Sunday, January 06, 2008

Jacksonville V. Steelers: The Good, the Bad
& The Ugly -- the Wild Card Edition

Wow.

We are e-x-h-a-u-s-t-e-d.

Imagine how the players must feel.

It was an amazing game, and our knee-jerk reaction following the game was to be disappointed at the final score while simultaneously being quite proud of how the Pittsburgh Steelers fought back from as much adversity as a team can encounter on the field of play.

But upon further reflection we must, as we believe the Steelers' players, coaches, and fans must, reject moral victories. The franchise is a great one because of the championships it has won not because the teams have played horribly in one half and played splendidly in the next. The National Football League -- and in particular the playoffs -- is a zero sum game. The Steelers lost, and looking for something to feel good about only delays (and possibly detracts from) the critical self-analysis that must now begin if the team hopes to get back to being a legitimate championship contender.

After a crazy, mixed up game, like the one we witnessed Saturday night there is no way to categorize the game into "Good," "Bad," and "Ugly." The Steelers were all of those things -- sometimes at the same time. Here's some of what we mean:

Ben Roethlisberger : During the first half, just for a moment, we thought we were watching Super Bowl XL. A quarterback rating of 47.8? Three interceptions? Even if the first one is credited to aggressive play by Rashean Mathis (it was a high risk, high reward play which worked out for him and the Jaguars) the two that followed were . . . mind-boggling in their carelessness (and the final one cost the Steelers an opportunity to kick a field goal).

But then there was the second half. Two touchdowns, 188 yards, 17/23 and a 126.72 quarterback rating. He led his team, he willed his team down the field -- taking advantage of the turnovers forced by the defense -- and brought them back to the brink of victory.

The Offensive Line : With 3:43 left in the game the Steelers had the football and a one point lead. Frankly, they were twenty yards -- two first downs -- away from sealing the win. There was a time, a season or two ago, the Steelers could have run out the clock by keeping the ball on the ground, and getting the necessary yardage. The 2007 edition of the Steelers' offensive line managed to lead the team down the field -- for five yards. From that point, the rest is history. Moreover, the 43 yards of rushing that the Steelers accumulated (13 of which came from Ben Roethlisberger) Saturday is their lowest total in the playoffs since rushing for 58 yards in the AFC Championship game against new England on January 27, 2002 in that game Kordell Stewart was the Steelers' leading rusher).

We do want to send some praise the way of Trai Essex. We watched him intently all evening (and then watched the game again via the miracle of Tivo), and must say that he exceeded our expectations by a considerable margin. Additionally, it did not appear that the Steelers modified their playbook appreciably to "protect" Mr. Essex. There were runs to the left, there were QB roll-outs to the left, and until the Steelers' final offensive play of the evening Mr. Essex hadn't been beaten on a pass rush (it should be pointed out that there was almost always a running back helping Mr. Essex in pass protection, but that probably should have been the case when these two teams played the first time this season), and on that play Najeh Davenport didn't exactly do much to lend a hand (i.e. he whiffed on the block). Overall Mr. Essex did well, better than anyone had a right to expect from a third string tackle.

The Defense : Faced with bad field position throughout much of the first half -- Jacksonville's average drive began at their 46-yard line -- the defense limited Jacksonville to 14 points (and let's be fair -- the kick return by Maurice Jones-Drew left them in an impossible position). In the second half the Steelers' defense forced turnovers, and played the physical brand of football that their fans have come to love and expect. They limited the Jaguars to 239 net yards, and held Fred Taylor and Mr. Jones-Drew to a combined 77 yards. But at the end of the game, when they needed to make a play in order to secure victory, David Garrard rumbled for 32 yards thereby ensuring that the Jaguars would have an opportunity to kick a makeable field goal.

No one can question the effort or the intensity of the Steelers' defense. But in the end all that can be said is that they almost played like champions.

[Note added 1/6/08, 5:20 PM: It should be noted how thrilled we were to see LaMarr Woodley making impact plays. The solid performances of Mr. Woodley, Matt Spaeth, and Daniel Sepulveda is making the 2007 draft look solid]

Special Teams : Following the final Steelers win of the season (i.e. the game in St. Louis), in discussing the kick coverage team here is what we said: "If the Steelers are fortunate enough to make the playoffs this glaring weakness will cost them points -- count on it."

Did you doubt us?

And yet the special teams responded. Following the 96-yard return by Maurice Jones-Drew the Jaguars had five more kick returns, and they managed to rack-up a total of 44 yards (i.e. 8.8 yards per kick return). The pooch kick is an amazing thing. On those five kicks we saw speed -- something sorely lacking in games,and years past, on Pittsburgh's special teams.

The punt coverage team was similarly up-and-down. Dennis Northcutt returned three punts Saturday evening. On the first two he managed to get 15 total yards. Again, the speed of the Steelers' coverage unit was terrific. But then, with the offense having failed to get a first down late in the game, deep in their own territory, Mr. Northcutt broke loose for a 16-yard return, enabling the Jaguars' offense to begin their winning drive near midfield.


Conclusion : If we were to identify the turning point in what was a see-saw affair it would have to be the Steelers' fourth quarter possession that began with 3:43 left in the game. With momentum on the Steelers' side, and a one point lead, here's what happened:
  • The Jaguars' defense beat the Steelers' offense, forcing a punt.

  • The Jaguars' punt return team beat the Steelers' punt coverage team, setting up the Jags' offense at their 49-yard line.

  • The Jaguars' offense made enough plays -- including the 31-yard run by David Garrard on fourth-and-two -- to kick the field goal that put them ahead.

  • The Jaguars' defense stomped out any hope of a miraculous Steelers' comeback by beating the left offensive tackle and stripping the ball away from the quarterback.
Late in the game, with a chance to win, the Steelers were dominated in every phase of the game. It's hard to find anything to feel good about in that.

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