Last week, we told you not to panic. This week, I hope you'll tell us not to panic.
We are only three games into the season. All is not lost. The Steez have an unusually easy schedule after next week's game with San Diego. But, this is certainly not how I imagined the Super Bowl champions would start the season. It's like 2006 all over again.
In a game similar to the one against Chicago, Pittsburgh managed to lose to the lowly Bengals despite drastically outplaying them for three full quarters. Through the first three quarters, the Steelers outgained the Bengals 364-134. Yet the domination on the field did not manifest itself on the scoreboard. The Steelers held a 13 point lead in the first half and an 11 point lead in the 4th quarter, but those numbers could have been much larger.
Continuing a recent trend, the Steelers moved up and down the field, but couldn't score touchdowns. Twice they were held to field goals from 1st and goal at the 10. Once Jeff Reed missed a field goal. And Limas Sweed dropped another sure-thing touchdown that could not have been more routine. Add to that a Roethlisberger pick-6, and the Bengals were able to keep the score close despite being dominated in most major categories.
Perhaps, the most disappointing thing for Steeler Nation to see was, for the second straight week, the defense collapsed in the 4th quarter. After allowing a 70+ yard touchdown drive from Jay Cutler in the 4th quarter, it allowed touchdown drives of 85 and 71 yards to the Bengals (the BENGALS!) in the last 12:45. The defense struggled to pressure Carson Palmer and finished its second straight week without a turnover, which is especially difficult to take knowing that Jay Cutler and Carson Palmer both had 4 interceptions prior to their games with Pittsburgh. Despite the poor fourth quarter play, the Steelers defense had an opportunity to win the game with 35 seconds left. On 4th and 10, the team needed just one stop to win the game. But, James Farrior could not stay with Brian Leonard on a short drag route. And the next play, Carson Palmer threw the winning touchdown pass to drop Pittsburgh to a 1-2 record. The same record as the Detroit Lions.
Pittsburgh learned the same lesson this week (and last week) that the Steelers opponents learned last year. You can't let teams stick around. Given a chance in the 4th quarter, any team in this league can win. The Steelers won in an inordinate amount of close games last year, and no team can consistently win those games. All three of Pittsburgh's games this year were of the nail biter variety. And unless this team can learn to dominate an overmatched opponent on the scoreboard, the expectations of making a magical playoff run will quickly disappear.
Other nitty gritty thoughts from the game:
- Roethlisberger looked in control for the third straight game. Through three games, Big Ben is completing 71% of his passes and averaging a ridiculous (for the Steelers anyway) 287 yards per game. Unfortunately, that hasn't translated into wins.
- Despite the great play from Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians still don't fully trust him at the goal line. Ridiculous statement? Maybe. But explain to me why we continue to run the ball from inside the ten yard line. On first down and goal from the ten yard line, the Steelers chose to run the ball on two separate drives. Given the run blocking from this unit, it's basically a wasted down. Not to mention that most defenses will be more susceptible to play action on first down. On third down and goal from the one, we went to Willie Parker (who I refer to as the worst short yardage back in the NFL) instead of letting Ben throw it or running it in himself. Then on 4th and goal from the half yard line, Tomlin orders a field goal. No excuse. Trust Big Ben inside the red zone. It's the only hope of scoring touchdowns.
- Without looking at the box score, take a guess at the Steelers average yards per carry in the game. More than 4 yards per carry, right? Wrong. 3.6 yards per carry. The running game seemed to be back on track, with Willie Parker running like wild in the first half. The problem - the running game was non-existent in the second half. After half time, the Steelers rushed 13 times for 42 yards. Not exactly stellar when trying to run out the clock. Sure it looked better than before, but rushing 28 times for 102 yards isn't scaring anyone in this league.
- Not that it would have made a difference, but I wonder why Rashard Mendenhall got no carries in this game. Our running back of the future should probably get some chances before next year.
- The Steelers used a new formation with Ramon Foster lining up at tight end. It didn't seem to be particularly effective, but it's certainly better than having Matt Spaeth attempting to seal the edge.
- Mike Wallace had his coming out party on Sunday. 7 catches for 102 yards, including several third down catches and one long bomb for 51 yards. The competition for the #3 wide receiver is over. Now if we can only teach him to run straight into the end zone as opposed to running out of bounds.
- It's tough to defend Limas Sweed any longer. He dropped a perfectly thrown ball with no defenders hitting him on the play. Don't be surprised to see Shaun McDonald taking his place as the 4th wide receiver.
- Adding to our wide receiver frustrations, Santonio Holmes played like he did in the second half against the Bears. Utterly inconsistent. He dropped one pass, only caught one other one, and may have run the wrong route on the Roethlisberger interception. Egads. The man only comes to play on nationally televised games. So I guess we should be good next week against San Diego.
- The decision to kick a field goal from the one yard line was disappointing, but the decision to go for it from the 35 yard line at the end of the first half was more complex. I'll cover this in more detail in a post later today.
- Stefan Logan isn't tearing it up like preseason, but he is looking like the best return man we've had in years. The 56 yard kickoff return after the Bengals pick-6 is exaclty the kind of momentum changing play the Steelers needed, and have lacked for the last couple years.
- Jeff Reed isn't kicking it well. We can excuse him for the 52-yard missed field goal, but even his kickoffs are shorter. Come on skippy, pick it up.
- The coverage units don't look as solid as last year. Granted, they aren't as bad as 2006 either. But, the opening kickoff coverage sure wasn't pretty.
- Robo-punter dropped another one inside the 20 and booted his other punt 51 yards. Punting is no longer a problem in Pittsburgh.
- Last, we get to the most disappointing unit - the defense. Although they played well for the first three quarters, Dick Lebeau's boys folded again when it counted most. Steelers fans aren't used to seeing opposing offenses move the ball at will in the fourth quarter, but we've had to deal with two straight last minute losses doing exactly that.
- In the Steelers roundtable on Friday, none of the SteezBros were overly concerned about the defense. But, what I saw yesterday concerned me. The pass rush was virtually non-existent. Casey Hampton had the only real sack of the day (James Harrison got credit for a sack as well, but it was a 0 yard sack). Harrison and Woodley are getting controlled at the line of scrimmage, with an extra blocker usually helping on Harrison's side. But, it certainly seemed like Lebeau only rushed 4 for most of the game, with Harrison and Woodley on the edges and Keisel and A Smith on the inside. And Smith and Keisel aren't exactly pass rushing forces. Their job is to push the pocket so quarterbacks can't step up when the linebackers come off the edge. I'd be interested to ask Lebeau if the Steelers are dropping more guys into coverage because teams have been keeping in extra blockers. By dropping more people into coverage, the Steelers would have 7 defenders to cover 3 or 4 receivers. Not a bad strategy. But without Troy Polamalu, a new starter in Willie Gay and an old Deshea Townsend, the specialty of this defense is not in the secondary. The team needs to get quick pressure to have sustained success on defense.
- No turnovers for the second straight game against turnover prone quarterbacka. Do opposing quarterbacks play their best against the Steelers or is this defense not doing enough?
- I love James Farrior, but he seems a step slower than in the past. He's still one of the better leaders and a heady quarterback for our defense, but he doesn't inspire confidence covering a running back in space.
- The play in the secondary provides evidence that the Steelers are much worse without Troy. But the play against the running game also shows how much #43 means to this team. The Cedric Benson touchdown run absolutely would not have been a touchdown if Tyrone Carter was replaced with Troy. Tyrone took a terrible angle and was outrun by Benson to the corner. No defensive back in the league should be outrun by Cedric Benson.