Monday, December 05, 2005

Eight Ball

It's down to this. A quarter of the season to go, and the Steelers have to run the table to even have a chance of making the playoffs. Boy, 7-2 seems like, well, three long losses ago. And yeah, it's kinda hard to be really optimistic after this game, but hey, it ain't over yet. Still, this performance raised a lot more questions than it answered.

For starters, where will special teams coach Kevin Spencer be working next year (or maybe even next week)? As much as I like to give Cowher the business for questionable play-calling, it's hard to look past the special teams in this game. Right before Tab Perry ran back a kickoff to the Steelers' 3-yard line, my buddy Andy suggested that Pittsburgh's best chance might be for Jeff Reed to kick it out of bounds. Let's see, out of 13 possessions, the Bengals started like this: CIN 16, CIN 26, CIN 47, PIT 22, CIN 25, CIN 37, PIT 3, CIN 7, CIN 44, CIN 22, PIT 49, CIN 23, PIT 19. The last possession doesn't count because the game was over at that point. The other possessions were a result of: (a) craptacular kickoff coverage, (b) even more craptastic punt coverage -- including Chris Gardocki, who has seemingly suffered a severe bout of Tommy Maddox-itis in the span of a half a season -- or (c) turnovers.

It was hard to tell by just looking at the score, but the defense wasn't awful. If not for special teams taking extra helpings of retard sandwiches during every time out and the rash of turnovers, the defense did enough to win this game.

In fact, the first defensive series of the game Bryant McFadden made two good plays -- one on Carson Palmer, and one in coverage -- that stopped the Bengals on four downs. And on the first touchdown pass to Houshmandzadeh, Colclough couldn't have had better coverage if he was Deion Sanders circa the mid-1990's. Someone forgot to inform Ricardo that he wasn't playing soccer and is actually allowed to use his hands while playing defense. The next two touchdowns were a mix of crappy special teams and soft coverage, while the next to last touchdown falls right in Kevin Spencer's lap.

The Steelers won't win the AFC North, and are going to need some help even sniffing the playoffs. It comes down to the Chiefs and Chargers because everything else in the AFC is pretty much settled. The Pats will win the East (by the way, the Bills should be banished to the Arena League after yesterday's performance), the Bengals in the North, the Colts in the South, and the Broncos in the West. Jacksonville has one playoff spot wrapped up, and it will come down to the Chiefs, Chargers and Steelers for the last one. And it won't be easy for Pittsburgh. It could be a lot worse, but it still won't be easy:
Team       Games Left
Steelers: Chicago, Minnesota,Cleveland, Detroit

Chiefs: Dallas, NY Giants, San Diego, Cincinatti

Chargers: Miami, Indy, Kansas City, Denver
Another question I have is will Duce Staley ever start a game? I mentioned last week why Duce should get a chance to run the ball more consistently, and if this week didn't give more evidence of that, then I don't know what will. Parker is a good back, but he probably shouldn't be starting. Part of what makes the Steelers the Steelers is their ability to run the ball between the tackles. Parker is the guy you bring in in the second half to run all over the place after guys like Duce and Jerome have run all over the defense, not the reverse -- at least not in its current form. And not only is Willie struggling running the ball up the gut, but he had a serious case of the fumbles yesterday. Luckily, Pittsburgh didn't lose the ball (nothing like six turnovers staring you in the face), but it doesn't instill a lot of confidence when your running back is drop-kicking the ball down the field because he can't hold onto it.

And hopefully, Roethlisberger's performance will give people pause the next time they suggest that the Steelers should throw the ball a lot more often. Ben was 29/41 for 386, with 3 TDs, but also had three awful picks. See that's what happens when you put the ball up a million times a game -- more bad things are likely to happen. And don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting the Steelers should run the ball at all costs -- even when facing 25-man fronts, but throwing the ball like it's 2003 and your name is Tommy Maddox ain't the answer either. And while I think Cowher did one of his least intrusive play-calling jobs, I do have to wonder what the hell the coaching staff was thinking on that third and three pitch to Staley out of the shotgun when the Steelers had the ball at the Cincy 41 with 13 minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Hey, this seems like a great time to throw the ball, doesn't it? Four wideouts, and Pittsburgh opts for a play from the Mularkey playbook, a playbook I can only assume they found in a sofa cushion from a couple of years ago. Yeah, that play made me pretty angry.

