Monday, September 20, 2004

This is why you play 16 games

The Ravens team that showed up Sunday against the Steelers wasn't the same team that was outplayed last week in Cleveland. What's important if you're a Pittsburgh fan is to not make too big a deal out of the game. Don't forget, going into the season the Ravens had arguably (although I wouldn't argue against it) the best defense in the NFL and they showed that yesterday. And it wasn't that the Steelers offense played horribly -- it's just that you can't call pass plays that take 4 and 5 seconds to develop and it's hard to run the ball when you put yourself in the hole early in the first half. And even though it was hard to tell if you were watching the game, after the first quarter, Jamal Lewis was held in check as the Steelers did a really good job of shutting him down (of course they forgot to tackle Chester Taylor). That said, they gave up some big third down plays to Kyle Boller and Chester Taylor, but the score was more indicative of the Steelers first quarter play and crappy field position. Still...

Is it bad when you spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about this matchup leading up to Sunday? Because if it is, I have a lot of problems. That said, I'm quickly going to forget about this game and only hope that the Steelers learn from it (actually, after giving it some thought, I've decided to devote another whole post to rationalizing the loss tomorrow). Of course if there were some glaring problems, it's worth pointing out, but I'm not willing to blame the offense for this game. And after the first few drives, the defense played pretty well also. But you still can't let Kyle Boller beat you down the field. The front seven did a solid job (for the most part) of putting pressure on Boller, but he did a solid job of eluding the pass rush and gaining positive yards on the scramble. I guess the real question is, did Billick outcoach Cowher?

I don't think so (it makes for very dramatic reading though, doesn't it?), but hey, I'm also the guy that said Deion would be nonfactor (oh wait, he was -- unless you consider a 15-yard punt return in which he takes his helmet off after the play to celebrate -- and subsequently results in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, a good play. One more thing, after getting beat deep by Plax and not having a pass interference called against him, he hobbled off the field with a hamstring injury. On a side note, I think this was the longest, most convoluted, poorly written sentences ever placed inside parens, but hey, everybody's good at something and this is my gift).

Anyway, the Steelers got outplayed in all phases of the game, got down early and spent the rest of the game trying to play catch-up against the best defense on the planet. The good news is it's only the second game of the season (of course the Steelers slide last season started during a week 2 loss to the Chiefs), and they have the Dolphins next week. And while it's important not to overreact and put too much stock in this performance, it's equally (or maybe more) important to take some lessons away from this ass-beating and move forward. I know that's hard for a lot of people -- especially hometown sportswriters (what else would they have to write about this week?), but it'll be easy for me.

With all that, here's the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good
Duce Staley. This guy is a beast and he doesn't seem to be affected by all the craziness going on around him; he just takes the ball and punishes people that get in his way. As much as I like Jerome, it's easy to see what a running back in his prime should look like when Staley takes off.

Hines Ward. Hines did his best to get the Steelers on the board in the first half, but myriad penalties thwarted his efforts. He also laid a particularly nice downfield block on Chris McAlister that resulted in a facemask against the Ravens. And who else would you expect to catch a deflected pass and take down to the goal line?

Troy Polamalu. He didn't get a chance to do much in coverage (primarily because the Ravens wisely ran the ball), but he laid some hits on the Ravens running backs and made some good open field tackles.

Casey Hampton. It's easy to overlook Hampton despite the fact that he's four feet tall and weighs 400 lbs. (Ok, that's a slight exaggeration on both counts), but he's one of the best defensive tackles in the game and does a great job of not only disrupting the running game, but also occasionally puts some pressure on the QB in passing situations.

Ben Roethlisberger. After an inauspicious start that included an INT, Roethlisberger calmed down and played very effectively in the 4th quarter (discounting his last INT returned for a TD of course). But before everyone jumps on his bandwagon, consider that is wasn't until the Steelers were in hurry-up that Roethlisberger really started to look good -- and that's probably because he spent the majority of his snaps in college in the shotgun. Still, he had a solid first game against a stout defense and for themost part he held his own. Roethlisberger made some really good decisions and he also made some really bad decisions, but given the circumstances, it was about all you could ask for. That said, if Tommy's not injured, he should start against the Dolphins (of course I reserve the right to change my mind before Sunday, but I'm currently 51% certain Maddox should start).

