Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Big Business

Jeepers, this game reminded me a lot of last year's Jacksonville game. The Steelers were on the road, both teams were really physical, and somehow Ben Roethlisberger and Jeff Reed find a way to win it. And much like the Jacksonville game, the officiating on Monday night was about as bad as A-Rod during the ALDS. I don't know if it was just the case that there were a crapload of bad calls this weekend, or if this is a new trend. Either way, something's going to have to be done because at the rate we're going, football games are turning into week-long cricket matches. Apparently between Weeks 4 and 5, the officials decided that every rule would be a point of emphasis (including obscene hand gestures) and subsequently called them all.

Still, I don't think the unusually high number of flags had any bearing on the outcome (other than the obvious fact that the game took something like eight hours to play), it was just more than mildly annoying having to see Jeff Triplette's mug on the television on every other play. Before I get to the game though, how ridiculous was that "you have to let the player fair catch the ball, no matter if he can't actually catch" penalty on Chidi Iwuoma? By buddy Andy called me after the play and brought up a good point: what happens if the player calls for a fair catch, but the ball hits him in the helmet and bounces 30 feet straight up -- does the punt team have to wait patiently while he tries to actually catch the ball on the second go-round? What makes this even more insane was that there was no way in hell Sproles was going to actually catch the ball on his second try either -- whether Chidi ran over him or not. He was falling back and the ball was going in the other direction. But hey, when did common sense ever get in the way of crappy officiating? And if you know the answer to that question, please also explain to me who exactly touched Hines Ward down on that touchdown catch in the second quarter that was called back.

The good news is that none of this silliness decided the game. And knowing that, I'll quit belly-aching and get on to some random stuff I noticed from Monday night.

... I'm giving Stuart Scott an honorary CPW. Usually, I only reserve CPW's for the written word (and I'm not counting that dopey email Q&A Booyah does in ESPN the Magazine as writing), but his asinine reasoning on NFL Countdown prior to the game was just too priceless not to mention here. As happens on every show, Jaws, the Playmaker, Tom Jackson and Booyah Scott predict who they think will win the game right before sending it out to Al Michaels and John Madden. And for the record, I really don't care who these guys pick; I realized a while back that for the most part, they're just making stuff up and for me to get upset about it is like walking out of "Dukes of Hazzard" and being bummed that Jessica Simpson really is a bad actress.

Anyway, Jaws, Irvin and Jackson all picked the Chargers for reasons that weren't totally idiotic. Then Stuart Scott offered this nugget:
"I'm going with Chargers because the Patriots beat the Steelers, and the Chargers beat the Patriots. It's simple math."
Great point dumbass. Using that logic, the NFL should only play four weeks, and then use the transitive property to project the rest of the season, the playoffs, and the Super Bowl. Simply fantastic. The upside, however, was that I was pretty sure the game was a lock at this point.

... Going into this game, I expected the Steelers to run the ball something like 60 times and wouldn't have been surprised if both Willie Parker and the Bus both rushed for 100 yards. For some reason I was under the impression that the Chargers couldn't stop the run. Yeah, I was wrong about that. There's no disputing the fact that there secondary is pretty awful, but their front seven is nasty. They created some problems early, and were pretty effective using the run-blitz to slow up Willie. And then, fresh off a month of hibernating, the Bus came out and started wreaking havoc. After catching a screen pass and rumbling for 16 yards, I was thinking that maybe Pittsburgh should do some form of the following: activate all four backs on game day, run Duce and Jerome early, and Willie and Verron late.

Look, it's one thing to have to take down 205 lbs. Willie Parker. It's a whole other story trying to tackle Casey Hampton dressed up as #36 for Halloween as he drags you up and down the field. After a couple quarters of that nonsense, most people just give up. And that exactly what happened on the last drive of the game. The Chargers looked tired, and the fact that Pittsburgh kept running Jerome up the middle probably didn't make them feel any better. Honestly, when Big Ben went out and everybody in the stadium knew the Steelers were going to run the ball, the Chargers still couldn't stop them. But don't get me wrong, I love Willie Parker. He only had 27 yards on 10 carries, but he had two great runs, and a sweet reception on a Roethlisberger pass that conjured images of the 2004 playoffs (except this time there was no INT the other way for six).

... Speaking of interception, how about "Crazy" James Harrison making an acrobatic catch and then leap-frogging LT on his way up the sidelines. Not bad for a 5'10" guy who was cut from the Ravens practice squad a few years ago. Maybe more important than the pick was the way Harrison played the run. He had several good stops near the line of scrimmage, and also did about as good a job as you can do containing LT on screen passes. Yeah, Tomlinson broke a 48-yarder, but that guy is the best running back in football. And when you also have the best tight end in football, big plays are bound to happen. But what the Steelers were able to do was keep San Diego out of the end zone. Coming into the game, the Chargers were converted 80% of their chances in the red zone into touchdowns. Monday night, Pittsburgh forced three field goals while giving up two touchdowns. After seeing this team play, I'll take it.

... Yeah, that Antonio Gates guy is pretty good. This was the first time I really got to see him play an entire game, and that dude is scary. The only thing scarier was watching Troy Polamalu run around like a maniac the entire game. Honestly, I've never seen Troy so animated during a game. Usually, his M.O. is to knock the crap out of somebody, and then walk back to the huddle like he's strolling through the park. Well, whoever had a little chat with him before this game did a good job because Troy was going bonkers from the first whistle. It actually looked like was interested in doing one thing: laying a hit on Gates. Run play? Hit Gates. Pass play? Hit Gates. James Harrison interception? Hit Gates, hit somebody else, and then hit Gates again.

