Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Skippy & the PumpKing

The Ravens played great. There, I said it. And yes, it pains me ... a lot ... to write those four words. But hey, Baltimore came out, played tough, converted some big plays, and honestly, probably deserved to win the game.

And before I go on, let me go back to something I said Friday. I linked to Mike Boehm's Ravens site and made some comments on his observations about QBs having success when teams are successful running the ball. Mike was kind enough to respond, and I appreciate that. Especially since after I reread what I wrote I came off sounding kinda like a prick. Anyway, that wasn't my intention, and my lame, "At least he didn't pick the Ravens to win ... or cover" comment almost had me eating crow for the foreseeable future.

OK, with that out of the way, back to the Steelers. I mentioned Friday that I really hate these type of games because it puts Pittsburgh in a precarious situation in the sense that if they don't win say, 36-0, it's kind of disappointing. Well, the Steelers did us one better by squeaking out a 20-19 victory thanks once again to former bricklayer Skippy Reed. Whenever you have these assured-blowouts-on-paper games, and your team is the assured-blowerouter (that sounds naughty), more times than not, you're in for a let down. To be fair, Cowher made it clear all week that records don't mean anything in these division rivalries, but neither fans nor media were paying any attention to that kind of talk.

Here's the thing though. Other than the Colts and Bengals games (and maybe a case can be made for the Ravens rematch), every contest from here on out could qualify as one of these assured-blowouts-on-paper. I really have no sense for how players internalize all the media hype during a typical week leading up to a game, but Cowher will probably giving the same, "This is going to be a tough game this week" speech for the rest of the season. Okey doke, let's get to it.

... Even though I'm so embarrassingly nervous during these games, the 15-play, eight-minute drive that ended in another Heath Miller TD catch went a long way in calming me down. (Seriously, shouldn't somebody think about covering this guy once Pittsburgh gets inside the redzone?) At least until the ensuing kickoff. Never let it be said that the Steelers are afraid to let a team march down the field and score on an opening drive. Jamal started the game with two pretty good runs, and Baltimore's offensive line and Anthony Wright both played like, well, they were in Bizarro Ravens World, where passing plays were actually successful.

... If the Steelers' game plan was to keep throwing to Hines on the first drive until Chris McAllister went crazy, it almost worked. The highlight had to be when Hines caught a one-handed pass on a crossing route, and as he neared the sideline, instead of going out of bounds, he lowered his head and tried to donkey punch McAllister into the end zone. Later in the game, Hines made McAllister look silly when he tip-drilled a crappy Roethlisberger pass over McAllister's head. Of course Chad Williams promptly knocked the crap out of Ward, but he popped up smiling. I'm guessing there aren't many things more frustrating than laying the wood to someone only to see them (a) get up smiling, while (b) still holding the ball. The funniest comment of the night came from Ward concerning this play:
Q:Talk about the hit on you when you caught the ball that was bobbled up into the air.

A:"I got the crap knocked out of me. But I caught it. Ray Lewis looked over and gave me a wink and said it was a hell of a play. It’s just me going out and competing. I just want to do whatever it takes to help this ball club. But whoever hit me, knocked the crap out of me."
... Chester Taylor is frustratingly good. He's almost never takes a direct hit, and always seems to fall forward for a couple of yards on every play. That TD was a pretty good example of this.

... While I wouldn't mind seeing the Steelers run the ball 60 times a game, you have to give them credit for coming out and throwing. They knew that Baltimore was going bring everybody to the line of scrimmage, and Baltimore knew Pittsburgh knew this. In games past, that didn't stop the Steelers from running (see New England, San Diego and Jacksonville, for example), but without Ed Reed and Ray-Ray Lewis, maybe the decision was a little easier.