The fact that Rudi Johnson ran for almost 100 yards doesn't concern me that much either. I have no idea, but if I had to guess, I'm guessing Dick LeBeau was more concerned about Carson Palmer beating the Steelers through the air. This is basically the same approach Pittsburgh took last year during their first meeting with Cincy, except that time the special teams didn't play like they had all gotten a ride to the game in Michael Irvin's drugmobile. Chad Johnson only had five catches for 52 yards; Houshmandzadeh only had five catches too, but two of those were for touchdowns. But hey, professional football is about taking away what your opponent does well and forcing them to find another way to beat you. The Steelers did a pretty good job on Johnson, and an adequate job against Palmer in general, but they didn't figure on the special teams imploding and on the offense coughing the ball up four times. So there's your silver lining (depending on how this thing plays out, this might have to get you through the off-season, but hey, that's where we're at). OK, that's all for now. Feel free to vent in the comments.

CPW with Extra Cheese
OK, I lied. I've got one more Steelers-related topic to mention. Ed Bouchette might want to think about, you know, doing his job, instead of making up sensational stories. But hey, maybe he's telling the truth (and maybe Tommy Maddox and part-time porn guy, agent Vann McElroy, didn't make up that story about people throwing trash in Maddox's yard). Either way, he wrote a story late last week claiming that a "Steelers official" accused the Colts of pumping crowd noise through the PA system Monday night. The only problem is this: "Despite Bouchette’s report, the Steelers officially told KDKA that they have no comment on the allegation except to say it's not investigating." Whoops. As far as I can tell, ESPN's Ed Werder reported this early last week (but after MNF), and Bouchette, in his infinite laziness, picked it up. All that's now missing is Patrick Fitzgerald calling the Steelers' anonymous source before the grand jury so we can get to the bottom of this. But it gets worse. In Sunday's paper, Bouchette writes an even sillier story than the original piece. He suggests that teams found in violation of pumping crowd noise through their PA system should be fined ...

[And now, a brief comedy interlude:

...Gentlemen, it's come to my attention
that a breakaway Russian Republic
called Kreplachistan will be
transferring a nuclear warhead to
the United Nations in a few days.
Here's the plan. We get the warhead,
and we hold the world ransom...
(dramatic pause)

There is an uncomfortable pause.

Don't you think we should ask for
more than a million dollars? A
million dollars isn't that much money
these days.

All right then...
(dramatic pause)

There is another uncomfortable pause.

Virtucon alone makes over nine billion
dollars a year.

(pleasantly surprised)
Oh, really?
(slightly irritated)
One-hundred billion dollars.
OK, make it happen. Anything else?
OK, back to reality ... kind of]

... one million dollars. Yep, that's right, Bouchette's pulling a Dr. Evil and thinks a team should have to fork over a million big ones if they're caught cheating. That's all well and good, but here's the thing -- this is exactly what Tony Kornheiser suggested last week during PTI. So let me get this straight: Bouchette gets his first story from Ed Werder and then has an eerily similar solution to this alleged problem as Kornheiser.

Here's an idea, maybe Bouchette should spend a little less time watching ESPN, and a little more time doing some actual reporting. You know, since his job title is, uh, "reporter." And I should mention that when Kornheiser said teams should be fined a million bucks if found guilty of such infractions, he was kidding. Look, I have no idea if Bouchette made all this stuff up, or if he actually has a source on the team, and was able to come up with the million dollar fine thing all on his own. But here's my point: do some actual reporting and save the sensational gossipy stuff for the New York tabloids and Mark Madden. Crimony.