Monday, November 22, 2004

Winning Ugly

The Steelers beat the Bengals 19-14, but luckily this ain't the BCS -- the margin of victory doesn't matter, only that you won. Still, this game may also prove to be one of Pittsburgh's most important to date. The Steelers went into Cincinnati and battled a much-improved Bengals team that had won 2 of their last three games, and faced a defense that put more pressure on Ben Roethlisberger than he's seen since the Iowa game in 2003. And while it took eight starts before Roethlisberger actually looked like a rookie QB, he also made several big plays that kept the Steelers in the game down the stretch.

As I watched the first half, I had a couple of recurring thoughts about Ben's play. First, Roethlisberger looked confused by the Bengals defensive schemes (much like Steelers opponents look when facing a Dick LeBeau scheme), and second, while looking confused he did a pretty good Drew Bledsoe impression by taking a couple big sacks that put Pittsburgh out of field goal range. But after a closer look, the Steelers (and Ben) actually played better than it first seemed.

On the first drive, Pittsburgh was very effective running the ball and got inside the Bengals 20 when Dan Kreider was called for a false start that snowballed into a couple of sacks and a punt (on the first sack, Faneca missed a block and on the second sack Roethlisberger held onto the ball too long). On the next drive, the officials flagged Roethlisberger for intentional grounding (in actuality, it looked like either Plax ran the wrong route or Ben make the wrong read, but to call it intentional grounding was just silly) that led to a field goal. On the third drive, Pittsburgh again did a very good job running the ball and Roethlisberger eluded the rush and found Randle El in the back of the endzone. Only this time Oliver Ross was called for holding. Not surprisingly, on the very next play Roethlisberger was sacked and the Steelers again had to punt. And adding insult to injury, at 12:06 left in the first half, Plax limped off the field and didn't return.

So in reality, it was three seemingly innocuous plays that led to the Steelers only scoring three points (when they easily could have scored 17) instead of what looked like an entire half of really bad football. I guess that's the mark of a good team -- being able to compete even when things are going poorly.

Now if this was 2003, this game would be as good as over. But this year is different, and late in the second half James Farrior made a great play on a crappy Carson Palmer pass and returned it for a touchdown to keep Pittsburgh in the game (and even on the Chad Johnson TD catch, Deshea Townsend had solid coverage, but was just a victim of being 6 inches too short). And even though Pittsburgh went into the locker room down by 4 points, they overcame some bad series and were able to keep the game close with their defense.

One quick aside: it's official, James Farrior is no longer the best linebacker nobody's ever heard of. He may actually be the best linebacker in the game period. And the great thing is he hasn't been accused of murder, he doesn't talk trash, and he's not a dirty player. He just runs around the field for 60 minutes knocking the crap out of people. So while guys like Ray Lewis get miked up (and over-hyped) ad naseum, I'm content watching James Farrior dominate games; Baltimore can have #52.

One more quick aside: for the first time all year, Antwaan Randle El broke a couple of big punt returns that put Pittsburgh in a position to score. And other than Ike Taylor's block in the back (which as of late seems to be a weekly occurence), special teams also did very well covering kickoffs and punts.

In the second half, Pittsburgh kept to the game plan and ran Bettis silly (for the third straight week -- and the first time since 2001 -- Bettis ran for 100 yards in three consecutive games). They controlled the clock (38:56 to 21:04) and Roethlisberger hit Kreider for a TD in the third quarter (by the way, anytime Kreider has more catches than Hines Ward, it's worth noting). The defense sealed the win late in the 4th when Palmer was flagged for intentional grounding in his own endzone that led to a safety.

Even though it wasn't a pretty game to watch, this victory may prove to be the most important of the season because the Steelers were able to go on the road, in the division and pull out a win -- even though they didn't dominate like they have in weeks past. If you want to know how teams are going to try and beat the Steelers, just take a look at the Bengals game plan. To thwart the blitz, they ran a lot of short routes, and running plays to the outside (which is about all the Redskins -- the Steelers next opponent -- can do on offense, so expect to see more of the same), and defensively they took a play out of the Steelers playbook and used a lot of stunts and zone blitzes.

Early on, the Bengals' defense often confused Roethlisberger, who looked unusally indecisive, and ended up sacking him six times. Despite the schemes, Ben avoided big turnovers (I'm discounting his Tommy Maddox "the ball fell out of my hand even though I wasn't touched" fumble because it wasn't a result of a bad decision to throw the ball, it was simply a function of him, well, dropping the ball untouched) and was able to find guys open -- even if they were all short and intermediate routes because of Plax being out of the game. And even though it wasn't pretty, Ben's numbers were still pretty good, and I think this may have been one of his best games of the season (maybe after the Dallas comeback game).

Speaking of Plax, there's also the small problem of he and Kendrell Bell limping off the field. If you want to know how valuable Plax is to this offense, just take a look at the Steelers' lack of a deep threat during the second half. Nothing against Randle El, but he's not a #1 or #2 receiver on this team. Plax creates a lot of matchup problems for defenses, and he also gives Roethlisberger a deep threat that Ward, Randle El or Lee Mays don't. We know what Larry Foote can do in Bell's absence, but the loss of Plax might prove to be the turning point of the season.

It's also a little worrisome when a guy with a hamstring problem seeks a second opinion (Staley), but the good news is that RB is the deepest position on the field. Hopefully, this will be the week where all the guys with nicks and bruises get better and are able to come back. Of course if the injuries keep up at their current pace, the Steelers will be out of players by week 14.

Whatever happens, the Steelers have won two really big division games on the road and are in position not only to get a bye the first week of the playoffs, but also win home field advantage. And if the Redskins play Sunday was indicative of what they'll do in Pittsburgh, Patrick Ramsey and company could be in for a very long Thanksgiving weekend.

Oh yeah, one more thing. Congratulations to the Bus; Jerome passed Tony Dorsett and moved into fifth place on the all-time rushing list. Next up, Eric Dickerson (insert sideline reporter joke here).