Following the game, there are many storylines to dissect. As any self-respecting blogger would do, I've put them in list form.
The Media Stories
1.) RASHARD MENDENHALL!! - In two seasons prior to the San Diego game, Mendenhall's stat line was strikingly similar to Carey Davis's, not exactly what the Steelers were hoping for from its first round pick. But after his breakout performance last night - to the tune of 190 total yards and 2 TDs - Steeler Nation is ecstatic over its next big star. A week after he was benched for committing mental errors, Mendenhall looked explosive as a runner and receiver, and also threw in some punishing blocks in pass protection. Expect the fans to be out in full force to install Mendenhall as the starter and demote Parker to a back up role. While excited to see a player I said was a bust in preseason perform so well, I can't help but think that this was a perfect storm for the former first rounder from Illinois. Pittsburgh manhandled San Diego twice last year with Parker running for more than 100 yards in both outings. San Diego lost it's best run stuffer - Jamal Williams - to an injury and Pittsburgh was playing with a sense of urgency after blowing its last two games in the 4th quarter. Am I excited about Mendenhall? Undoubtedly yes. But, I need to see this kind of performance a couple times before I start wearing a Mendenhall jersey. (And with the Lions and Browns as the next two opponents Rashard will have plenty of chances to repeat the performance). And one more thing, Rashard. Please learn to tuck that ball. You look like a fumble waiting to happen.
2.) The Demise of the Steelers Defense - If we could only convince the defense to play every quarter like it was the first. The defense was its excellent self for 2.5 quarters. Yet, the 2009 Steeler defense isn't like its predecessor. After securing a 28-0 lead midway through the 3rd quarter, this game should have been over. But like we've seen too many times in the past five games (Super Bowl included), the defense fell apart in the 4th quarter. Sure, it was hurt by a punt return turnover for a touchdown and an onside kick, but the defense was terrible at the end of the 3rd and entirety of the 4th quarters. Knowing that it only had to milk the clock and prevent big plays, the defense allowed two touchdown drives that went 66 and 59 yards that lasted 1 minute and 30 seconds and 1 minute and 17 seconds, respectively. Steve Nash plays better defense. It would be one thing if the team played in a deep prevent, but the defense was not sitting back on its heels. It was bringing rushers and collapsing in the secondary. The absence of pressure on the quarterback has been noticeable in the first four games and all the more concerning because it can't be blamed on the injury to Troy Polamalu. James Harrison is getting double-teamed more often and Lamarr Woodley has been invisible. Also, the interior rushers on passing downs - Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel - rarely generate pressure. But the secondary has really struggled late in games. In particular on Sunday, it had no answer for Antonio Gates. Troy can't come back soon enough.
3.) The Offensive Line - The O-line has taken a beating both on the field and in the press for its play the last two years, but after one great offensive performance, praise is being heaped upon this unit like never before. Cris Collinsworth was tongue-bathing Chris Kemoeatu all night. Peter King in his MMQB column lineman named Kemo and Justin Hartwig as his offensive players of the week. Could this unit be gelling like Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin planned? Or was this a case of playing a bad run defense? We'll see over the course of the season.
The Story We Should be Hearing
1.) Ben Roethlisberger - I always feel the need to get on a soap box when talking about Big Ben. Despite leading one of the best drives of all time to win the Super Bowl and leading the league in comeback wins in the last five years, Cris Collinsworth kept saying Big Ben needed to win games for the team in the fourth quarter. Then Deion Sanders and Rich Eisen talked about how the team wasn't going to win with Ben throwing the ball. But, through four games, Ben Roethlisberger is averaging 298 yards per game with a 98.1 rating. His completion percentage is a ridiculous 73%. If the Chargers would have won, the big story would have been Phillip Rivers. The Saints won with only one offensive touchdown (a running one at that), but Drew Brees gets all the pub. Big Ben threw for 333 yards and led the Steelers to 38 points, but he's mentioned as an after thought.
Puzzling In-Game Decisions
1.) Like his predecessor, Mike Tomlin is a master motivator and constantly puts his team in position to win. We love our coach here at Steezbros, but some of the in-game decisions have been perplexing. Last week, Tomlin kicked a field goal from the 1 yard line, but decided to go for it on 4th and 4 (the latter move I defended). An interesting mix of conservatism and aggression. This week, the Steelers went for it on 4th and inches on their own 30, a move which I fully support and will likely defend in a post later this week, but made some other peculiar calls.
After surrendering a touchdown to make the score 35-21 with 5 minutes left, the kick return unit seemed utterly unprepared for an onside kick. Instead utilizing the "hands team", the Steelers had only five guys up for the kick, with the five comprised of mostly backup defensive players. Ryan Mundy had a perfect chance to recover the ball, but his hands were poor and he couldn't hold on to the kick. That play is squarely on coaches Mike Tomlin and Bob Ligashesky.
Later in the game, with 1:44 left and facing 3rd and 9 a the San Diego 25, the Steelers lined up in shotgun and attempted a pass. San Diego was down 7 and had no timeouts. A run, if nothing else, would have bled the clock to under a minute and kept the Steelers easily within field goal position. Even if they missed the kick, the Chargers would have had to go 70 yards in less than 50 seconds with no timeouts. An incomplete pass would have left 1:40 on the clock, enough time that a long drive is achievable. Worse, a sack that could have taken the team out of field goal range or an interception would have been devastating. In the end, Roethlisberger threw incomplete, but the team was called for holding. Now out of field goal range, the Steelers should have once again bled the clock with a run play and, at worst, punted, making the Chargers go at least 80 yards in less than 50 seconds. Instead, another pass play was called.
I'm all for playing aggressively, but this was stupid. The coaches, while great in preparation, have left much to be desired in the decision making department.
Other Quick Thoughts
- Nice to see the team score touchdowns instead of field goals. Four for four in the redzone sure goes along way. In a related note, it turns out Heath Miller is pretty handy near the end zone.
- It was also great to see the team convert on 3rd and 4th and short. Obviously, Carey Davis and Isaac Redman made all the difference.
- Fullback situation solved. Good job Big Legursky.
- Hines Ward is still a gamer.
- Should we be worried about Stefan Logan? He's a great return man - the best the team has had in a long while - but that was his second turnover in four games. Something to keep an eye on.
- Other than the meaningless sack-fumble at the end of the game, the defense has no big plays since the loss of Troy Polamalu. Three straight games without a meaningful turnover is unacceptable.
- Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is often criticized for his play-calling, which is frequently questionable (as noted above), but if the team executes like it did yesterday, the play calling seems brilliant. I especially loved the opening play call on the final drive - a pass to Santonio Holmes on first down when most expected the run.
- Also exciting was the trick play that resulted in a Mewelde Moore passing touchdown to Heath Miller. Reminded me of the Ken Whisenhunt/Mike Mularkey days.
- Despite the poor decisions at the end, it's certainly encouraging to see Jeff Reed make a clutch field goal to close out the game. Reed's services will be needed to win games down the stretch and the confidence from that kick should go a long way.