Monday, December 12, 2005

One Down, Three to Go

Well, after a three-week run of really craptacular football, the Steelers finally turned things around against the Bears. And it wasn't even as close as the 21-9 final score might lead you to believe. And Festivus came early because the Chargers totally pooped their pants against the Dolphins and the Cowboys somehow found a way to beat the Chiefs. This still doesn't change the fact that the Steelers have to win out, but it also makes things clearer, earlier.

This game was basically a two quarter affair, because during halftime, "The Day After Tomorrow" rolled in and neither team could really see much during the final 30 minutes. And for the first time in a long time, the Steelers set the tone early and decided that they would run the ball, no matter how many defenders the Bears brought to the line of scrimmage. Why they were effective against the third-ranked defense against the run when they were getting stuffed more frequently than Alyssa Jones in previous weeks, is a bigger mystery than the Bermuda Triangle. Anyway, a few thoughts from the game:

... During the Bears first series, it looked like their game plan was to neutralize the Steelers blitz by making Orton get rid of the ball after three-step drops. It worked on the first two plays, but once Chicago tried to run the ball, the game plan got a little gunked up. A punt and five plays later, the Steelers were up 7-0.

... OK, anybody else want to admit that the first thought going through their head after the Steelers first play (W.Parker right guard to PIT 33 for -1 yards) was something to the effect of, "Well, here we go again with the running game ... this thing could end up 4-3 if things don't change." Of course, I barely got the "4-3 if ..." out of my mouth because the very next play was a Willie Parker screen pass that went for 45 yards. For all the gruff the offensive line -- and the offense in general -- has gotten this season, this unit has always been one of the best at running the screen. And having a guy like Parker who can just blow past people makes the play even more effective. On the very next play, Parker ran right for nine more yards, and two plays later, Hines Ward had one of his patented "Hines Ward Running Over at Least Four Guys and Dragging Another One into the End Zone for a Touchdown" touchdowns.

(A few weeks ago I mentioned that despite all the tribulations of the right side of the line, Pittsburgh running backs were most successful running ... right. Yesterday was no different. Weird. Not sure what to make of it, but it's definitely worth noting.)

... The Bears' next drive was 14 plays, covered 63 yards, and took 6:46. And as far as I was concerned, it was exactly what the Steelers wanted to do defensively. And it all started with the special teams, which was (finally) solid all day. Pittsburgh then made Chicago march the length of the field, and forced them to settle for a field goal. If the Bears could've strung together 4 or 5 14-play drives, and scored on each one of them, then they would've deserved to win. I'm guessing Dick LeBeau was willing to wager than Orton would make a couple of mistakes along the way. As it turned out, Orton didn't make many mistakes, but the Pittsburgh defense stiffened, and it didn't much matter anyway.

(As long as I'm talking about Orton, let me say that he was much better than I expected. I haven't really seen much of the Bears this season, but after reading stuff this week on the internets, I was half-expecting Kyle Boller to come out of the tunnel. Orton's a lot better than Boller. Or at least he was against the Steelers.)

... While this game was basically an Indy-styled ass-whuppin', the fact that the Steelers were still suffering from the fumbles for the second straight week was kinda curious. I'm sure most of it was weather-related, but when Cedrick Wilson and Antwaan Randle El can't hold onto the ball, it's one more thing I have to worry about.

... On the Steelers' next scoring drive, Lovie Smith made a decision that would come back to bite him in the ass. Here's the sequence of plays:
1-10-PIT27 (12:44) W.Parker up the middle to PIT 38 for 11 yards (To.Johnson, H.Hillenmeyer).

1-10-PIT38 (12:00) W.Parker left guard to PIT 40 for 2 yards (L.Briggs, I.Scott).

2-8-PIT40 (11:20) B.Roethlisberger pass to D.Kreider to PIT 45 for 5 yards (H.Hillenmeyer).

3-3-PIT45 (10:33) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass to V.Haynes to PIT 47 for 2 yards (L.Briggs, N.Vasher).
PENALTY on PIT-H.Ward, Offensive Pass Interference, 10 yards, enforced at PIT 45 - No Play.

3-13-PIT35 (10:12) (Shotgun) B.Roethlisberger pass to V.Haynes to CHI 49 for 16 yards (J.Azumah).
On third and three, Ward was called for pass interference on a play that gained two yards. If the Bears decline, it's fourth and one. Instead, Smith takes the penalty, and the Steelers get a first down. Yeah, yeah, I know, the Steelers might've gone for it on fourth and one, but if you've the best defense on the planet, why give Pittsburgh another chance? Two plays later, Kreider gained 12 yards on a play that was right out of the "Running the Option: 101" handbook, and three plays after than the Bus scored his first TD of the day.

(I don't know if it was on this drive, or later in the game, but on one Willie Parker run to the right, he stiff-armed Urlacher in the face and he basically went down like someone just kicked him in the nuts. Pretty funny stuff.)

... After the Steelers scored their final TD with 5:23 to go in the third quarter, I was pretty sure the game was over. The Bears had different ideas, and at the start of the fourth quarter, Orton marched his team right down the field, making two perfect throws that led to a one-yard Thomas Jones TD run. Seriously, it's hard to get too upset about the drive, unless you want to give Ike Taylor the business for pulling "a Ricardo" on the 43-yard bomb to Bernard Berrian. Basically, the ball went throw Taylor's hands and somehow Berrian was able to hold onto it. One play later and it's 21-9.

... The rest of the fourth quarter was basically watching Jerome run over Chicago defenders (well, except for that one play at the end of the third where Bettis rumbled 39 yards and just basically went out of bounds because he was literally out of breath, or had just pulled both hammys). After Fox kept showing the clips of the Bus hobbling down the stairs at his house earlier in the week, I'm guessing there's no way in hell he'll see the field for at least two weeks after running all over the Bears.

... How does Ben Roethlisberger not get sacked in this game? Against the best defense in the NFL? And why did the offensive line finally decided to show up? After basically getting embarrassed the past few weeks? Say what you want, but I think Cowher does a great job of motivating these guys. No, he's not a great in-game tactician, but after 14 years, he still finds ways to get players psyched up for important games. In a perfect world he would've done this a few weeks ago, but hey, better late than never. And like Cowher said earlier this season, a team creates its identity after four games. In the case of this team, however, the four games hopefully starts with this Bears game.

OK, one game down, three to go. After the first month of the season, who the hell woulda thought that the Vikings would still be a team in the NFL. If they had decided to disband and all join the circus, it would be less surprising than them going 8-5. Whatever. I'm willing to take my chances against Brad Johnson and Cap'n Smoot.

Rock on Festivus.