the last six games have been: 125 carries, 697 yards, 5.58 yards per carry, and five rushing touchdowns). Larry Johnson and LaDanian Tomlinson are statistically the top running backs in the AFC, but Willie Parker is #3 and, despite the team's disappointing performace this season, deserving of a spot in the Pro Bowl.

Also performing well Sunday were the Steelers' pass throwers -- Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, and . . . Cedric Wilson?!? His pass was one of the prettiest thrown by a Pittsburgh Steeler all season, and the 21 yard completion matched a Ben Roethlisberger pass of the same length for longest of the day. All told the Roethlisberger, Batch, and Wilson combined to go 13/20, 169 yards, 1 touchdown, 0 interceptions, and a 108.1 QB rating.

Moving on, Santonio Holmes has been under the microscope -- thanks to some issues off the field that have since disappeared -- since before the season began, but it also appears that Mr. Holmes is beginning to fulfill the promise that motivated Kevin Colbert and Bill Cowher to move up in the 2006 NFL Draft to get the Ohio State product. In today's game Mr. Holmes had three catches -- more than a quarter of Ben Roethlisberger's completions -- and his third quarter, ten yard reception (on third down and nine yards to go), carrying a defender on his back, showed a strength and determination that is refreshing to see.

However, if plaudits are being passed out to the Steelers' wide receivers then the biggest of them all must go to Hines Ward -- welcome back Super Bowl MVP! Four catches normally isn't much to get excited about, but given the season that Mr. Ward has had (i.e. hamstring injury, smothering double coverage) it was great to see even a glimmer of the 2005 Hines Ward.

Of course the defense also performed wonderfully -- five sacks, two interceptions, limiting Carolina to 43 yards rushing. There were several players who stood out, amongst those:

The defensive line
Brett Keisel, with 1.5 sacks in this game, now has 5.5 for the season to go along with 35 tackles and 15 assists (in 2005 Kimo von Oelhoffen, the man Mr. Keisel has replaced, had 3.5 sacks, 22 tackles, and 13 assists for the entire season). On the other side of the defensive line Aaron Smith -- who should make the Pro Bowl, but probably won't -- had 3 tackles and one sack (for the season Mr. Smith has 39 tackles, 11 assists, and 4.5 sacks. Last season he had no sacks, 29 tackles, and 10 assists). In the 3-4 defense the linemen are normally responsible for keeping blockers off the linebackers who are the real playmakers in this alignment. But with the emergence of Mr. Keisel, the continued development of Aaron Smith, and the continued Pro Bowl play of Casey Hampton this unit is one of the strengths of the team.

The secondary
There is no denying that the last three opponents that the Steelers have faced are not exactly blessed with top-flight quarterbacks. However it is also true that teams do not typically lose the services of a Pro Bowl safety (Troy Polamalu) at the same time their other starting safety is also out because of injury (Ryan Clark), and one of their "starting" cornerbacks is benched (Ike Taylor), and still manage to play at a high level against the pass. Over the last three games opposing quarterbacks have combined to go 65/110, 777 yards, 1 touchdown, six interceptions, and a 61.061 QB rating. In this most recent game the Steelers faced two of the best receivers in the NFL -- Keyshawn Johnson and Steve Smith -- and were more than equal to the task. Anthony Smith, Tyrone Carter, and Bryant McFadden are all playing very well and the result is that the defensive secondary is as strong and as deep as at any time in the team's recent history.

The final shout out this week HAS TO BE FOR SPECIAL TEAMS!! A blocked punt AND a punt return for a touchdown?!? Oh there is a Santa Claus! Even my resident whipping boy, Chris Gardocki, had a very good day with a 40.3 yard net average on three punts. Of course it should be of no surprise to anyone that the kicking game has improved with the return of James Harrison (from an injury) and special teams master Chidi Iwuoma (who NEVER should have been cut -- to think that Duce Staley was kept on the roster at the beginning of the season and Mr. Iwuoma was let go -- HORRIBLE decision-making).

The Bad
I promise to be brief and gentle -- Santonio Holmes cannot go around dropping PUNTS! He's lucky Carolina was flagged for a penalty on the play; and of course the "do over" was terrific (in one of the more prescient moments by any broadcast team the Carolina announcers proclaimed that "bad things happen" when teams are forced to re-kick just before Mr. Holmes broke off his return for a touchdown).

Lastly, Anthony Smith . . . please don't make Dick LeBeau angry any more, ok?

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, was the knee injury (career ending?) suffered by Chad Brown who returned to the Steelers and contributed a great deal earlier in the season.

Epilogue
It's been a nice stretch of games for the Steelers, and now the team is going to be tested. With their final two games of this season against their two biggest rivals the Steelers are going to find out just how much they've improved, if at all.

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