Sunday, December 16, 2007

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

What kind of day was it for the Steelers? For one game at least they were worse than the NFL's worst (i.e. even the Dolphins won). If ever there was a game that was not as close as the score would seemingly indicate it was the the game between the surging Jaguars and the collapsing Steelers. And without further adieu, here's a closer look at the disaster game.

The Good
Is there a rookie special team player of the year award? If so, Daniel Sepulveda should receive serious consideration. On Sunday he kicked seven times, had a per kick average of 40.9, and a net of 38.7. Looking at it another way, of Mr. Sepulveda's seven kicks only four were returned, and those for a combined total of 15 yards. Two of the punts were downed/went out of bounds inside the Jacksonville twenty yard line. On a day when the Pittsburgh offense did little, Mr. Sepulveda's efforts helped keep the Steelers in the game.

Highlighting Daniel Sepulveda's efforts leads naturally to a discussion of the special teams, specifically the coverage teams, which were also a positive. As inferred above, the punt coverage team did a solid job. In fact, coming into the game Jacksonville was averaging just over 10 yards per punt return for the season. In Sunday's game the Steelers held them to 3.8 yards per punt return. Additionally, the kick coverage unit did well -- holding the Jags to nearly six yards under their season average (18.3 v. 24.1). Individually, Marquis Cooper was a special teams standout on Sunday. He was officially credited with one special teams tackle, but he could have been credited with at least one more. Having been re-signed just this week (specifically to shore-up the special teams) he came in and did the job he was hired for. Given the way the rest of the team played that's saying something.

The Bad
It may seem the height of irony, however even on a day when Willie Parker rushed for 100 yards the offensive line has to be called out for another poor performance. The number of sacks certainly tells a story -- five against Jacksonville, and forty-three for the season (the Steelers allowed 49 sacks in all of 2006). Some will point to Mr. Parker's rushing total as evidence of an overall good effort by this unit; however such a perspective ignores the fact the nearly half of his rushing total (42 yards) came on three carries. More significantly, if the offensive line had actually been effective in its run blocking wouldn't the Steelers have called more than 15 running plays? Even after falling behind, perhaps because the Steelers' defense played so abysmally, wouldn't the Steelers have done anything they could do to hold onto the football? The fact is the offensive line did little to assert itself, and the result was a game in which:
  • Jacksonville possessed the ball more than 15 minutes longer than the Steelers -- an entire quarter longer.
  • Ergo, the Jaguars ran 20 more offensive plays than the Steelers.
What was once a strength of the team is now suspect; and unless/until it's bolstered the Steelers will be nothing more than a middlin' team with a rich history.

The Ugly
Fred Taylor ran for 147 yards, Maurice Jones-Drew ran for another 69, and David Garrard added eight more for a total of 224 (note: for those wondering the record for yards rushing by a Steelers opponent in a single game was set November 4, 1934 by the Detroit Lion -- they gained 426 yards). In the thirteen games leading up to this one the Steelers had surrendered a total of 944 net yards of rushing. The previous high total for this season was the 151 yards rushing given up to the New York Jets (which means that 31.5% of the rushing yards gained against the Steelers' defense this season have come in two games).

In the fourth quarter, needing a stop after the offense came to life and tied the game, the Jaguars marched right . . . down . . . the . . . field (8 plays, 73 yards, using 3:35) for the game winning score.

The Jaguars were 3-for-3 on fourth downs.

Dick LeBeau is a hall-of-famer, and he will forever have a special place in the hearts of Steelers fans. But, what exactly was the game plan -- certainly this wasn't it, right? David Garrard is no slouch, but wasn't it incumbent on the Steelers to see if he's actually capable of throwing for a win?

But on a much more basic level, it must be said that the Jaguar's offensive line dominated the Steelers' front seven; and though Jacksonville has won its last three meetings against the Steelers that's the first time anyone could say that.

And Anthony Smith and Ike Taylor . . . please feel free to take care of your job (i.e. deep coverage). If the other nine guys can't stop Fred Taylor then the defense needs more help than you two can provide.

Conclusion
The Steelers now go to St. Louis a team that they should beat -- just like Arizona, Denver, and the New York Jets -- but it appears that there are, quite suddenly, no sure things with this ballclub. Obviously, if there is to be a playoff appearance this season (and at this point we're not convinced that would be a good thing) they need to win their two remaining games.

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