Monday, September 26, 2005

A Little Setback

God, what a weird game. I guess that's what happens when two of the best teams in the AFC go head-to-head. The Patriots dominated the time of possession, Tom Brady completed 31 of 41 passes, and Adam Vinatieri played like, well, Adam Vinatieri, but despite the Steelers' loss, this wasn't a poor showing on their part. Yes, Antwaan Randle El played maybe his worst game ever, and yes, the defense gave up a lot of underneath completions, but there are a lot of good things that came out of this game. And remember, Roethlisberger made the point several times during the off-season that this team could actually be better than they were in 2004, but not go 15-1.

Thanks to possibly the longest regular season game in the history of organized football (Eagles - Raiders), CBS didn't show the Pats - Steelers game until there was seven and a half minutes to go in the first quarter. The Pats had already marched down the field and scored on a Corey Dillon four-yard run, and the Steelers answered one play later with a Hines Ward 85-yard TD reception. After that, things seemed to get bogged down, with drives either stifled by good defense or weird turnovers.

The Steelers went into half time with a 10-7 lead, although it could have very easily been 13-7 if not for Barrett Brooks earning a false start penalty on a 47-yard Jeff Reed field goal attempt. Of course Reed nailed it, only to have it called back because of the penalty. And not surprisingly, he subsequently missed the 52-yard attempt resulting from the penalty.

Another big play in the first half was Randle El inexplicably deciding to lateral the ball to Hines Ward after catching a Roethlisberger pass deep in Patriots territory. Given that Ward is usually looking to knock someone's block off when he's downfield and without the ball, it seems kinda curious that Randle El would think about tossing him the ball. Whatever. He did it and it was a turnover -- the first Steelers turnover of the season -- that most assuredly took points off the board. And when you lose 23-20, those points are probably pretty important.

The run defense was as stout as usual, and despite the game stats, the pass defense also played pretty well. Brady didn't get a chance to complete any long passes down the field and instead had to rely on a lot of underneath stuff to move the chains. Ike Taylor continues to play well, and Ricardo Colclough, sans one missed tackle near the end zone, also did a good job in coverage. Now, there certainly nothing wrong with throwing short, but it looked like the Steelers made a conscious effort not to get beat deep, and they didn't. Brady and the Pats, nickel and dimed the defense to death -- moving the ball 6- and 7-yards at a time -- which ultimately proved to be effective, despite three first half turnovers. But if Pittsburgh set out to stop the run and the deep ball, they accomplished their goal. Being able to stop a team's two-minute offense is also pretty important, and ultimately that cost the Steelers the game.

Still, there are several positives to come out of this game -- especially when you consider that a year ago, the Steelers had just gotten out-classed by a Ravens team that now would be lucky to make the Arena League playoffs. Despite not controlling the time of possession, the Steelers did a good job defensively of making the Patriots earn everything. Yes they gave up two touchdowns to Corey Dillon, but they also held him to 61 yards on 22 carries. And not only that, but Brady didn't throw a touchdown. If I had to guess (since I have about as many connections as Mike Damone), the Steelers' gameplan was to make the Pats beat them on the ground and with short passes -- and not let Deion Branch and Brady beat them deep (like they did in the AFC Championship game).

I also thought that Roethlisberger played about as well as he possibly could given the fact that he was under a lot of pressure and got a lot of different looks from the Patriots defense. He only completed 12 of 28 passes, but he didn't throw an interception (despite Randle El's best efforts) and had some big completions down the stretch (thanks Chad Scott -- that might've been your biggest Steelers contribution since last century). Yes, he made some bad decisions, but he also did a good job managing the game given the fact that Pittsburgh couldn't really get the running game going and that New England was having no trouble pressuring the ball. Compared to the 2004 post season, he showed a lot of maturity and poise. Unfortunately, Adam Vinatieri still plays for New England and he might be the best player on that team. He converted a 43-yarder with almost no time left to give the Pats the victory.

Look, it sucks that the Steelers lost, but it's also encouraging to know that this team won't give up despite a little adversity. Of course the Patriots also lost two starters, committed something like 40 penalties, and had three turnovers, so that also helped keep Pittsburgh in the game. But don't forget, Randle El literally gave them the ball back on that silly turnover, and Roethlisberger -- despite a pretty solid game -- had a couple of bad passes that could've changed the tenor of the game before the half.

And while I'm certainly not happy with the Steelers losing -- especially when I had some peeps over to the house who happened to be Pats fans -- I'm also excited to see this team not fold when things seemed bleak. It will be interesting to see how the Chargers gameplan the Steelers in two weeks given that the Pats did a great job of stopping Willie Parker. In all honesty, the Pats are still the best team in the NFL and they showed why Sunday. But the Steelers have made a lot of progress since the AFCC, and I expect things to only get better as the season progresses. Think about it this way: You know what you're getting with Tom Brady; Ben Roethlisberger continues to get better, and that's something Pittsburgh opponents are going to have to contend with as the 2005 season unfolds. Unlike the 2004 regular season loss to the Ravens, I'm not that upset with this setback.

If there's such a thing as a good loss, maybe this is an example. Yes, losing sucks, but so does the prospect that your team has absolutely no chance of making the playoffs. And don't forget, last Halloween, the Pats came into Heinz Field, got smoked, and went on to win 14 regular season games, the AFC Championship, as well as a little something called the Super Bowl. Everybody take a deep breath and relax because there's a long way to go. And don't forget about the Steelers' secret weapon: Chad Scott.