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STEELERS (7-7) 37

I should probably be more excited after one of the most incredible finishes in Steeler history, one that was eerily reminiscent of a certain Super Bowl-winning drive earlier this year. But when you mentally prepare for the worst, sometimes you don't know how to react when things actually pan out. I expect this is how I'll feel when the Pirates finish 82-80 in 2029.

There were so many bad points to Sunday's game, it was almost easy to overlook the most prolific day that a Steeler quarterback has ever had. The Steeler defense was so horrible that Mike Tomlin called for an onside kick late in the fourth quarter - a move that had all the characteristics of a Belichickian-like media feeding frenzy of second-guessing in the wake of the team's pending sixth consecutive loss. Media chastiser Ryan Clark made himself look foolish as his unit gave up a predictable 22 points in the fourth quarter. It was all setting up to be the final nail in the Steelers' 2009 coffin.

And then a funny thing happened. In some weird, wacky way, Tomlin's plan actually worked. In the final two minutes of regulation, Ben Roethlisberger reminded people that he's one of the best quarterbacks in all of football en route to yet another fourth quarter victory on his lengthy resume. His surgeon-like precision on the game-winner to rookie Mike Wallace was an exclamation point on a jaw-dropping 503-yard, three-touchdown output against the league's third-ranked defense. It was a performance that stands out on his already-outstanding career highlight reel, and it used every second of the time Tomlin thought the offense would need to answer the Packers' inevitable score, in the event that the Steelers would not recover the kick.

But after all the excitement and offensive fireworks are over, all this adds up to a state of confusion for Steeler fans going into the final two weeks of the season. Do we ignore this team's numerous, obvious flaws and kid ourselves into believing this is a championship squad? Where should our expectations be? Should I continue to dissect the minutiae of a .500 football team when I still have so much Christmas shopping to do?

As you can see, it's easy to get sidetracked. But realistically speaking, this is an average football team this year. They're not good enough to be great, yet not bad enough to be horrible. Many of their games could've gone either way - they've only beaten a team by more than 10 points twice (Denver, Cleveland), and their losses have been by 3, 3, 6, 3, 3, 3, and 7, with two of those coming in overtime. There are no blowouts to speak of. They've beaten good teams (Minnesota, San Diego, Denver) and lost to bad teams (KC, Cleveland, Oakland). They're all over the map.

Long story short, the expectations in Week 16 should be to have no expectations, because literally anything can happen. Unless you can explain how an offensive racks up 537 yards against the Packers and struggles to generate points against the Browns a week before.

Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Take it week by week, quarter by quarter. Don't get too high or too low. Remember, as we saw at this end of this college football season, the margin between jubilation and depression can be as slim as a missed extra point.

Some bullet points:

1. That was possibly the worst defensive performance I've seen by a Steeler team in my lifetime. Missed tackles, dropped interceptions, long drives - it was the season in a nutshell. I've never witnessed a secondary that featured so many guys I would replace in a heartbeat, given the chance. And in the irony of ironies, Ike Taylor, who's made a name for himself over the years by dropping balls, actually grabs the onside kick...before it's gone 10 yards.

2. We can beat up on Limas Sweed and the decision to draft Limas Sweed all we want, but the Steelers more than atoned for that by stealing Mike Wallace this year. Wallace had two catches on Sunday - a 60-yard touchdown to kick off the scoring, and a 19-yard touchdown to end it. Great teams always need big plays, and if the Steelers will be great again soon, I can assure you that Mike Wallace will play a significant role in their resurgence.

3. The Fox broadcasters amused me by acting like Mike Tomlin won't be second-guessed in the wake of his decision to onside kick. This is a city that analyzes each and every play in a game like a biologist staring at a petri dish. It will be the water cooler conversation du jour in the Steel City on Monday. I'm not so sure I would've done it, but I understand Tomlin's decision.

Say what you want about the Belichick fourth down call a few weeks ago, but I've seen several examples of pro and coaches acting like gamblers playing with house money since then. Even when things go wrong, Belichick manages to start a trend in the copycat world of football.

