Monday, November 17, 2008

San Diego v. Steelers:
The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

We're not certain what is most noteworthy about this game ~ that the Steelers were victorious, they were victorious in the first ever 11-10 game in NFL history (so say CBS, with help from the Elias Sports Bureau we assume), or what we assume were huge sums of money that changed hands when Troy Polamalu scored a touchdown on the final play of the game; only to see all that money handed back over on the basis of an incorrect illegal forward pass call that ended the game. In our effort to decide we look at what went well, what was not so good, and what was downright horrible.

The Good
  1. Big Dan the 'Burgh Man sent along a text message during the first half which said "Thank God for Dick LeBeau." Beautiful in its simplicity, yet comprehensive in capturing just how much the Steelers are depending upon their defense this season to be competitive. Philip Rivers' 43.6 passer rating was his worst such number this season (the previous low was 58.8 versus Oakland), and LaDanian Tomlinson's 57 yards rushing was his fourth worst total this season, and the team's 66 net rushing yards was their second lowest this season (the lowest is 60 yards versus Miami). Moreover, their 50 offensive plays was the third lowest total in a game this season, and their 4.3 yards per offensive play was the second lowest total this season (the lowest was 4.1 yards per play versus Miami).

    If this was the first time this season the Steelers' defense had done something like this we might only discuss player performance, but the season-long excellence of the defensive unit is certainly the result of leadership from their ageless leader, Dick LeBeau.

  2. If James Harrison is not the defensive player of the year we simply do not understand the criteria for the award. Often double-teamed (and occasionally held, despite the lack of a call from the officials) he still managed to collect two tackles and two assists.

    And forced a fumble.

    And assisted on the tackle that resulted in a safety.

    And came up with a key interception that kept the Chargers off the scoreboard late in the first half (and there is no need to ask, given the final score, just how big a play that turned out to be).

    The intensity, bordering on rage, that he exhibited early in his career has been harnessed for good (i.e. if you are a fan of the Steelers) and he is following up a very good 2007 season with a Pro Bowl 2008.

  3. During our recent visit to Pittsburgh Big Dan the 'Burgh Man and I spent a great deal of time going through the Steelers' media guide, and while doing so we discovered that Jack Lambert, arguably the greatest linebacker to play in the National Football League, waited until the end of his third full season to go to his first Pro Bowl.

    We mention this just so that you understand that we understand the full weight of this next statement: Second year linebacker LaMarr Woodley has earned a spot on the AFC Pro Bowl team. Sure, the Steelers' defense played reasonably well last week against Indianapolis (i.e. well enough to win); but as good as they are without him, the defense is even better with him in the lineup. He pressured the quarterback, he was in on the safety with James Harrison, and his ability to drop into coverage (e.g. the deflected pass intended for Vincy Jackson) makes him supremely valuable.

  4. The defense was terrific, but there were also some good performances on the offensive side of the ball as well, but we were especially impressed by the hard running (i.e. aggressive, downhill running) of Gary Russell and Willie Parker. Tunch Ilkin mentioned it on the Steelers' radio broadcast ~ the Pittsburgh running attack is just different with a healthy Willie Parker in the lineup. We also thought Mr. Russell's contributions, especially in short yardage situations were very significant (e.g. third quarter, 3-and-1, six yard gain; third quarter, 3-and-1, four yard gain).
The Bad
  1. So let's review:
    • 24 first downs
    • 410 net yards
    • 36:31 time of possession
    • +3 in turnovers
    • 8 points ?!?

    Five of the Steelers' nine offensive possessions terminated inside San Diego's 35 yard line, but all the offense ended up with was nine points. Execution is obviously a part of the problem, but we also have issues with the play calling.

    For example, on the Steelers' first offensive possession they worked their way from their own 41 yard line on a 4-yard run by Willie Parker and a 17-yard pass completion to Hines Ward (that put them at the Chargers' 38 yard line). At that point Bruce Arians called three consecutive pass plays ~ an incompletion, a sack, and a 13-yard completion on 3-and-18. That resulted in an ugly, 51-yard, missed field goal from Jeff Reed.

    On their second possession they moved the ball 69 yards, 33 of which was on the ground, but on a critical 2nd-and-4 at the San Diego four yard line a pass play was called and Ben Roethlisberger was sacked.

    On their first possession of the third quarter the Steelers moved from their own 23 yard line to the Chargers' 28 yard line (49 net yards), gaining 26 yards on the ground on five carries. Yet, with a 1-and-10 at that point, they called three consecutive passing plays (completing the first one for five yards, and the other two were incomplete) and had to settle for another field goal.

    We understand the need for a balanced offense, however we also believe in forcing an opponent to stop you before going to something else. On a day when the running game was closer to being a ground attack it seems that Mr. Arians more interested in balance than simply going with what was working.

  2. We sing the praises of the defense often, but allowing San Diego to go 78 yards in the fourth quarter . . . u-n-a-c-c-e-p-t-a-b-l-e.
The Ugly
  1. Paul Ernster has to go.

    Four kicks, a 31.0 yard average, and a net of 30.8 yards. His average is tied for lowest so far this weekend (with only the Monday evening game remaining), and his net is the second lowest (Indianapolis punter Hunter Smith had a single punt with a net of 16 yards). He has done a good job holding for field goals, but his fourth quarter, 20-yard punt from the Chargers' 38 yard line was horrific.

  2. 13 penalties, 115 yards.

    Yes, we thought the pass interference call against Ike Taylor (that set up San Diego's touchdown) was ridiculous (if that is pass interference then the rule needs to be changed), and referee Scott Green has already admitted his error on Troy Polamalu's fumble recovery for a touchdown; but our real problem is with the sloppy, sloppy play the Steelers turned in.

    Nearly a quarter of the Steelers' penalties were called on wide receivers (three on Hines Ward, one on Santonio Holmes), and two more were called on tight ends (one each on Matt Spaeth and Sean McHugh). In fact, only two penalties were called on offensive linemen (one on Willie Colon and one on Darnell Stapleton) and neither was for holding.

    All of this was nearly the undoing of the Steelers, and it is a testament to the good play of the offensive line and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that they were able to overcome it all.

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