Friday, December 21, 2007

Steelers @ St. Louis: The Good,
the Bad, & the Ugly

On a night when a Hall-of-Fame running back had his number retired, and Pro Bowl running back his season ended, the Steelers ended their two game losing streak with a 41-24 victory over the Rams. Here's a look at what went well, what could have been better, and what we would just as soon forget.

The Good
Basking in the light of a victory almost everything seems like a "good;" however let's begin with Ben Roethlisberger. His passer rating of 158.3, a perfect score in the NFL system, marks the third such rating he has achieved in a game in his career. And with that Mr. Roethlisberger ties Peyton Manning in that statistical category. After a game last week in which passes sailed wildly, and receivers dropped passes that we accurately thrown, the passing game fired on all cylinders Thursday evening. Indeed, Mr. Roethlisberger completed passes to six different receivers, including four to running backs (two to Najeh Davenport and two to Carey Davis), for 261 yards. Coming two days after Pro Bowl participants were named, Mr. Roethlisberger showed everyone who was able to watch the game why he was included amongst the league's elite.

Also impressive were the performances of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. After the Steelers' first two running plays resulted in a net -3 yards and the loss their premier running back to a broken leg, Mr. Miller and Mr. Spaeth spent a considerable amount of time on the field -- almost exclusively as blockers. Their efforts to shore up the offensive line were significant, even going against what can charitably be called a mediocre Rams defense: 23 carries, 154 yards (i.e. following those first two carries; and not including scrambles by Ben Roethlisberger). Indeed, the Steelers ran off 37 running plays (59.67% of the total plays run by the Steelers), with a per rush average of 4.5 yards (their season average has been 4.31 yards per rush).

It was great to see a Steelers running back running between the tackles effectively, and if using two tight ends on the same side of the line (which the Steelers did repeatedly) is what is required then so be it.

On the defensive side of the ball, no "good" was sweeter to watch than Ike Taylor actually holding on to an interception, his sixth career pick, and running it back for a game clinching touchdown. The Steelers' career interception leader is Mel Blount (57), and if Mr. Taylor had held on to all the interceptions he's dropped in his career he'd probably be halfway to setting a new record.

Also great to see was the way the defense adjusted in the second half. The result was that they all but shut down the Rams' electric runner Steven Jackson. In the first half Mr. Jackson had 65 yards on 5 carries (36 yards on a single carry). In the second half he had 7 carries for 20 yards. The tale of two halfs for St. Louis could also be found at quarterback. For Mark Bulger the first half looked like this: 9/18, 101 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT (on the last play of the half), with a passer an 81.0 rating. The second half: 9/17, 107 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, but a passer rating of only 67.5. However the most significant number of all was 23. That is the length in yards of Mr. Bulger's longest completion on the night. Though the Rams did move the ball reasonably well (total net yards gained for the game was 316) there were none of the big plays that plagued the Steelers in the preceding two weeks.

Finally, Steelers Nation invaded St. Louis and made it their own -- the NFL Network announcers, all of them, made mention of just how many Black & Gold backers were on hand. It was great that the Steelers ended up with a ninth home game -- HERE WE GO STEELERS, HERE WE GO!!

P.S. A fake punt?!? That was beautiful!

The Bad
Let's begin with Ben Roethlisberger.

If we can give one piece of advice to a Pro Bowl quarterback it is this: THROW THE BALL!! The four sacks that the Rams came up with were all the result of Mr. Roethlisberger holding on to the ball too long. He was nearly seriously injured (when Corey Chavous rolled up onto the back of his leg) on such a play, and we'll be shocked if there isn't a parade of Steelers players and coaches given the young quarterback the same piece of advice during the flight home.

Kick coverage unit! Step up for your weekly flogging.

In fairness, the kick coverage team did a decent job, especially in the second half (on three second half kick returns the Rams averaged 23.33 yards per return). However two enormous returns (one for 43 yards, and a second for 49 yards) in the first half gave St. Louis outstanding field position, allowed them to open up the playbook, which led to two Rams touchdowns. If the Steelers are fortunate enough to make the playoffs this glaring weakness will cost them points -- count on it.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Steelers allowed St. Louis to convert on 50% of its third downs (7/14), despite the fact that coming into the game the Rams were converting on only 37.4%. Related to this is the apparent inability of Dick LeBeau to adjust to the short drops and quick releases used by Marc Bulger to counteract the Steelers' zone blitz. This is a similar approach used by Tom Brady and the Patriots to beat the Steelers, and Pittsburgh is fortunate that the Rams' defense is as porous as it is or they might be looking at their third consecutive loss.

The Ugly
Trainers and players looking at an x-ray on the Steelers' sideline is absolutely the ugliest sight a Steelers fan will ever see.

Willie Parker's broken leg couldn't have happened to a better teammate, harder working player. He's a joy to watch, and here's hoping that there will be no lingering effects (a la Rennie Stennett) once he returns for mini-camp.

On the other hand this crushing loss is going to force the Steelers to reevaluate the way in which they run the ball (i.e. real power running v. stretch plays), and if that motivates the coaches to implement a more straight ahead, ball control style of running that would be an example of making the best of a bad situation.

The offense looked good from the very start, and the defense gained momentum as the game wore on. And while a win is a win, especially after being dominated the previous two games, this was a fairly hard fought win against a team that was itself dominated last week, and now has a record of 3-12. It's ok to feel good, but no one should delude themselves into thinking that the Steelers have solved whatever ailed them against New England and Jacksonville.

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