4. It looks like this will again be a costly victory for the Black and Gold (and really, shouldn't it be "Black and Yellow"? I mean, Pitt's uniform is gold. The Steelers' is yellow. I'm just saying...)

Anyway, long snapper Greg Warren looks like he tore his ACL on the game-ending PAT, so that probably puts him on IR and forces the Steelers to bring someone in this week. Also, Hines Ward re-injured his hamstring on Sunday, so he may be up in the air for next week's game against Baltimore. The battle of attrition continues.

5. That being said, Ward had a fantastic game, with seven catches and 126 yards on Sunday. Heath Miller made up for some of his recent gaffes with a career day, to the tune of seven catches and 118 yards. Santonio Holmes turned in a 77-yard performance, and Rashard Mendenhall added 73 yards receiving. The pass catchers should have no gripes about getting the ball this week. When the quarterback has a career day, someone's gotta be on the receiving end, and Big Ben had five beneficiaries with at least 70 yards receiving on the day.

6. All this Roethlisberger excitement should result in the usual bushel of comments and emails telling me I go overboard in my praise of the QB. But as intelligent as Steeler fans are, why do some of them consider it borderline-uncool to enjoy the play of an elite signal-caller? Are there fans who treat Peyton Manning as anything less than a saint in Indianapolis? Is Tom Brady constantly under the gun from Patriot fans? Heck, even Drew Brees gets almost universal praise even outside his city limits, and the guy's only won one playoff game in his life. I just don't understand why some Steeler fans have still never come around on #7, nor do I understand why I have to make arguments on his behalf of his accomplishments. I assume that if you're not with him now, you'll probably never be a fan.

A certain faction of Steeler Nation conveniently chalks up Roethlisberger's success to having a good defense, and that certainly makes an enormous difference in a player's W-L record. But consider that the Steelers constantly had high-end defenses during the Cowher Era and won a grand total of zero Super Bowl titles until Roethlisberger fell into their lap. But I guess the play of Kordell Stewart, Neil O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Tommy Maddox, etc., had nothing to do with the team's failure to get over the top? Sorry, I can't buy that. Criticize him all you want, but I'll bet the fans of about 30 other cities would take the two Lombardi Trophies that he's helped get us.

7. Jeff Reed had a big day on Sunday, with three field goals and the crucial extra point. But can someone explain to me that pop-up kickoff that landed around the 35 yard line?

8. Not a great day for the Steeler running game, which had only 19 attempts (in contrast to the 46 passes). The Packers weren't running either, with 12 runs and 48 passes. Quite a sight to see Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers' vaunted 3-4 defenses getting shredded to the tune of 436 and 537 yards, respectively.

9. What bothers me the most about this year's defense is that in addition to rolling over repeatedly in the fourth quarter, they make absolutely no "plays" anymore. Interceptions, fumbles, sacks, touchdowns - it's almost become absurd to even expect something of that ilk from this group. I realize the void that Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith leave, but they still have the Defensive MVP, as well as a number of players who were at least ranked in the upper halves at their position coming into the year.

10. So here's what's left ahead for the defending champs: two Sunday/1 PM starts, hosting Baltimore next Sunday and traveling to Miami on January 3.

To make the playoffs, the Steelers must first win their remaining games. Then, the Jets (7-7) and Jaguars (7-7) must lose or tie at least once. Also, the Broncos (8-6) must lose at least once, or the Ravens (8-6) must lose in Week 17 at Oakland. There are literally six teams with 7-7 records in the AFC alone. Who said parity was dead?

Remaining schedules:
Jets at Colts, Bengals at Jets
Jaguars at Patriots, Jaguars at Browns
Broncos at Eagles, Chiefs at Broncos
Ravens at Steelers, Ravens at Raiders
Texans at Dolphins, Steelers at Dolphins

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Jonny Van Mundegaarde said...

Mr brother brought up a good point regarding the onside kick. Tomlin gave the Packers a short field to try and score, instead of giving them 70-ish yards of clock chewing time to score, he gave them a short field and, in turn, gave Ben the time he needed for another GWD.


