Monday, December 10, 2007

Steelers @ New England:
The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

As the final seconds of Sunday's game wound down one could here (or at least thought they heard) the Patriots' players saying "Blueprint?!? We've got you're stinking blueprint right here!" So, with the question as to whether the Steelers are "contenders" or "pretenders" answered, at least for now, here's our perspective on the game.

The Good
The best thing about this week's game is that it's over; and the Steelers now face a must win game, the final home game of the regular season, against the very tough Jacksonville Jaguars. But beyond that, and more specific to the matchup with the Patriots, here's some of what the Black & Gold did well this past Sunday:
  • Willie Parker had a good day -- 21 carries, 124 yards (56 yards in the first half, 68 yards in the second). Also impressive about the performance is that only 27 of those yards came during so-called "garbage time" at the end of the fourth quarter. Stopping the run is not a strength of the New England defense, and the Steelers exploited that weakness. That the Steelers running game was not, in-and-of itself, enough to change the final outcomes doesn't mean that the effort was a wasted one. Given the Steelers' struggles to run the football it was good to see them have some success in the phase of the game.

  • Ben Roethlisberger's struggles against New England have been well-chronicled, but his performance on Sunday was a significant step forward. His statistics were not eye-catching (i.e. nothing like Tom Brady's) but the fact that he threw for a touchdown and no interceptions, in 32 pass attempts, is something positive to take from the game. Perhaps for the first time, at least when facing the Patriots, Mr. Roethlisberger did not appear overmatched or easily rattled. His performance, like those of many of his teammates, may have fallen short of what was needed to produce a win but it was, on the whole, a good (if not great performance).

The Bad
Where does one begin . . .
  • It would be easy to lambaste Anthony Smith. After all, he ran his mouth too much before the game, and then didn't use his head during the game. However it is the entire defense that disappointed on Sunday. Two big plays resulted in 14 points for the Patriots -- but the question we ask, rhetorical though it might be, is what about the other 20? For those the Patriots put together drives of 9 plays/52 yards, 8 plays/54 yards, 10 plays/50 yards, and 13 plays/89 yards. Pittsburgh Steelers Fanatic firmly believes in giving opponents credit for the things they do well -- and the Patriots deserve lots of credit; however the Steelers defense failed to make any significant plays against the best team in the NFL. As a result, the Patriots scored points of some kind on six of their ten possessions. Whether it was game planning, execution on the field, or some combination of both the Steelers' defense -- the heart & soul of the team -- was outgunned and outplayed all day long.

  • The play calling of Bruce Arians, specifically in the (Heinz) red zone left something to be desired. Going into the game the Patriots had the league's worst red zone (touchdown) defense; but despite this fact the Steelers came away with only three points on their two three trips inside the New England 12-yard line. Additionally, the play calling early in the fourth quarter left us shaking our heads. On the drive that ended at the new England 1-yard line (which began late in the third quarter) Nate Washington made a catch which put the ball at the New England twenty. From that point Steelers' running backs had four carries, netting fifteen yards. But two passes (one to Hines Ward for one yard, and one to Santonio Holmes -- which was perfectly defended) yielded little, and the fourth down end around drew Hines Ward from the outside towards the strength of the Patriots defense (i.e. Mike Vrabel). Given the the success that the Steelers had had on the ground the argument here is that a power toss to the left (a play that was run by the Steelers late in the fourth quarter) -- thereby taking the Steelers' ball carrier from the inside away from the Patriots' defensive strength -- would have been a better second down call. As it was, the Patriots played downs two, three, and four perfectly. When Hines Ward was held out of the end zone on fourth down the Steelers' slim chances of coming back were extinguished.

The Ugly
  • Like Anthony Smith, Willie Colon makes an inviting target here -- he was completely overmatched against Mike Vrabel -- but the real culprit is the coach, or coaches, who put him out on that island in the first place. Mr. Colon may someday be an All-Pro, but he isn't there yet, and nothing he's done this season should have led any member of the coaching staff to believe that he was prepared for the kind of responsibility that was foisted upon him for this game. The result was that Heath Miller, who had a good first quarter catching the ball (3 catches, 19 yards), had to be kept on the line to block; and the result of that was one fewer receiver for Ben Roethlisberger to look for, and the result of that was stark: In the first half Ben Roethlisberger's passing statistics were 12/17, 121 yards, 1 touchdown. In the second half, with Mr. Miller consigned to assisting Mr. Colon, Mr. Roethlisberger was 7/15, 66 yards, 0 touchdowns. Coincidence? Of course not (in the second half Mr. Miller had 1 catch for 9 yards).

  • When a team loses a big game, and performs in a manner that disappoints themselves and their fans, there is plenty of "ugly" to go around. However, I want to make special mention of one member of the Black & Gold who shamed himself in a way for which the Steelers are not know. Arnold Harrison's fourth quarter cheap shot, well after a New England punt had gone out of bounds, has no place on this team. The Steelers had their chances to make plays, and however frustrated they were there simply is no excuse for that type of conduct -- we're not the Raiders. And frankly, I don't blame Bill Belichick for wanting Mr. Harrison ejected. If the situation had been reversed all Steelers fans would have been called for the same thing. The hope here is that someone -- either the league or the team -- fines Mr. Harrison for his juvenile behavior.

The Final Analysis
It's over, and the sooner the Steelers forget about this game the better. Jacksonville is playing for a wild card berth; and don't look now but the Cleveland Browns are just one game behind the Steelers for the AFC Central championship. The last thing the Steelers should want is to face the Baltimore Ravens in the regular season's final game actually needing a win to get into the playoffs.

Fun Fact
Coming into the game the Patriots had had 40 possessions which were 1-4 plays in duration. Of those 40 possessions, 8 resulted in touchdowns. Against the Steelers the Patriots had 6 such drives and two resulted in touchdowns. Another of those resulted in a field goal, while still another resulted in a missed field goal.

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