Monday, January 17, 2005


I don't know if Ben Roethlisberger's jammed thumb was the problem, or if it just took 15 weeks for him to finally play like a rookie, but whatever the case, he looked more like Kordell Stewart circa the 2001 AFC Championship game than the 2004 Rookie of the Year. Still, despite throwing two big interceptions, Pittsburgh was able to once again rely on their top-ranked defense and solid running game (and Doug Brien doing his best Kris Brown impression) as they beat the Jets 20-17 in overtime.

And for what seems like the 10th consecutive time, the Colts lost to the Patriots in the Divisional Playoffs and New England will be heading to Heinz Field Sunday for a rematch against the team that snapped their 400-game winning streak. I've already decided not to read any of the major websites because I can envision what kind of crap they'll try to come up with in the next seven days: "Bill Belichick's IQ double that of Einstein," "Cowher is the Missing Link," and the myriad references to the 2001 AFC Championship game. And the thing is, the only people who believe all this nonsense are the fans (and that would explain why, week after week, I continue to not only read, but respond to anything Mark Madden writes). Players and coaches are too busy (or at least they should be) actually preparing to play. That said, I'm sure at some point this week I'll have something to say about some blasphemous drivel I read on ESPN or Foxsports about how the Steelers don't stand a chance, so just give it time.

Anyway, I'm not here to bury the Steelers, I'm here to praise them. Specifically their gutsy effort against the New York Jets. And let me state up front that with hindsight being 20/20 and all, if I'm Bill Cowher I'd retroactively name Jeff Reed the team MVP. With tongue in cheek, I've mentioned at various points this season (see here, here, here, here, and here) that I thought Quadzilla was one of the best kickers in the NFL (see this comment for one man's objection -- and he's a UNC fan no less!). Well, he's made his last 19 kicks and none was bigger than the 33-yarder he hit in overtime Saturday night. Like most Steelers fans, I was frustrated with Reed in 2003 (I mean really, how many extra points can one kicker miss?), but this offseason he had butt surgery (OK, it was actually hip surgery, but butt surgery sounds much more dire) and now he's one of the most consistent kickers in the league.

Another guy who doesn't get a lot of publicity but played maybe his best game of the season Saturday is CB Willie Williams. The Jets made it clear early that they were going to go after Williams -- even with Pennington still looking like he'd have trouble throwing the ball 30 yards down the field -- early and often. The result? 10 tackles, no deep passes allowed and three deflections. Not bad for a 34-year old castoff whose nickname is "Khakis."

Speaking of best games of the season, Hines Ward may have had his. He had 10 catches for 105 yards and if it wasn't for him making play after play, the Steelers would have had a much tougher time winning this game. Interestingly, Plaxico Burress wasn't really a factor, even though he had two important 2nd half receptions. Either he was double-teamed, or Roethlisberger had trouble getting him the ball.

Jerome Bettis also played well -- save one really awful fumble. He rushed for 107 yards on 21 carries and single-handedly kept drives going when Roethlisberger looked a little gun shy -- and this was against one of the best rushing defenses in the league. And when Bettis had to come out in overtime because of a cramp, Duce Staley picked up where the Bus left off, and that will be exactly what they'll look to do next week.

Even though the Steelers were down 17-10 late in the game, if you're looking at the stat sheet a couple of things stick out. First, the Steelers controlled time of possession 33:31 to 26: 29. They rushed for 193 yards, were 8 for 15 on third down and didn't give up a defensive touchdown. So despite Roethlisberger's best efforts, Pittsburgh was still able to pull out a victory. Of course I should mention that the Jets place-kicker, Doug Brien had a lot to do with that -- given that he missed two kicks in the final two minutes of regulation.

[Quick aside: I think the commentators mentioned last night that Brien was the first guy in history to miss two kicks in the last two minutes of a playoff game. Really? Who cares? The fact that I had to listen to 8th-stringers Dick Engberg and Dan Dierdorf was bad enough, but inane facts like this make them even more insufferable. I think there should be a rule about stuff like this: if it seems remotely uninteresting, don't say it. Of course this would lead to a lot of silence during telecasts, but I'm not convinced that's a bad thing.]

I'm sure much of the talk this week will be about how Belichick will stymie this Pittsburgh offense. Here's the thing that I think makes Pittsburgh tough to defense -- they run the ball roughly 60% of the time. They run it early in the game, they run it when they're ahead, and they run it when they're trailing. And when they don't run it, they have guys named Ward, Burress and Randle El (and don't forget Lee "Big Play" Mays) running pass patterns.

So even if the Pats have some exotic schemes, the bottom line is that they still have to stop the run. And if they don't, the Steelers will do what they do best: control the clock, methodically move the ball down the field, score when they can, and rely on their defense to make plays. And as some Pats fans have been pointing out since the Halloween loss, "If Corey Dillon had played the game wouldn't have been close!" Yeah, and if the Steelers didn't stink last season they wouldn't have lost 10 games. What people fail to remember is that the Steelers have always played well against Dillon when he played in Cincinnati. And before anyone uses the, "those were some awful Bengals teams" line, just consider this, in 16 games the Steelers gave up 100 yards to Rudi Johnson. That's it. Not Jamal Lewis, not Tiki Barber, not Curtis Martin, not Fred Taylor, not Clinton Portis, not Willis McGahee. Rudi Johnson. That's it. Does that mean Dillon can't have a big game next week? Nope. But it's not like he would have been the difference-maker in the Halloween matchup either. Tom Brady threw two picks, and the Pats had two fumbles. Unless Dillon would have kept Brady from throwing passes to Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor, or if he would have recovered fumbles by either Brady or Faulk, I don't think it would have mattered much. Now if he could've covered Plax on the deep route or the fade pattern, then I think there's an argument to be made; otherwise I'm not buying it.

But here's the thing. That was two and a half months ago and not much was expected of either the Steelers or Roethlisberger heading into that game. Saturday Roethlisberger looked quite flappable and made some throws that left me scratching my head. But say this for the guy: he has a short memory and he doesn't quit. He also has the leagues best defense and (in my mind anyway) the top receiving corp in the NFL. That can't hurt either.

One more thing. I know Ben promised to give his game check to support the tsunami relief effort -- and that's certainly laudable -- but maybe he should also think about making some sort of donation to Jeff Reed too. Just a thought.