Monday, October 24, 2005

The Ball Never Lies

First thing first. For the last two seasons I've been watching all Pittsburgh games not televised locally at my favorite Steelers watering hole on Capitol Hill. Well, it burned down a few weeks before the season started, and I was forced to find a new place to go and act like a complete idiot in clear view of complete strangers. And I found it. Outta the Way Cafe is about as Pittsburgh a bar as you're going to find that's not actually located in Heinz Field. We got there 90 minutes before kickoff and had to fight an old couple for a table (we won). The fact that the Steelers put a hurting on the Bengals made it obviously more enjoyable than say, being there a week ago during the Tommy Maddox Experience. I actually talked to a guy who bragged about having NFL Ticket, but still chose to watch every Steelers game at this place just because of the atmosphere. Plus, you really can't go wrong at a bar that serves Iron City by the bucket. Good times. OK, to the game ...

I like the Bengals. I like Marvin Lewis, Carson Palmer, Rudi Johnson and Chad Johnson. Their offense is explosive, and frankly, a lot of fun to watch. And in all honesty, I'd be happy to see this team go 13-3 (I'll let you guess who the other loss is against). That said, until this team shores up a pretty crappy run defense, I don't think they'll be taken seriously. As it stands, they're basically a less extreme version of the Minnesota Vikings prior to all the Sex Boat Hysteria stuff. Great offense, abysmal (in this case, run) defense. Look, the Steelers' offensive line has struggled the pass few weeks, and when this unit doesn't have a player whistled for a penalty (in a game with plenty of questionable calls), or singled out for missing a block, you can expect big things in the run game. Willie Parker ran the ball 18 times for 131 yards, which included a 37-yard TD scamper that basically sealed the game for the Steelers.

And when Willie wasn't slashing his way through the Bengals defense, the Bus was running over the Bengals defense. He finished with 56 yards on 13 carries, and every one of those yards included Jerome punishing some Cincy defender on his way down the field. This game plan works great when Pittsburgh's able to run block -- wear out the opponent with the chubby guy and follow that up with the fast guy. Of course, problems arise when Starks or Simmons struggle, or when defenses stack the box and you've got Maddox back there seeing how many interceptions for TDs he can throw in a game. And for some perspective on how well this Steelers offense operated in the second half, consider this: Verron got more work in the 4th quarter (a 4th quarter that also didn't include one pass) than he's had all season.

Here's a recurring (but certainly not original) thought I had as it became clear that the Steelers were going to win this game: Why the hell didn't Cowher run Jerome last week? Of all the block-headed decisions a coach could make, this ranks right up there. OK -- I got that out of my system. I won't mention it again.

And maybe the most unbelievable line of the day (well, after the Steelers total rushing yards statistics) was Big Ben's: 9 for 14, 93 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT ... all to two receivers. That's right, Hines Ward and Heath Miller are the only two guys to catch passes. That's pretty amazing. Heath Miller is a beast. He's got great hands, is extremely athletic, it takes more than one player to bring him down, and he's quickly becoming kind of a security blanket Plax was for Roethlisberger last season. Except that Miller will go across the middle, and doesn't randomly drop passes. OK, maybe he's the anti-Plax.

And as long as I'm talking about Big Ben, uh, did anyone else noticed some improvement in the QB position this week? OK, that was too easy. Seriously though, Ben didn't seem to be at all favoring his left knee, moved around the pocket well (and he even tried to run block down the field for Willie Parker), and was pretty accurate with all but one of his passes (that one was thrown a little behind Cedrick Wilson and it ended up getting picked). He only threw the ball 14 times (and handed off 33), which made his job a tad easier.

Also making things a little easier was the play of the Steelers defense. After a slow start on the first two drives, Pittsburgh tightened things up.

(And for the record, I'm not even convinced this unit got off to a slow start. Last season in their first meeting Rudi Johnson ran the ball for over 100 yards in a Bengals loss primarily because Pittsburgh was game planning against Chad Johnson. And it kinda looked like that was the plan on Sunday too -- let Rudi get his yards, but don't give up the big play to the Riverdancer. And just like last season, it worked.)

The Steelers might want to consider signing Ike Taylor ASAP because his price is only going to go up. He played another solid game -- and this time against arguably one of the best receivers in the league. On Chad Johnson's bogus TD catch in the first quarter, Ike had perfect coverage (and I guess what makes it perfect is the fact that the only way CJ makes the play is if he's out of bounds), and that pretty much was the highlight of the day for #85 (well, that and watching Hines Ward do a pretty crappy impression of Johnson doing his Riverdance routine). And Bryant McFadden might have actually had a bigger day than Ike. He didn't start, but he replaced Willie Williams in the second half and made a great read (and tackle) on a screen pass, and broke up two other passes. And this is only his second week of game action after not dressing for the first four games.

I guess it's also worth noting that Chris Hope had a humongous interception, followed up by Aaron Smith's pick. By the way, is it just me or does Kimo seem to get better each game? What is that guy, like 47? He bull-rushed Palmer on the Smith INT, and deflected the pass. He also had a couple of huge stops in the backfield. The funniest thing about Hope's interception was the fact that Polamalu made a beeline for Palmer. Kinda like last season's game in Heinz Field when Troy picked off a Palmer pass only to run his ass over in the endzone. Yesterday, Troy sprinted past Hope and made sure to level Palmer, well, just because he could. I was actually surprised the officials didn't throw a flag since they seemingly called penalties on every other play.

Honestly, if someone, with a straight face, can convince me that any of the following were actually violations of the rules, I'd be happy to listen to your explanation:

1) On 3rd and 2, a Cedrick Wilson reverse gained 13 yards called back for Hines Ward holding. Now, either I don't know what holding is, or they've changed the rules and I didn't get the memo, but this was a goofy call -- but certainly not the goofiest call of the day;

2) One play later -- on 3rd and 12 -- Hines catches a bullet from Ben for a first down. Hines pops up, spikes the ball, starts flexing, and motions for a first down. And gets flagged. For taunting. Taunting? Geez, what an awful call. Am I the only guy watching players week after week catch passes, spike the ball and motion for first downs? Can officials be fined for being particularly sucky? If so, I nominated the numbnut who threw the flag on this one;

3) After a three-yard gain, Chris Hope pushed Rudi Johnson out of bounds. Yellow hanky, late hit. The great thing about over-legislating everything in the NFL is that now nobody actually knows what's a penalty and what isn't. That's when you get things like late hit penalties when there really isn't one;

4) Ike Taylor hip tosses Chad Johnson in the open field. Flag for unnecessary roughness. I could very well be wrong about this one, but I've never heard of hip tossing a player as being illegal. First of all, it wasn't a Ric Flair pile driver (or was that the figure four?) -- Ike threw CJ on his shoulder, which last time I checked, is a perfectly legitimate way to tackle a player.

5) The officials blew dead an obvious Rudi Johnson fumble recovered by the Steelers. Of course, the ball never lies, and Aaron Smith Chris Hope got his pick a few plays later, so I guess everything worked out.

Frankly, I don't like to bellyache about the officiating because I figure it usually evens out. But these calls were pretty ridiculous. Even if you give the Bengals the CJ TD in the first quarter, sans the dopey calls I mentioned above, the Steelers still win something like 42-17. Which reminds me, the funniest thing to come out of the late-game Cincy TD was this quote from my buddy Andy: "That touchdown is like putting whip cream on a turd."

Well said. Now, bring on the Ravens.