And the thing is, Gates is five inches taller, and probably 60 lbs. heavier than Troy. Apparently nobody told Polamalu about this, because he looked like a wrecking ball with an afro out there.

... I could spend another 10,000 words talking about how unbelievable Hines Ward is, but at this point what good would it do? Who doesn't know this guy is probably one of the top five WRs in the NFL? The thing is, you look at Hines, and he looks like he should be lining up with Sean Morey on special teams. And then you see him go out there and knock the crap out of a linebacker, catch a ball over the middle and get plastered, and then outrun a safety to the end zone, and you just have to shake your head and wonder how he does it.

And as long as I'm talking about blocking wide receivers, I have to give some props to Cedrick Wilson. Wilson might be the smallest guy on the team, but on Big Ben's first TD run, Ced had a big block in the end zone that sprung Roethlisberger. He also had an unbelievable catch early in the first half, but I think that block was his best play of the night. Wide receivers are paid to catch the ball, but blocking is want-to, and that's why you have a guy Hines Ward on this team.

... I guess I could also spend 10,000 more words on Roethlisberger. The only time I was nervous during this game was when Jeff Reed was lining up for his 40-yarder. After the Chargers scored with four-plus minutes to go in the game, I had the same feeling I can only imagine Pats fans get when Tom Brady comes onto the field with little time left and New England down by a score. Big Ben is a lot better than he was last season. And we all know what he did in 2004. He still makes some questionable decisions, but hey, who doesn't? The difference is that his poor decisions in 2005 have all been manageable, and that's important. But as impressive as the last drive was, the score before was ridiculous. Three passes -- two to Hines and a TD pass to Heath Miller -- and the Steelers took all of 76 seconds to put up six points.

Which reminds me, that Heath Miller character is pretty good. He had four catches, including a nifty screen pass on third down (it came up just short of the first down) and a big catch during the last series. What's funny is that to hear some dopey Pittsburgh writers tell it, the Steelers have been wasting Miller's talent until Monday night's game. Lucky for you, this inane commentary is only for saps dumb enough to fork over $29.99. Unlucky for me, I'm the sap. Whatever, the Tribune-Review's Rocco DeMaro (CPW alert!) had some thoughts on the whole Heath Miller thing:
"It was about time.

Miller Time that is.

Lost amongst the mania surrounding Big Ben's injury and the last-second 24-22 victory over the Chargers was the informal introduction of Heath Miller into the Steelers offense.

Miller was targeted at least six times Monday. And believe it or not, six is major progress.

Miller had been targeted twice against New England, zero times against Houston and just once against Tennessee.

To see the Steelers suddenly look to Miller twice as much in one game as they had all season represents a great step forward for the Steelers and reason for offensive optimism."
Here's the thing: do you think that maybe the Steelers were saving Heath Miller just for this game? Seriously, teams have no idea how good Miller is, but Pittsburgh does. And if they're out there throwing him the ball 20 times against the Titans and Texans, what good does that do in a game that's already a blowout? (Why not save him for an important situation -- like, say, Monday night? It's not like the Steelers weren't moving the ball on offense because they weren't getting Miller the ball 15 times a game.) Well, let's see, it helps future opponents game plan against you, but other than that you're just padding your stats and quieting dopey sportswriters.

Sadly, that was the bright spot of Demaro's craptastic column. He finishes strong with this sucker punch:
"Duce Staley is a bust.

The Steelers didn't miss him at all Monday night. And they won't miss him for the rest of this season unless somebody gets injured.

Put simply, he's expendable.

Duce is overpriced. He's always injured. He's overweight. He's out of shape.

When the Steelers signed Staley it was with the idea that he'd take over for Jerome Bettis. After the 2003 season Bettis, it seemed, was old, slow, past his prime and was on his way out.

Two years later Bettis is the one bouncing back from injury, practicing well, moving well and looking young again. While Duce is again on the sidelines gaining weight and getting slow.

It's not often Steelers management swings and misses in free agency. But I can't imagine Duce will be back next season at age 31 under his current contract."
Look, I'm not going to sit here and argue that Staley has been the epitome of health since coming to Pittsburgh, but when did he become "overweight." Where did that come from? I mean, that's just mean. It's kind of like me saying that Rocco DeMaro really, really sucks and he works at the same paper as Joe Bendel and Rob Rossi.

Seriously, when did it become impossible to write just a below-average column? Is that asking too much?

... Finally, if Roethlisberger plays this weekend, something smells in suburbia. Things looked pretty grim when the injury happened, and he got a golf cart escort to the team plane, so I can't imagine he'd be ready to play five days later. But given how well this season's gone, I wouldn't be surprised to see him out there in a motorized wheelchair throwing bombs to Randle El.

At the other end of the spectrum is Tommy Maddox, the guy who pulled a Jerome (calf muscle) in practice last week. In fact, the injury was first reported to keep Tommy out 3 to 4 games, and he didn't even make the trip to San Diego. Miraculously, between the time Roethlisberger went down Monday night and the team plane landed in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Maddox was healed. I guess the prospect of actually getting to play was enough to make Tommy cut short his middle-of-the-season vacation. I'm kidding of course, but it's still a funny visual thinking about Maddox sitting in his above-ground hot tub Monday night, sipping on a Pina Colada, enjoying his time off.