For both the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday’s battle at Heinz Field proved to be in stark contrast to opening weekend. While Gang Green’s offense went from flying at high altitude to a complete tailspin, the Black and Gold rebounded from a disappointing loss in Denver, and the Steel City celebrated the team’s first check mark in the win column of the 2012 season.
The contest marked an impressive 10th straight team victory in home openers. In fact, the team's only opening-day loss at Heinz Field came in 2002, a defeat at the hands of next week's opponent, the Oakland Raiders.
With early afternoon losses by both the Ravens and Patriots, in addition to a rash of other Week 2 upsets, the weekend reminded fans that the NFL season is truly a marathon that isn’t dictated by any single game or loss. However, few would have been so naïve as to refute that a loss in the home opener and 0-2 start could severely damage the Men of Steel’s long-term goals.
Thankfully, despite a shaky start, the Steelers rebounded, executing well in all phases of the game en route to a 27-10 win and improving their record to 1-1. After losing the opener and getting diced in the secondary by Mark Sanchez in the opening minutes, optimism was at a premium, but Pittsburgh showcased an important trait just before halftime and beyond: resiliency.
With a trip to California on the horizon, the Men of Steel prepare to go back on the road. Away from the friendly confines of Heinz Field, the Steelers have struggled in recent games. As Steeler Nation hopes for a change in road performance as the team heads westward, here are 10 enthusing observations from Pittsburgh’s successful home opener.
...and Ryan Clark was the best player in the defensive backfield, if not on the entire defense, against the Jets.
"I tried to do too much. That was totally my fault."
That quote came from the safety after the game (via Post-Gazette.com), reflecting on his role during New York's opening touchdown drive. On the scoring play, Clark bit on a play fake by Mark Sanchez, which left Ike Taylor isolated on Santonio Holmes, who had an easy touchdown on the inside slant.
In the first half, I vividly remember a CBS sideline camera catching a shot of Clark, clearing taking a leadership role amongst his peers in the defensive backfield, knelt with teammates in a huddle that appeared to feature some combination of strategic planning and soul searching.
After a lackluster start, the secondary got focused, got physical, got ruthless... and became a virtually impenetrable barrier.
Ike Taylor, who was victimized by Santonio Holmes on their first drive and a slew of questionable penalties, domineered his former teammate the rest of the way. No. 10 finished with three receptions for a mere 28 yards.
As coach Kirby Wilson, who overcame severe burns from a household fire, watched proudly, the secondary didn't allow a Jets receiver to make a reception for nearly three quarters of game time, up until garbage time in the fourth quarter.
With Holmes and his peers wailing for penalties with an aura of rife desperation, Ike Taylor and crew began getting their swagger back, pumping their first to their chest and jawing back and forth with the over-matched opposition.
Keenan Lewis, maligned so far this season for missed tackles and bad zone coverage, benefited from the defensive backfield's more physical approach in the latter stages. After getting burned in the early going, particularly on a 45-yard grab by Jeremy Kerley and a ridiculously large cushion on a 3rd-and-12 conversion to Clyde Gates, Lewis settled into his role as an expected improvement at the "other corner," finally fulfilling expectations. Or, at least, coming close...
Yet, for the blanketing coverage and physical brand demonstrated by the cornerbacks, no member of the secondary was as vital or influential as Clark, who practiced what he apparently preached in making arguably the two biggest defensive plays of the game.
Early on, a near perfect deep pass from Mark Sanchez to Stephen Hill was broken up by Clark near the end zone, keeping the game from getting out of hand in the early stages.
Later in the game, the Jets brought in Tim Tebow with great initial success, causing haunting memories of January to resurface across Heinz Field. Tebow, it seemed, needed only see the colors Black and Gold in order to yell "Shazam!" and morph into the mind and body of Fran Tarkenton. After the Jets gained over 40 offensive yards on two plays with Tebow at the helm, the safety disrupted the change of pace and subsequent momentum, bringing down Shonn Greene six yards in the backfield on a smothering tackle. With 2nd-and-16 pending, New York brought Sanchez back onto the field.
