Monday, November 07, 2005

Bend but don't Break

OK. Enough is enough. And I'm not even talking about the Steelers' defense ... at least not yet. CBS's 1pm game was the Bengals-Ravens, and it was done by 3:45pm EST. In my mind, this was a good thing because it meant that I wouldn't have to worry about missing the start of the 4:15pm Steelers-Packers. Guess again. First, CBS showed the end of the Chargers-Jets. Fair enough. It was a close game, and there was still plenty of time until 4:15. At 4:05, Greg Gumbel informs me that I now have to watch the end of the Raiders-Chiefs game, even though I care more about the future of Nick and Jessica. And when the game finally ends -- at about 4:25 -- I have to spend an additional five minutes waiting for the Raiders to come on the field for the final extra point, even though most of the team is already in the locker room planning their next trip to that Atlanta strip club made so popular by Warren Sapp and Charles Woodson. I really, really, really hate network television when stuff like this happens.

So even though the local game ended well before the 4:15 start time, apparently every frickin' 1pm game has to end before 4:15 before it's assured I'll get to see the start of the second game. What kind of sense does that make?

OK, rant over.

(And yes, I realize that my bellyaching does nothing ... other than perhaps make me feel better for a couple of minutes. But I think it was worth it.)

Now, to the, ahem, game.

First of all, Brian B. said it best with this comment just after the game. I'm sure I've mentioned before that I TiVo every game that's televised locally, but you can bet your ass that under no circumstances will I be re-watching this. It was bad on so many levels, except for the little thing about Pittsburgh still winning the game. And I'm not ready to bury Batch for his performance, either. Yeah, he threw for 65 yards, but the Steelers only had the ball for 11 minutes in the first half (even though they had it for 27 minutes overall). And when the play-calling consists primarily of run, run, draw play, it's kind of hard to fault Batch for the offensive woes.

Of course, he did throw an interception -- a really bad interception – but the Packers were inexplicably unable to turn it into points. If there was a bright spot offensively, it was seeing Duce Staley finally getting on the field. He started slow, but was picking up tough yards in the second half, and had a pretty easy jog into the end zone after a Tyrone Carter (Tyrone Carter!) interception.

And speaking of the defense, um, they might want to, you know, think about stopping teams on third down. The Packers ended up 8 for 17 on third down conversions, but at one point they were 8 for 12. I guess there are several ways of looking at the last five possessions, but it still doesn't change the outcomes of the first 12. Third and 1 is one thing, but when teams are regularly converting third and 10's, it might be time to think about mixing up the scheme. And one team did exactly that ...

… The only problem is that it was Green Bay. Last week the Ravens did a lot of max-protecting, sending out only three receivers, and not surprisingly, Derrick Mason kept making 30-yard receptions. The Packers took a page from the Ravens playbook (yikes -- how often have you heard that?), and did a lot of max-protecting, sending out only three receivers. And here's the problem: Pittsburgh insisted on blitzing, even when teams leave seven guys in to block. That's all well and good if you're playing the Texans, but otherwise it probably ain't going to work. (And in fact, it didn't)

So while it's easy to point the finger at Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend, if these guys are in single coverage all day, they're not going to make a lot plays. Finally, in the second half, the Steelers started rushing four and dropping seven into coverage, and they forced Favre into doing what Favre does a lot -- force balls into coverage.

And this is exactly what happened last season. Pittsburgh registered a crapload of sacks early, teams starting leaving extra guys in to block, and the sacks dropped off. This season, however, teams are going bonkers on the Steelers on third down. During the last two weeks, it seems like Tim Lewis and the 2003 Steelers are ushered onto the field for third downs, while the Dick LeBeau-led unit takes a quick breather. And yes, that 2003 team still sucks, so I'm not saying it like it's a good thing.

Despite the third down problems, the defense still made more than enough plays to win the game. Bryant McFadden had a big sack and Polamalu had a fumble return for a TD (and also recovered a fumble earlier in the game). And anytime Tyrone Carter gets a pick, that's an added bonus. Of course, James Farrior started the second half on the bench with an ice pack on his knee, and Willie Parker hurt his ankle, but both injuries didn't seem serious.

It'll be interesting to see (a) how Romeo Crennel game plans against the Steelers defense given the last two games, and (b) how Dick LeBeau will adapt to all the max-protection schemes. And yes, it was frustrating as hell watching the Packers complete third downs, but when it counted late in the game, the Pittsburgh defense stiffened, and came up with some big plays.

Did Batch play well? Not by a long shot. But he also didn't give the game away either. He made one mistake (an atrocious interception), but it didn't lead to any points. And the rest of the time he was able to hand the ball off (something that Maddox couldn’t do late in the game), complete 4-yard passes, or throw the ball into the stands. And if anybody saw the Jacksonville game, these are all good things. By the way, if you're ever confused about whether a Steelers' QB is struggling, just see how many times Dan Kreider gets thrown to during a game. The more receptions he has, the more the QB is struggling. Just like the Bengals game last year in Cincy (when he caught the game-winning TD), Kreider got a lot of looks against the Packers. But hey, I'm not complaining. The Steelers are 6-2 and up next are the Browns (the former occupants of last place in the AFC North).