Unknown said...

Cowher went for an onside kick in Super Bowl 30. Fuck Belicheck, he copied the "Chin"!

Nate said...

Call me crazy, but if the Steelers win their remaining games, I actually like their chances of making the playoffs.

The Jets have two very tough games coming up. I'd bet they'd lose at least one of the two.

I'd bet anything the Jags will lose to the Pats in New England, but if they don't then our playoff hopes are pretty much dead as they should steamroll the Browns.

Same with the Broncos. I like the Eagles against them, but if they win that game they should steamroll the Chiefs.

If the Broncos don't lose, I heavily doubt the Ravens lose to Oakland. (Then again, crazier things have happened to the Ravens. They were the only team the 1-15 Dolphins beat.)

It's an outside shot, but I have a feeling that if Pittsburgh can win the ones they have left, they could make the playoffs.

SantoGold said...

I liked Tomlin's onside kick decision. He knew his defense had had it. So he makes a pretty bold decision to give the Packers a short field (I doubt anyone expects to recover an onside kick). Let's assume the Steelers kick off and the Pack start at their own 30 (I know, with our special teams it would be more like at midfield, but please....). Remember, the Pack only had to get a FG to take the lead. All they really needed was 40 yards. They would have had almost 4 minutes to go 40 yards against a gassed Steeler D playing well off the ball.

Tomlin knew what would happen and did the smart thing, give them the ball on a short field and hope there was enough time for Ben to bring them back. Very Belichek-ian.

JeremyT said...

The Browns will beat the Jaguars in a frozen Cleveland January wasteland. They are actually playing pretty good football as of late, be it painful to admit. Other than that, I like our chances too, Nate.

Now, can we refuse to discuss anything past this weekend's games? We beat Baltimore, Philly beats Denver, New England beats Jacksonville and Indy beats the Jets. The good part is that lineup is actually highly likely to happen and earn us another "playoff" game in Miami. Then we can talk about what we need in week 17 next Monday.

bohica said...

A win is a win is a win and I'll take it, but the secondary is still horrible.

Unknown said...

that was the longest two minute drive i've ever seen and one of the most awesome two-minute drives i've ever seen as well

Steve said...

I agree with the analysis of the onside kick. Tomlin knew the defense couldn't stop them from scoring so if it's gonna happen anyway, let them do it quickly so that we can score on their equally horrible defense and at least with an onside kick, they have a fair chance of getting the ball back.

Can anyone imagine how good Ben would be with an O-line in front of him? I know his game is outside of the pocket, but I'm talking about stupid drive killing penalties and getting sacked by 3-man rushes. Nothing spectacular, just somthing barely ordinary would be nice.

I'm looking past this season as even if they make the playoffs, the defense will get shredded by who ever they get in the 1st round.

So, next season they are going to need a good house cleaning starting with every player who wears a jersey in the 20's, yes even Moore and Farrior can only stay if he plays for free, as I can't see how anyone with an once of pride could even accept a paycheck playing like that.

Steve said...

Also, can they not play Renegade again this season? It's become the equivalent of Taps.

HomeRunFromBehindTheMeatballs said...

Amen Jeremy! The Stillers need to take care of Baltimore first and foremost, then we can worry about the chips possibly falling in our favor. Things do look very possible, but if you painted our playoff picture 5 weeks ago, then you were probably talkin about a first round bye. As Christopher Berman says, "Dat's why they play the games!"

Coach T, got EXTREMELY lucky with his decision. And, if Joe Burnett doesn't fall down on the TD catch and makes the tackle, then GB runs out the clock and we lose. Hell, if GB runs the ball all of that last drive, they prob get into FG range and put us away as time expires. GBs playcalling, not Tomlin's "genius" call, put us on top. ...And Large Benjamin's play might have had something to with it the victory as well?

Here we go Stillers, here we go!

bohica said...

Honestly, I know we won, but had they lost I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that everyone would want Tomlin fired had they lost.

