Monday, September 15, 2008

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

Before the season began much of the talk regarding Super Bowl contenders from the AFC revolved around New England, Indianapolis, San Diego, and Jacksonville; and in many a season preview the Cleveland Browns were highlighted as a team that had a good chance of unseating the Pittsburgh Steelers as AFC North champions.

The NFL season takes many twists and turns, and the teams that were expected to contend may still do so, but right now San Diego and Jacksonville are winless in their first two games, the Colts are struggling with the NFC North, and New England is without their most valuable player.

Then there are the Browns.

Proving so far that being a Cinderella story is easier than being the favorite, the Browns now find themselves tied with their Ohio neighbors, the Bengals, for last in the division after having lost two home games. In fairness, the Browns played hard but some questionable decisions by Romeo Crennel and big plays by the Steelers doomed Cleveland to their tenth consecutive loss against the Steelers.

Without further adieu, here's our look at some of the highs, the lows, and the hideous.

The Good
  1. Generally we like to focus our attentions on entire units within the team ~ e.g. the offensive line, the linebackers, etc. ~ but one player in particular showed us that the concerns we had regarding his ability to regain hi Pro Bowl form were nothing more than alarmist nonsense. For at least one night Troy Polamalu ~ who finished the game with four tackles, one for a loss ~ ran, dived, and vaulted like the young man we all fell in love with when he first showed up in the 'Burgh. Moreover, his interception at the end of the first half was the play of the game. The impact on the scoreboard was obvious, but its impact on the confidence of the Browns must have been even more significant. That fourteen play, seventy-one yard drive began with 6:20 left in the half, and instead of showing the Steelers that they were ready to take control it only reinforced the idea that it was the Black & Gold that was really in control.

  2. Who are those players covering kicks and punts for the Steelers? It almost appears that they are "staying in their lanes" ~ a concept that we were convinced simply was not a part of Steelers special team play. But against the best return man this side off Devin Hester, on three kicks the Jeff Reed delivered two kicks for touchbacks, and the single kick that was returned went for twenty-two yards. On the punt team Mitch Berger continues to perform well ~ six kicks for an average of 45.5 yards, though the net yardage was only 38.2 yards ~ and the Steelers limited Joshua Cribbs to an average of 8.8 yards on five returns. One can only hope that this solid play will continue, and that it will inspire the kick return teams of the Steelers to play better.

  3. Offensive line, you are beautiful! Willie Parker gets another one 100+ yards rushing and Ben Roethlisberger was well protected (yes he was sacked three times, but on each of those occasions the Browns blitzed multiple defenders ~ i.e. it was a numbers thing). Chris Kemoeatu continues to perform well in his attempt to replace one of the greatest offensive linemen in NFL history (want to know how skewed media coverage is in the NFL? For all the incessant talk about Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre, Chris Kemoeatu replacing Alan Faneca is every bit as compelling a story), Justin Hartwig is making the painful memories of the Sean Mayhan era recede quickly, Marvel Smith looks like a different player, Kendall Simmons (and his tumbling skills) may be John Madden's newest favorite player, and Willie Colon just keeps doing his job. In two weeks this group has gone against two pretty decent defensive fronts, and in both cases acquitted themselves very well.

  4. Honorable Mentions: Ben Roethlisberger playing well while injured, Bruce Arians for a well-called game (especially the pass on second-and-ten from the Steelers' own endzone with :39 left in the third quarter that resulted in a 31-yard completion to Hines Ward, and the play action pass on second-and-ten with 3:16 left in the game that resulted in a 19-yard completion to Heath Miller), Santonio Holmes looks like a Pro Bowler, and Bryant McFadden playing for the injured Deshea Townsend.
The Bad
  1. The Steelers' punt and kick return teams, specifically their return men, were dreadful. Two near fumbles had us ready to crawl though the satellite dish and throttle Mewelde Moore and the tandem of Rashard Mendenhall/Carey Davis. Indeed the only "return man" to come out of the game with his reputation unsullied was Matt Spaeth who had the presence of mind to call a fair catch on the fourth quarter pooch kick by Phil Dawson.

  2. Third down efficiency of twenty-five percent? 0-for-4 on third down conversions in the second half? If that becomes a trend the Steelers had better hope they never trail in any of their remaining games this season.

  3. We tend not to worry about the officiating, but the inconsistency of this group ~ in particular the roughing the passer call against LaMarr Woodley,and the non-call when Ben Roethlisberger had thrown a pass and Sean Rodgers took two steps and buried the crown of his helmet in Ben Roethlisberger's chest ~ warrants a mention. Coaches, players, and fans just want to see the same rules apply to both teams. While the numbers balanced out (the Steelers had 7 penalties for 60 yards, the Browns 10-for-65), it seemed that "protecting the quarterback" meant different things to head official Tony Corrente depending upon which team had the ball.
The Ugly
  1. This is going to seem a bit harsh, but Willie Parker messed up badly. In the fourth quarter, with 2:42 play, Mr. Parker took a hand-off on second down and six. He cut over the right side, got the first down, and then went out-of-bounds thereby saving Cleveland nearly thirty seconds of game time.

    In watching the play a second (and third, and fourth) time we can see that Mr. Parker had the first down, and was in-bounds with 2:38 to play. Two seconds later he is still in bounds, and has picked up an additional four yards. With 2:35 left he stepped out-of-bounds. Now, if he had fallen to the ground at nearly any moment after getting the first down (but before going out-of-bounds) the Steelers would have had the ball first-and-ten with the clock running (the Browns had used all their time outs at that point). At that point the Steelers might have been able allow the clock to run to the two minute warning without running another play (we admit it would have been close ~ depending upon when the ball was made ready for play by the officials).

    As it was the clock stopped with 2:34 remaining, the Steelers had to run their first down play to restart the clock, the clock then stopped at the two minute warning, and the Browns eventually regained possession with :26 left. It didn't have to be that way; and while we love Mr. Parker's determined running style that is the kind of mistake good teams do not make in a close game.

  2. We believe in allowing the fans of other teams to analyze the performance of those teams, however the job that Romeo Crennel (a man for whom we have some genuine respect) did Sunday night was deserving of harsh judgment.
Conclusion
With some of the better teams (i.e. the teams against whom the Steelers are competing for home field advantage in the playoffs) struggling out of the gate, and their top rival in the division doing the same, this was a big win for the Steelers.

With the Eagles playing on Monday night it will be interesting see if their offense is all it appeared to be in week one. If it is, then the Steelers defense is in for a significant challenge (e.g. are the Steelers going to cover Brian Westbrook with a linebacker?).

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