The Bad
Ok, where to start? Tommy Maddox. Now all of the offensive woes can't be blamed on Maddox, and maybe this distinction should go to either Cowher or Whisenhunt for the game-planning. Either way, it's hard to call a play that takes a while to develop and not expect Maddox to get clobbered. On the upside (despite the fact that Maddox was injured), Maddox made some smart decisions under a lot of pressure and only had one turnover (and that was a fumble that wasn't his fault).

Joey Porter. I like Joey Porter a lot, but he's got to occaisonally beat his man on the outside and get some pressure on the QB. If he was as successful on the field as he was at pregame gum-flapping, he'd break Michael Strahan's sack record in half a season. Dick LeBeau needs this guy to be able to beat a single blocker if this defense is going to be successful.

The Ugly
The first quarter. The Ravens manhandled the Steelers on both sides of the ball and Pittsburgh never quite recovered. This Ravens defense is what had so many prognosticators so excited during the weeks leading up to the opener. If the Steelers either don't learn how to get off the field early in the game or answer when an opponent puts up point early, this could be a long season. But like I said above, I think it's more important to forget about this game (it's early), hope the Steelers learn from these mistakes (you can't win them all unless you're the Pats -- which reminds me, before the Pats when on this unthinkable winning streak, they lost last season 31-0 to the Bills in the opener and then lost to the Redskins, one of the worst teams in the league), and start game-planning for the Dolphins (whose offensive line makes the 2003 Steelers offensive line look like future Hall of Famers).

Special Teams. And I don't mean Antwaan Randle El, who had a couple of solid kick returns. I'm referring to all the penalties that cost the Steelers field position -- especially late in the game.

One more thing, can you tell I'm a Steelers fan? In the wake of getting blown out by a division rival, I have more players under "Good" than "Bad" and "Ugly" combined. I like to think I'm accentuating the positive (of course some may say that I'm losing touch with reality -- which is probably more likely the case).

Ok, I feel much better after having written this down. And one of the best things about TiVo is that you can delete any show you don't care to watch (in this case, a repeat of this debacle). And as long as I'm dealing with the blowout, I might as well fess up and admit that Boller played a good game. In fact, if he plays like this every week, people in Baltimore will start calling him Trent Dilfer (and that's a good thing). Unfortunately, because the Ravens won, it's not quite as fun to do the phone conversation between Boller and his estranged girlfriend Tara Reid. But hey, I'm not afraid to eat crow, especially when I deserve it, and this is certainly one of those times.

Yet another thought, as I write this, I'm not sure what the extent of Tommy's injury is, but I wonder how many people will be calling for Roethlisberger to start, despite the fact that Tommy didn't play poorly (he didn't play great either), he just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time all day Sunday (including his injury). And for all of you who thought Roethlisberger didn't look quite as impressive as he did during the preseason, there's a reason. For starters, preseason defenses are often base defenses designed more to allow coaches to evaluate players than to rack up sacks and interceptions (unless of course you're Steve Spurrier). Also, Roethlisberger was up against the Ravens defense, and even in their base defense, it's not quite the same. Either way, I'm still convinced that barring an injury to Maddox, Roethlisberger should be holding the clipboard this season (Not because he played poorly, but because there's no rush to get him in the game and retard his progress and the Steelers season just for the sake of playing a first-rounder. But again, I reserve the right to change my mind).

Ok I'm done because now I have to go re-read the "Power of Positive Thinking" and also because if this turns into another 6-10 season I'm going to become a Chargers fan (I mean really, is there anything easier than being a Chargers fan? No expectations, you can go to the game, enjoy the weather, have a few beers and you never go home feeling cheated). Good stuff.