Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ass, Meet Hand

As in, "Pittsburgh got their asses handed to them Monday Night." If I had watched this game on a 9-inch black and white, and the picture was a little fuzzy, I would've just assumed that the team in the dark unis were the Steelers since they were routinely knocking the crap out of their opponent. And here, "routinely" is grossly understating a fact obvious to everyone who even half-paid attention to this game: the Colts dominated the Steelers from the get go. And as several commenters mentioned, the defense did a pretty amazing job of keeping this team in the game for as long as they did, but at some point -- as Dick LeBeau likes to say -- "the bear gets you." And this time, Peyton Manning was wearing the bear get up.

Outside of last year's AFC Championship game, this is the first time since Week 2 of the 2004 season (a time I fondly remember as, "the end of the Tommy Maddox Experiment") that Pittsburgh has been overmatched. But hey, all is not lost. I have a few random thoughts on this game (many of the same ones expressed in the comments), as well as some thoughts about how things aren't necessarily as bad as they seem (or at least as they seemed after the MNF drubbing).

... As I've stated many times before, I prefer the Steelers to kick off to start the game, but for what seems like the 9th or 10th time this season, they were getting the ball first. And apparently opposing teams have also picked up on the fact that Ricardo Colclough's not very good at returning kicks because most have been going to his side of the field. The results are predictable: Pittsburgh gets the ball at the 25-yard line with Colclough primarily concerned with not fumbling the ball instead of trying to make a play (and I guess that's understandable after he fumbled during the first Raven's matchup, but if that's actually the case, maybe he shouldn't be out there. Just a thought.) Here's an idea, why not resort to a little high school trickeration -- have Morgan and Colclough stand right next to each other prior to the kick and then wherever the ball goes, so goes Morgan. I mean, that's kick-returning 101, isn't it?

... On Pittsburgh's first drive they were promptly stuffed behind the line of scrimmage, Roethlisberger overthrew Hines, and Heath caught a pass well short of the first down. And this series was Hall of Fame-caliber compared to what happened next. And if you blinked, sneezed, turned around at the bar to tell the jerk behind you that Ike Taylor was going to own Marvin Harrison all night -- well, then, you missed it. In the time it took me to drop a slow-motion “MoFo”, Petyon Manning had play-actioned Ike Taylor right off the field. Ten seconds later it was 7-0. If you're Taylor and you're in man-to-man coverage on one of the top-5 receivers on the planet, isn't the last thing you want to do is look in to see how Manning's going to burn you? (Ironically, Eric had the right idea, but I guess the Steelers didn't get the memo -- either that or they misread it.)

It all happened so fast I didn't even have time to get upset. If anything I was in shock. Kinda like in “Temple of Doom” when Amrish Puri pulls out that guys' heart while it's still beating. He’s not quite sure what just happened, but once it dawns on him that that's his heart Puri’s holding ... and it's still beating ... it's probably going to end badly.

To Ike's credit (as well as the rest of the defense), they didn't fold up shop right there. Instead, they played about as well as you can against the Colts offense for another two-plus quarters. (As an aside, I guess the first Indy series was a condensed version of the trouble Pittsburgh's defense has had all season during first drives. At least the Steelers had the common decency to make it quick, instead of dragging it out over seven or eight minutes.)

... On the Steelers next offensive drive, things got worse. -8 yards on three plays, and a crappy Chris Gardocki punt later, the Colts are at their own 44-yard line. Manning immediately decided to go to work on Bryant McFadden. On three of the next five plays, Reggie Wayne caught three passes -- and two of those plays had McFadden in coverage -- that got Indy down to Pittsburgh's 17-yard line. A couple of thoughts: One, I'm glad McFadden is getting some game experience, and even though he got turned around early, I thought he did OK. Not great, but not DeWayne Washington meets Chad Scott awful either. Two, did anybody else wonder why the hell Colclough wasn't playing nickel back? Is he now behind McFadden on the depth chart? Isn't that a story that maybe, I don't know, some local newspaper might want to report? Honestly, given the way Colclough hasn't really been showing up the past few weeks, I can't say I'm surprised. Still, I want the guy to do well (Primarily for selfish reasons, but hey, a rising tide lifts all boats. Or something like that.)

After the Reggie Wayne show, the Colts' offense stalled after Taylor resorted to baiting Harrison into a personal foul, and on third and goal from the 18, Peyton tried to out-Cowher Cowher by calling a run play. Predictable result and Indy had to settle for a field goal. If there was ever a case for a moral victory, this was it. Now, if only the offense could get something going ...

... Another Steelers offensive series, and another three-and-out. It was during this series that Cedrick Wilson caught a three-yard out and was summarily pile-driven into the turf by Bob Sanders (which, incidentally, was the same tackle Ike debuted on Chad Johnson a few weeks earlier ... the only difference was that Taylor got a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness). This is the same Bob Sanders who I remembering yelling at after the play in question -- something to the effect of: "Yeah, whatever. We'll have something for you later Webster."

Well, Webster, Ma'am and Mr. Papadapolis weren't listening, because Sanders was a beast all night. The guy's so short you can't see him over all the fat lineman, but you better know where he is because, as far as I can tell, his goal is to make grown men cry. If Hines Ward played safety, he'd be Bob Sanders -- but without all the smiling.

Late in the 2nd half, Parker broke off his only big run of the game and as he neared the sideline Sanders laid him out. He's like a little Webster missile, throwing himself all over the field, hitting anything that gets in his way (his own teammates included).