I'm guessing the game plan called for them to take some shots down the field early, and then pound the ball later in the game. The problem was that the Ravens were blitzing a lot and Ben didn't have a lot of time to let plays develop. I think they only took one real shot down the field, and that was on the first drive on a pass intended for Hines. Virtually everything else consisted of short passing plays, which after seeing Roethlisberger limping around like James Caan in "Misery," was probably a good idea.

... Which leads me to this troubling headline:
"Big Ben's knee injury not a big problem"
So while it's not Daunte Culpeper troublesome, the good news, other than the fact that Ben might play, is that if he can't go, Charlie Batch is next in line.

... As long as I'm talking about Big Ben, after his interception, I got that "Uh-oh, is it the 2005 playoffs again" feeling. That's not good. He looked a little confused, made some questionable decisions, and was out of rhythm.

(Later, in the postgame press conference, Roethlisberger said that he saw Adalius Thomas dropping back in coverage, but because he's a DE, he thought he could squeeze the pass in there. [By the way, as my buddy Andy pointed out last night, every time Cedrick Wilson is involved in a play, bad things happen. I'm not saying it's his fault, but the guys' like "The Cooler."] Yeah, that didn't work out so well, especially since Wilson didn't look to have a chance to catch the pass even if Thomas wasn't standing right in front of him.)

To his credit however, Roethlisberger settled down in the second half, and as has been the case whenever the Steelers needed a late score, he came through. And this leads me to a comment left on Football Outsiders about Roethlisberger not yet proving he's a good NFL QB namely because he hasn't yet thrown the ball 30-plus times a game and led the Steelers to a comeback victory:
Big Ben relies on a great O-line, and a team that runs the ball like 70% of the time. He can’t win games when he is forced to win the game on his arm ... Until Big Ben can proves [he can], he is just an overrated spare part who is dependant on his system.
I'm so numb to reading really ridiculous stuff that I usually just roll my eyes and continue with whatever I was doing, but this comment makes me long for Skip Bayless columns. OK, not really, but maybe it should (or maybe Skip Bayless left this comment). Just out of curiosity, but when did the benchmark of a great come-from-behind QB start with throwing the ball at least 30 times a game? And by the way, Roethlisberger had two game-winning drives last season versus Dallas and Jacksonville. And let's see, I think the Chargers' and Ravens' games this season also prove that he can, "win games when he if forced to win games on his arm."

All throwing 30-plus times a game proves is that your running game sucks. Ask Marc Bulger how much he likes getting crap kicked out of him 15 times a game. And if you want to blame someone for Roethlisberger not getting more chances to air it out, how about Dick LeBeau. I mean, if this jerk wasn't so competent at his job, we could enjoy those Steelers' defenses from the Tim Lewis era that cornered the market on "rush three, cover nobody" schemes.

... Speaking of inanities, does anybody know why the hell Cowher called a timeout with eight seconds left in the first half and the Ravens driving? He looked awfully confused after the fact; so confused, that I thought maybe he didn't actually make the call. Nothing like giving Baltimore one more chance, even though they looked utterly confused as time was about to run out.

... I mentioned that the defense has been fond recently of giving up points on opening drives. (And some of you left comments voicing as much -- and more) Against Baltimore they also let Anthony Wright throw for 255 yards. While it was certainly frustrating to watch, looking at the larger picture, this unit did a pretty good job (although, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't dropping f-bombs like it was my job as Anthony Wright and Derrick Mason played 30-yard catch all night long). Someone asked Cowher at the post-game press conference if he was upset with how the defense played, and he basically asked how could he be upset when they only gave the Ravens field goals after the first drive. It's hard to argue with that, especially when you consider that Baltimore did an outlandishly good job of pass protecting virtually all game (except for the next to last play, when Keisel sacked Wright to set up the second-worst fourth-down-to-keep-the-game-going-playcall right after Kelly Holcomb and the Bills the night before).

