Monday, September 12, 2005

Sophomore Slump

Boomer Esiason makes Joe Theismann look like Norman Einstein. I say that because Esiason might be the dumbest "analyst" in all of professional sports. This guy is Exhibit A for the argument that former athletes don't necessarily make good average commentators. During the CBS pre-game show, Esiason picked the Ravens to beat the Colts and his reasoning was of the "just because" variety -- the kind of insight you'd expect from a former Super Bowl participant -- and then he picked the Titans for his "upset of the day."

And I'm all for picking upsets -- I mean, the Dolphins, the Saints and the 49ers all won yesterday -- but at least offer some reasons why you think the underdog might win the game. Despite being disrespected Rodney Harrison style, the Steeler still managed to hold it together and squeak out a 34-7 victory. Willie Parker had a career day rushing for 161 yards on 22 carries, catching a screen pass for 48 yards, and scoring a TD. But perhaps the craziest line of the day was Ben Roethlisberger:
9-11 218 2 0
In just over three quarters of work, Roethlisberger threw the ball nine times (Movie break:
Ed Rooney: Are you aware that Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record?

Mrs. Bueller: Uh, no.

Ed Rooney: He's been absent nine times.

Mrs. Bueller: Nine times?

Ed Rooney: Nine times. [Checks computer screen, Ferris's absence totals have counted down to two.]

Ferris at his home PC: I asked for a car, I got a computer. How's that for being born under a bad sign?

Grace: Oh, Ed. You just sounded like Dirty Harry just then.

Ed Rooney: Really? Thanks, Grace.
OK, obvious Ferris Bueller reference there, but I couldn't resist.) Anyway, the fact that Roethlisberger threw 46% of his passes on the first drive is mind-boggling. And the fact that all of his passes -- even the two he missed -- were right on target should give some of his critics pause, at least for a week or so. I must admit, I was a little troubled by the poor play of the Steelers first team offense during the preseason -- especially Roethlisberger -- but he came out against the Titans just like it was Week 4 through 14 of his rookie season. Not one overthrow. Not one ill-conceived throw after being hurried in the pocket. Not one blatant interception that had no chance of being caught by a Steelers player.

I used to spend a lot of time lamenting the fact that the media spent a lot of time making outrageous claims, but didn't put a whole lot into actually substantiating whether what they said was based in fact. Now I just come to expect as much, but I treat the "analysis" much the same way that I treat telemarketers. I'll hear them out (out of common decency, no matter how ridiculous their spiel), but there's no way in hell I'm buying what they're selling. Back to the game:

I'm always a proponent of the Steelers kicking off to start the game primarily because I have a lot of confidence in the defense, and because it means Pittsburgh will get the ball to start the second half. The Steelers did kick to the Titans to start the game, but Tennessee then proceeded to march 61 yards down the field in 6:37 and score a touchdown.

It wasn't that the Titans steamrolled the Steelers on the drive, but Norm Chow used Steve McNair exactly how you should use him: three and five step drops, quick passes, offset with a good running game. Not only is McNair one of the best QBs in the league, but he doesn't make mistakes, and has a knack for putting teammates in position to make plays. Of course, he has no control over Travis Henry and his fumbling addiction, but other than that, I thought the Titans did a pretty good job offensively, especially when you consider the average age of the unit is something like 25.

Still, after the first drive, the Steelers returned the favor as Roethlisberger was 5 for 5 on pass attempts culminating in a three-yard pass to rookie TE Heath Miller. Here's how the Titans nine remaing drives ended: Fumble (thanks Travis Henry), Missed FG (thanks Rob Bironas), Interception (thanks Drew Bennett), End of Half, Punt, Punt, Fumble, Interception, End of Game.

And while I was a little apprehensive after the first drive, the defense came together very nicely for the rest of the game. It's also important to remember that even if Pittsburgh knew that Tennessee would primarily look to throw it underneath and use Chris Brown to mix it up, they really had no game tape of what Norm Chow would do. After a long first drive, the Steelers made the necessary adjustments, and the rest of the game was pretty uneventful (save all the turnovers).

And before I start pimping Willie Parker, I should mention that Jeff Reed had a big game. He also struggled this preseason, missing two kicks -- one from inside 30 yards -- and Sunday he came out and nailed both his kicks, splitting the uprights. Maybe the fact that his college long snapper, rookie Greg Warren, was getting him the ball, made him feel more comfortable. I know that Warren actually played most of the preseason, but I mention him here because the fact that he played well is just as important as the progress of both Reed and Roethlisberger.

And oh yeah, some guy named Willie Parker had a big day too. It took the Steelers a series to get the running game going, but once it did, it was on like Donkey Kong. I mentioned last week that my buddy Desmond was single-handedly responsible for the Duce injuries when he picked him up for his fantasy team. Things got worse when he sent me this email:
I am in serious running back trouble in my fantasy league. My second running back is Duce Staley. I know-I panicked. How many carries will Willie Parker get initially?
After rushing for 161 yards I could only conclude that Desmond decided not to start Parker. Given his fantasy track record (which includes drafting Mark Bellhorn), if Parker had three fumbles, multiple Amos Zereoue-type negative yard plays, and got injured before the half, it would've been clear that Fast Willie made it into Desmond's starting lineup. After the game was over (and there was no chance the refs were going to take 30 points off the board and make the two teams come back on the field for an NCAA over time period) I gave Des a call to bust his chops at not starting Parker. Well, he (Des) must be living right -- for once -- because he actually started him (Parker). So kudos on finally getting one right ... about time.

Hines, Antwaan and Cedrick each caught two passes, which doesn't sound like a lot, but when you consider that those three account for 67% of Roethlisberger's total receptions, it doesn't sound that bad.

Honestly, I really thought the Titans would play better. Whenever you have Jeff Fisher (mullet/mustache combo aside) teamed up with Steve McNair, you expect a close game. Of course I gave no consideration to the fact that Tennessee's defense didn't cover tackling during training camp and that probably had a lot to do with the outcome. Either way, the Steelers are 1-0 and heading down to Houston. The last time they played the Texans the Steelers gave up something like 40 yards to their offense and proceeded to lose the game as Tommy Maddox played like, well, Tommy Maddox. The consequence of that loss meant that Pittsburgh didn't get home field advantage during the 2002 playoffs, and they had to go on the road to -- you guessed it -- Tennessee, where they eventually would lose on a field goal during overtime (thanks DeWayne Washington). But hey, no reason to live in the past.

This week's Captain Pantload Watch should be particularly interesting seeing that all the bobbleheads can't say that Roethlisberger's slumping -- at least after Week 1. Looking forward to it.