Monday, December 13, 2004

Who Needs Ben when you Have the Bus?

17-6, 12-1, and AFC North Champs. Another week, another hard-fought game. Hmmm. Let's see, Plax has missed almost four games and in that time the Steelers have struggled offensively and averaged just over 17 points a contest -- I wonder if there's any correlation? Well, right now it doesn't matter, because Jerome is doing his best "John Travolta cinematic comeback in Look Who's Talking" impression as he was single-handedly responsible for 14 points. And forget his 57 yards rushing, here's the line of the game:

J. Bettis 1/1 10 1 0

Jerome Bettis, 1 for 1, 10 yards, 1 TD and no picks. Here's play-by-play conversation I had in my head on that third and three call from the 10 yard line:
"OK, run the ball up the middle and we'll have four downs to get into the end zone. Why are the Steelers running a sweep with Bettis?!?!? He's going to lose 10 yards on the...why is Jerome throwing the ball?!?!?...Touchdown pass to Jerame Tuman!?!"
What a ballsy play-call by Whisenhunt (of course if Bettis had pulled a Lamont Jordan against the Ravens, I'd be calling for Whisenhunt's head on a stick). Honestly, I had Mularkey flashbacks as the play was unfolding -- the only difference is that the Steelers scored instead of losing 8 yards on a triple reverse flea-flicker.

Here's the second best line of the game:

L. Mays 1 46 0 46

Lee Mays, 1 catch for 46 yards. I don't know if you saw NFL Network's game of the week last Thursday, but it was the Steelers/Jags game. After dropping a big third down pass early in the game, Lee Mays came back to have a great final drive, catching two really big passes to set up the winning field goal. Anyway, in the locker room after the game, I thought Cowher was going to cry when he gave Lee Mays the game ball -- that last series against Jacksonville probably gave Lee a little extra confidence going into the Jets game and the 46 yard 3rd down reception eventually led to the Bettis TD throw. That may have actually been the play of the game (on a related note, here's a good article in the Uniontown Herald Standard about Lee Mays' resurgence).

Once again, the defense had a solid game, even if for the second straight week Pittsburgh loss the time of possession (it was close however, 30:48 - 29:12). I think Pennington put to rest (forever) the "Pittsburgh should have drafted Pennington instead of Plax in 2000" talk -- if for no other reason than he can't throw the ball more than 30 yards down the field, and he had three awful interceptions. The only time I questioned the defense was on the 3rd quarter Jets drive that led to a field goal. The Steelers had the Jets third and long deep in their own territory and instead of bringing the blitz, they only rushed four; which of course resulted in a Pennington timing pattern for a first down. But all things considered, Dick LeBeau and the defense gave a great effort -- in fact it was the third time this season they kept the opponent from scoring a TD (Miami and Philly being the other two). Plus, my knowledge of defensive game-planning doesn't go any further than me yelling at the television, so what do I know.

As long as I'm talking about the defense, how good are Troy Polamalu and James Farrior? And even though Chris Hoke only had two tackles, he spent a lot of time (a) avoiding Kevin Mawae's career-ending chop blocks, and (b) in the backfield disrupting running plays. The fact that Clark Haggans left after the first quarter with a groin injury should be a concern because not only did James Farrior look to be in pain at several points during the second half (his shoulder had been bothering him last week), but the Steelers are losing starters faster than Jerome Bettis can run over Reggie Tongue. Of course the sign of a Super Bowl team (read: the Patriots) is being able to overcome injuries, but if things continue at their current pace, Jeff Reed will be playing wideout. Still, it's worth noting that both James Harrison and Alonzo Jackson (finally, right?) did a serviceable job in Haggan's absence.

Speaking of injuries, is anyone convinced that Duce is 100%? Is it just me or does the Bus look like he should be the starter? (I should take this opportunity to point out that even though Duce still looked a little rusty, like Bill suggested last week, the Steelers finally decided to throw to him coming out of the backfield -- and one pass play actually resulted in a 21-yard gain) The Jets safeties should be fined by the league for getting summarily abused by Jerome on the ground and in the air -- either that or they should be made to play in the Colts defensive secondary where their crappy play won't stick out so much.

Well, the Steelers are 12-1 and fighting tooth and nail just to keep pace with the Patriots. And while I know the Pittsburgh media will probably lament the fact that the Steelers are struggling offensively (and they are), let me put this question out there. Would you rather have the Steelers struggling to move the ball offensively while still having the best defense in the league, or would you be happier if the Steelers were more like the Pats -- giving up a lot of points this week to the Bengals, but scoring just enough to win? I'll take the stout defense every time. Especially when you consider that Plax will be back soon. Which actually leads me to another question. First, how bad are the Giants? This is a team that refuses to cover people on defense and let Kyle Boller throw four TD passes Sunday; this is a team that had six (count them, six) turnovers against the Ravens; this is a team whose starting QB was 4/18 for 27 yards total, before bringing in the human fossil, Kurt Warner.

And here's where I'm going with this: other than the Jets game, the Pats are guaranteed two more wins. The Steelers have to play at the Giants, home to the Ravens and finish on the road to the Bills. Should Cowher rest some of the players who might be probable next week just to give them an extra week to heal, or does he approach the Giants game like he has the previous 13? Personally, I don't know how I feel. I'd be OK with Farrior taking a week to heal his shoulder, but at the same time I want Plax to be out there to take some of the pressure off the running game. It was clear that the Jets were bringing the safeties down because they wanted Roethlisberger to have to beat them through the air. Donnie Henderson and the Jets defense, let me introduce you to my main man, Lee Mays. Your bad.

Anyway, it was a good win for the Steelers -- now let's just get everybody (read: Plax) healthy.