Monday, January 23, 2006

It's On Like Donkey Kong

I don't want to be Debbie Downer about this but today's game means that the Steelers will be picking no sooner than 31st in this April's draft. Not great. The silver lining, however, is that Pittsburgh gets to go to a Super Bowl for the first time in ten years. OK, I'm kidding -- at least about the draft. I'm quite serious about Pittsburgh going to the Super Bowl.

Jeez, after last week's little get together, this seemed like preseason on the stress scale. The Steelers got to off to another quick start, Jake Plummer turned into a pumpkin, I looked up right before halftime, and it was 24-3. Eerily, the same first half ass-whuppin' New England put on Pittsburgh a year ago. The last thirty minutes saw Denver score two touchdowns, but they never got closer than 10 points. And with Roethlisberger, apparently he matures in dog years because our baby's all grows up! (Yep, two weeks in a row on that quote.) Anyway, let's get to it:

... Alright, there were about eight different "keys to the game," and one that wasn't mentioned anywhere else was making Todd "Lattimer" Sauerbrun a non-factor. Not only can the guy kick the ball 70 yards in the air, but he's also roid-raged enough to serve as the gunner after actually punting the ball. OK, I don't really think that Sauerbrun was ever really somebody to be concerned about, but he did embarrass the hell out of Ellis Hobbs last week when he forced a fumble during a punt return. Plus, and I mentioned this last week too, you have to love a punter who looks like Janikowski's fat older brother who has to jump off the top bunk, head first, into his helmet to get that thing on. So props on that.

... Now, my first real play of the game goes to Nate Washington. 3rd-and-7 on the Steelers' first drive, ball near midfield, and Nate makes a nice grab on a 13-yard out pattern. I'm sure most people who don't follow this team's first reaction was, "Who the hell is Nate Washington?" followed immediately by, "Where the hell is Tiffin?" but for Steelers' fans, it was a really big play. It kept the drive alive, and more importantly, probably gave Washington a little confidence in case Ben might come back to him later in the game.

Now this play wouldn't have even taken place if not for Hines making his tip-drill catch that's almost becoming routine. That fact that it ends by him getting the crap knocked out of him, probably means it won't find a permanent place in the playbook, but that could've very easily been a encore, half field presentation of Champ Bailey's pick-for-(nearly)six from a week ago. Instead, Hines somehow makes the catch and keeps the drive alive.

A couple of plays after Hines' rebound, the Steelers dodged another bullet after a Willie Parker fumble was overturned. After watching replays, I was pretty sure Willie's knee was down before he lost the ball, but I honestly wouldn't have been surprised if the call on the field stood. I was wrong on both counts. Willie's elbow was down, and Pittsburgh kept the ball. And that set things up for Nate.

... Pittsburgh settled for a Skippy field goal on their first drive, and after watching Jeff Reed have another spectacular under-the-radar season, I'm convinced he might be one of the best kickers in the NFL. Both of his kicks were over 40 yards and both were right down the middle. He did have the one kickoff go out of bounds, but I honestly think that's the first time I've seen him Vanderjagt one since 2003. Plus, how can you not like a kicker who (a) wears wristbands that match his jersey, and (b) wears a mouthpiece. That's almost as ridiculous as Gardocki wearing that mullet wig under his helmet. Almost.

... On Denver's second drive, Plummer got J. Peezy'ed and fumbled. That was pretty cool, but nothing compared to watching Casy Hampton try and track down the ball like he was a sea lion trying to catch a runaway fish on the beach. My buddy Andy actually commented that the Hampburglar looked like a Hungry Hippo trying to gobble up, uh, Hungry Hippo pellets. Too funny.

Two plays later, Roethlisberger threw a rocket to Heath Miller down the middle of the field for a 24-yard gain. Two things stick out on this play: (1) Miller made a great move to get open, and (2) usually on skinny posts, the safety has a clear shot to knock the crap out of the receiver. Instead, Miller caught the pass, lowered his shoulder and donkey punched Nick Ferguson back about two yards. Yeah, if this Miller kid sticks with it, he might turn out to be OK.

... People were talking all weekend how Champ Bailey was going to shut down Hines Ward, and the Steelers would have to rely on their other wideouts to make plays. Who the hell knows if this was actually Denver's game plan, but it sure looked like it on Pittsburgh's first touchdown. Ben pump-faked a short pass to Hines and found Cedrick Wilson wide open in the corner of the end zone. Bailey was about two steps too slow primarily because he bit on the Hines pump-fake.