It's easy for everyone to agree with it now, but you guys aren't fooling anyone if you say you didn't at least scratch your head at the time of the call.

Anyway, bring on the ratbirds. Any word on if they will make it the flex game?

Louis Lipps is my homeboy said...

Tomlin's explanation made sense after the game.

But I guess everything makes more sense when you win.

AJ said...

Everyone has been riding Tomlin for weeks about his empty promises to change things up. He finally did with that onside kick, and now people are saying he's crazy for going against convention.

The only problem with the onside kick attempt was having Ike Taylor on the "hands" team. There wasn't a Green Bay player within ten yards of that ball, the kick totally stunned them. Someone with better field awareness could have executed the play without drawing the flag and we'd all be calling Tomlin a genius. In Ike's defense, he probably didn't get many reps this week in practice recovering onside kicks.

I have no expectations about playoffs or anything... I just want them to beat Baltimore. I hate those guys.

HomeRunFromBehindTheMeatballs said...

@ AJ - Tomlin made empty promises to 'change things up' in reference to starting lineups & playing time. He did nothing on either of those fronts when players were underperforming. By the way, my dead grandmother can cover better than Willie Gay. Is there really not a better option? Joe Burnett seems to be getting more playing time, but he really really looks like a rookie out there.

And also, Ike isn't on the 'hands' team as that was a surprise onside kick. If you put the hands team out there, then it's not much of a surprise, is it?

AJ said...

Apparently the subtlety of my sarcasm gets lost down here in the comment section. :)

Yes... I'm aware that wasn't the hands team. They also weren't in any kind of onside kick formation to tip off play. Still, those guys need to realize where they are on the field.

And I totally consider any unconventional play call that involves Jeff Reed as "unleashing hell"... so I stand by my Tomlin statement. Next week they install paper towel dispensers in the endzone... touchbacks on every kick!

nuthinhere said...

If the Steelers beat the Ravens so they don't make the playoffs, I'll be ok with that. This team isn't good enough for a playoff run. Might as well ruin the playoffs for others.

Steve said...

It would be asking a lot of Ben to follow up that huge performance and carry the entire team (and coaches) on his back yet again, which is why the Steelers D has to be the difference maker against the Ravens.

I know it's asking the world for them to play big in the biggest game of the season so far, but every once in a while, even a blind squirrel finds a nut. Actually, if they wore blindfolds, they may just by luck have a better game.

Louis Lipps is my homeboy said...

Actually, HomeRunfrom...., I saw a lot less Gay and a lot more Burnett as the game went on yesterday.

It didn't make a bit of difference, that secondary is bad and now we're not even getting a good pass rush anymore.

Louis Lipps Sinks Ships said...

On one hand, this team is flawed and probably doesn't deserve the playoffs...nor would they be able to stop the Colts/Pats/Chargers offenses if they get there.

HOWEVER, the optimist in me says that Troy Polamalu's presence can really improve this secondary. The only reason he's still out is because this team is all but dead. If we win this weekend, he could very well be back in Week 17 and be there for the playoffs. If so, this would be a very different Steelers team...

Keith Mitchell said...

I can't recall one Steelers team, even during lousy seasons, that can be counted on to give up multiple scores in the 4th quarters. It seems like ages ago that every CBS broadcaster would rehash the Cowher second half statistic of winning with having a lead of 10 points or more.

If Troy's coming back, it needs to against Baltimore. Lose and they're done next week. I realize they're cooked in the playoffs anyhow but I'd rather see them there than home. I'd really like one more shot at Cincinnati who played themselves into the first round with the loss at SD.

BURGH08 said...

Personally, I think they lay an egg and make the playoff discussion moot. They basically laid it Sunday if '7' doesn't bail them out.

It's also painfully clear that Tyrone Carter is AWFUL. Forget saying 'he isn't Troy'. I don't think he is even an average NFL defensive back. Just watch the angle he took on that delayed handoff to Grant.

Shades of Delton Hall watching him.