... The Steelers had basically slept walked through three offensive series and the Colts again had the ball (if it’s possible to sleep walk while getting the crap kicked out of you). If Troy Polamalu hadn't come up with his interception, things could've been a lot worse. Obviously, to that point, it was the biggest play of the game. Pittsburgh took over at the Colts 7-yard line, and two Kendall Simmons false starts later, Roethlisberger was facing a third and 12. Here's the conversation I had with #73 during the first false start: "For the love of god, Kendall, don't mo ... Wha, What! You did it again! Stand still to big tub of goo! You’re a guard for chrissakes … why are you moving at all!" (By the way, "tub of goo" is one of my favorite expressions.) Despite Simmons' best efforts, Ben made a nice pass to Hines in the end zone. And just like that, the Steelers were right back in it.

... Indy went three-and-out, and the Steelers put together their best drive of the game (10 plays, 28 yards … ouch). Which promptly ended with Jeff Reed missing a 41-yard field goal. And like Faux Tea noted in the comments, I too was yelling at Al Michaels for "Eddy Mush-ing" Jeff Reed. As soon as Michaels made that dopey comment about "Reed must be in heaven because he's kicking indoors and not in Heinz Field," I turned to my wife and said, well, there's no way in hell he's making it now. And he didn't. Reed would have been well within his rights to walk up to the booth, kick the door down with his quadzillas and punch Michaels squarely in the nuts. Well within his rights.

Some people might suggest that this was when the game changed. I'm not so sure. Yeah, it would've been a tie game with 10 minutes to go in the half, but the Steelers limited the Colts to only two more field goals and went into the half down 16-7. If you had only seen the halftime stats and then somebody showed you the score, you'd probably be pretty psyched that the Steelers were only down 9.

And by the way, what the hell was that 15-yard penalty on Hartings all about? What are they, just making up rules at this point? Between that call and the asinine 15-yarder on Chidi during the Chargers game (you know, the one where Iwuoma was penalized for Sproles being a really crappy punt returner), you have to just shake your head. And no, penalties are the reason the Steelers lost. I'm just pointing it out, well, because it was really weird.

... So, going into halftime, the Steelers had withstood the initial Colts' offensive barrage, and most people would agree that they were very much still in this game.

That all changed with the seven-yard kickoff courtesy of Jeff Reed and special teams mastermind, Bill Cowher. I've gone back and forth on whether this was a good idea or not more times than Casey Hampton makes a return trip to the breakfast buffet, but I'll say this: at the time I really wasn't that surprised. Maybe it was because Blogger gave us the idea yesterday; maybe I was still in shock from the 80-yard TD, or perhaps it was finding out that the Rolling Stones would be showing some nip at this season’s Super Bowl halftime show. Who knows. And look, if the Steelers had pulled it off, nobody would be complaining about it. But they didn't. And given that the defense had been playing pretty well, and the lead was only nine points, and the last guy in the world you want working from a short field is Peyton Manning, the call seems kind of curious (hindsight being 20/20 and all).

And after the Colts scored, it was pretty much, "Good night Irene." Yes, there was still almost two quarters of football to go, but you got the sense that the Steelers weren't really going to make a charge. Maybe some of that had to do with the abrupt 180 degree change in momentum, and also with the fact that the offensive line was, well, ridiculously awful.

Something else that bothered me as the game headed towards its obvious conclusion: With 12 minutes to go in the fourth quarter and the Steelers facing a 4th and 4 at the Colts 26, Pittsburgh calls a ... QB draw play? Uh, are you kidding me? Let's see, Roethlisberger just scrambled for 12 yards on a knee fresh off surgery. So it follows that the next play should be a four yard scramble up the middle for a must-have first down, right?. Of all the plays to call on 4th and 4, this is at the very bottom of the call sheet, right after "pretend fake punt where Gardocki throws pass to Morey short of the first down." Jeez.

And as long as I'm complaining, did anyone else wonder why the Steelers didn't ever go to the hurry-up? With seven minutes to go in the game, they were still taking 30 seconds to run a play. That bothered me. It's one thing to get taken out behind the woodshed, but I never felt like the defense quit -- they battled the whole game. The offense didn't quit either; they just never got going (this sentence, along with "Kyle Boller hasn't quite reached his potential," are both 2005 nominees for Understatement of the Year). I felt like the coaches did quit though. With more than six minutes to go -- even down by 19 points -- you should probably try and, you know, score some points. Instead, the Steelers were playing like they were up by 19. Yep, I didn't much care for that.

OK, enough about that travesty.

Despite the fact that a lot of Steeler’s fans are predicting the end of the world any day now, Pittsburgh is still in pretty good position. If the season ended today, they'd be a wild card team and would have to play -- you guessed it -- the Colts ... In Indy. OK, bad example. Anyway, the Steelers have five games left, and they need to win four of them. Preferably two of those wins will come against the Bengals and the Browns. And even if Pittsburgh loses next week to the Bengals, they can win out and still make the playoffs, although it's not by any means a certainty.

Plus, if you think people are gnashing their teeth over this drubbing, imagine all the whining if the Steelers backed into the playoffs at 10-6 and really did have to go back to Indy. All the yapping leading up to the game would probably be worse than them missing the playoffs all together. So going forward, it's pretty simple. Pittsburgh needs to win four of five, ideally, beating both the Bengals and the Browns, and everything will take care of itself.

There's still a long way to go, but like Bill Parcells says, you are what your record says you are. And right now, the Steelers are a 7-4 team.