... This was mentioned in the comments, but it bears repeating: maybe Pittsburgh should think about taking Ricardo Colclough off the kickoff return team. I didn't mind so much that he had Quincy Morgan down the ball in the end zone (a case could be made for starting from the 20), but jeebus, the guy runs like he's scared, and that's a problem when your the kick returner. I told Andy before the game that only Quincy should be returning kicks because I'm always afraid Colclough is going to fumble. And because of my keen insight and obvious genius (like when I said the Steelers would be stupid to draft a QB with the 11th pick in 2004), I was right. I'm guessing almost everybody not in Colclough's immediately family felt similarly, but that's beside the point.

But if you take Colclough out, I'm not sure who replaces him. I'm not crazy about Randle El returning kickoffs because he likes to dance around after catching the ball. That works fine on punts, but it's a little more problematic here. Cedrick Wilson was back there with Morgan during the Jacksonville game, but I've already mentioned all the bad karma surrounding that guy. Ike Taylor's got more important things to do defensively, and there's no need to risk injury. Same with Willie Parker. My vote is for Lee Mays. Of course that means releasing someone ...

... Hello Sean Morey. Just kidding. I like Sean Morey. Partly because he's from Brown, and partly because he's an overachieving white dude. Reason number 37 the Ravens should've won the game: the Steelers' botched punt happened with about five minutes left in the game, and it gave Baltimore possession at Pittsburgh's 45-yard line. But as was the case all night, the defense stiffened, and Baltimore had to settle for a field goal.

(And it's worth noting that Stover wasn't getting chip shots -- the guy had to kick some bombs to keep the Ravens in the game early. It's also worth noting that I really, really hate Stover. And probably for the same reasons I hate David Eckstein and J.J. Redick: guys with no visible athletic ability who are very, very good at what they do. And if you really want to see me string together some naughty words in the direction of my television, just throw up a shot of Stover doing that ridiculously dopey left-arm-at-a-right-angle-presnap-routine he sports right before nailing almost all his kicks. And then he follows it up with a high ten to the heavens to thank the good lord for helping him toe-poke a football. I'm getting upset just thinking about it.)

The best part of that punt debacle (well, it's the best part since they won the game; otherwise it wouldn't be all that funny) was that Morey almost got tripped up on the snap as the ball nut-megged him, he then had the presence of mind to pick up the ball, run right, and toss it back to Chris Gardocki (and if you're Gardocki here, your thought process has to go something like this: "Oh crap, botched snap! Sean fall on the ball, fall on it! Oh great, you picked it up!?! Whatever you do don't toss it back to ... Oh crap, here it comes! Maybe I should kick it ... No, I'll throw it ... Just don't whiff like Garo Yepremian!" And then it goes dark because some wide-eyed Ravens defender just knocked the snot out of him. Thanks Sean.) who then threw it back to Morey. My buddy Andy at first thought it was a fake punt designed so that Morey pitched the ball to Gardocki who in turn threw it back to Morey. All that was missing was Mularkey sitting in the press box looking bewildered when the Steelers didn't pull the play off.

But hey, there were some positives to the special teams. Quincy Morgan had another big return, and Ben Roethlisberger had a nice little punt in the first half that directly resulted in three points.

... And those three points came thanks to the inevitable once-a-game "Jamal Lewis fumble at the worst possible time." With Baltimore starting their drive inside their own one, they ran Lewis up the middle. He was almost tackled for a safety by Hampton and Polamalu, but bounced right and had only Deshea Townsend between him and a lot of green. From the looks of it at the time, it was pretty clear to everybody in the stadium -- including Deshea -- that he didn't have a chance in hell of tackling this guy. So instead, he opted for the "tackle the ball" strategy. And it worked. Thanks Jamal.

... Even though I TiVo every game that's on locally, this is one of those that may be hard to watch again. With all the silly mistakes, and weird turn of events, I'm half afraid the Ravens might actually pull it out during the replay. OK, who am I kidding. I'll probably watch the entire thing again tonight, if for no other reason than to see Skippy and the PumpKing win the game ... again ... in the last two minutes.