It took 17 weeks, but Cedrick is finally starting to look very comfortable in Pittsburgh's offense. And maybe it's not just him. Maybe Whisenhunt and Cowher are finally figuring out how best to use him. (By the way, how big a game was that for Whisenhunt? Every time they would flash his mug on the screen, looking very deep in thought about the next play call, all I could yell at the television was, "Cowher's Brain.") It's way too early for this conversation, but if the Steelers can't re-sign Antwaan (and I want them to), they could be OK with Cedrick, Quincy and an emerging Nate Washington. (Sorry Lee Mays, you'll probably be kicking it with Chris Doering come next August.)

... I'm starting to think Carson Palmer was right: Troy Polamalu is the best defensive player in the NFL. That hit near the Broncos goal line on Mike Anderson was maybe the sweetest looking play of the day, but it was a distant second in terms of sheer athleticism to the play Troy made during Denver's third possession. 3rd-and-9 on the Denver 40-yard line, and Plummer throws a screen to Tatum Bell. Bell has a lot of room in front of him, including two Denver linemen running interference. Troy somehow splits the blockers, and makes a shoe string tackle while falling backwards, a yard short of the first down. That might have been one of the most amazing plays I've ever seen. No, it won't be on "Jacked Up," and it didn't directly result in points scored or saved, but it was unbelievable nonetheless. Good things do happen to people who drive Kia's.

As long as I'm talking about the defense, when did Joey Porter start taking his Crazy supplements full time? This dude has been basically unstoppable during the last quarter of the season, and he looks like he's only getting better. If Pittsburgh's smart, after the Super Bowl, they'll just tell him the season's been extended, simulate games for him every Sunday, and by the time training camp rolls around he'll be Lawrence Taylor but without the drug problems. You heard it hear first.

... My Selfish Player of the Game Award goes to Hines Ward. By a mile. Whisenhunt made a great play call on what should've been the Steelers third touchdown of the 2nd quarter, only to have Ward get called for a false start (or covering the tight end, or whatever arcane rule he violated). So instead of the Bus rumbling in from 15 yards out, the Steelers lost five yards, and on the next play, Big Ben threw an amazing pass to -- you guessed it -- Hines Ward in the back of the end zone. Alright, I'm kidding about Hines being selfish, but it was such a great almost TD to Jerome, you hate to see it wasted on some dopey penalty.

(By the way, did that play, with Ben doing all that gesticulating, remind anybody of the Mularkey-era play where Kordell, in the shotgun, walked toward the sidelines like he didn't get the play, only to have the ball direct snapped to the running back? Oh, the Mularkey memories. 3rd-and-2? It's a triple reverse to Amos Zereoue for four yard loss. Yep, good times.)

Other than the obvious fact that Pittsburgh scored, there was some good to come out of the Ben-to-Hines TD: Ben doing that crazy six-shooter sideline dance. My buddy Andy thought Ben was mocking Butch Johnson, but after listening to Ben in his press conference, it became pretty clear that he was just making stuff up as he went along. Which, if my guess is right, means that this is what he looks like when he's dancing at the club ... just making stuff up as he goes along.

... In retrospect, I should've started doing this at mid-season, when Tyrone Carter got more playing time, but better late than never for my Tyrone Carter Play of the Day. If there's any doubt about this one, just fast-forward to the 2:29 point in the 4th quarter and let the tape roll. Plummer takes a leisurely drop-back, and throws the medicine ball of medicine balls in the flat to Tatum Bell. A normal defensive back would actually try and make a play on the ball. A normal defensive back, eight times out of 10, would've picked that pass of and taken it to the house. But Tyrone Carter ain't a normal defensive back. Instead, he just lowers his head, takes two steps and levels Bell. Great play. Actually, I should clarify. A great play that was also really weird/funny looking because the ball almost hit Carter in the back of the head as he was laying the wood to Bell. That dude is crazy.

... Did anybody else notice that when the Steelers were running the ball out near the end of the game, but before their last touchdown, that the Bus still didn't have two hands on the ball? I think my buddy Andy had it right when he said, "Jerome can't physically get both hands on the ball; he's too fat." Yeah, I never thought of it that way, but hey, physics is physics. And guess what, it doesn't matter because Pittsburgh's off to the city affectionately known as, "Cleveland without the glitz." Now what's not to love about that?

And oh yeah, solid work by Jabbs42, who was just a bit closer with his prediction than me.