Clark, who hadn't played in a meaningful game since Week 17 of 2011, showed his excitement with one of his finest performances ever.
Suffice it to say, the safety's presence was missed in Denver, both times. Now, Steelers fans are excited to see Clark and Polamalu back in tandem.
Interjections are words used to convey sound or emotion into a sentence: Bam! Whoa! Hey!
Or, in the case of Keenan Lewis: WHIFF!
For those unaware, that is the sound of a missed tackle, something that the corner has suffered through in the first two weeks at an alarming rate.
From not wrapping up receivers, resulting in unnecessary YAC (yards after the catch) to completely "whiff-ing" on Mark Sanchez yesterday... Lewis has been pathetic at tackling. It may be an elementary observation, but it's a critical area in which the corner must improve.
He's starting for crying out loud! He has to tackle with some level of consistency.
Tackling is a huge part of the game of football, a fundamental part of defense and a strength that has been among those that forge the identity of Pittsburgh Steelers football.
In this town, missing tackles is not acceptable practice.
It's all about fundamentals, and Keenan Lewis is hopefully being coached up, particularly after the "oak tree" quarterback Mark Sanchez bounced off of him on Sunday with alarming ease, avoiding a sack.
Actually, it's Big Ben whose stature in the pocket is compared to tackling an oak tree. For one play, you could have fooled me!
No matter what the title of this slide may imply, the performance to date by Pittsburgh's receiving corps would have been effective against the Jets with or without Revis. Minus their best corner, the Jets opted to forgo some of their pressure packages in an effort to assist in the defensive backfield, but the Black and Gold clad wideouts still made their mark.
The Jets may wear green, but the Steelers wide receivers wear green backs. After all, they're getting (or will be getting) paid, and they're simply "Young Money."
Whether they ask to be called “Big Money,” “Cash Money,” “Fiat Money” or any other monetary moniker, there’s one nickname that would fit “Young Money” better than any other: “Fast Cash!”
To elaborate, this is a group with blazing speed and constant payoff!
The combination of ridiculous quicks and great hands, along with their excellent offensive chemistry with Big Ben, make the receiving quartet a matchup nightmare for defensive backfields. Even on obvious passing downs, against all odds, and often with every feasible advantage a defense can ask for (pressure in the backfield, safety help up top, anemic production on the first two downs), defensive coordinators are being left to ask one question: how?
How does Big Ben constantly evade pressure? How do you chop down an oak tree before it transforms into a dynamic quarterback capable of connecting with any of a number of blisteringly fast targets?
And… why is it Pittsburgh that has been bestowed such gifts at receiver, a franchise already sporting a top-tier defense? For other franchises, it must seem unfair, but the Steelers gladly accept this bountiful blessing!
Mike Wallace has showcased himself as more than a one-trick deep threat, running precise routes and making tough catches all over the field since returning to action from his holdout. While his game seemed one-dimensional to most fans, including myself, last season, this season has seen progress from No. 17. In fact, his lone long touchdown of the young campaign was borne not from speed used to get behind the secondary, but in winning an individual battle by making an adjustment to the football in the end zone. It was a gorgeous play made by Wallace on a day in which the Jets suffered minus Darrelle Revis.
Against the Steelers’ top wideout, Antonio Cromartie was simply overmatched throughout the afternoon.
Antonio Brown began his day by saving the offense’s opening drive, securing the game’s first catch to set up second and short. Shortly thereafter, facing a long third down, Brown picked up enough yards after the catch on the play to make up for an eight yard loss on second down by Isaac Redman. On the unit's second possession, a key 3rd-and-8 grab by Brown helped to sustain another scoring drive, culminating in a field goal that allowed Pittsburgh to keep pace early.
Brown and Sanders have been nifty and elusive at the intermediate level, making no down and distance an impossible feat for the loaded Steelers offense.
Jericho Cotchery, the favorite of many fans to fulfill the role of slot receiver in the red zone, made a great catch to set up a first down near the goal line, hanging on to the ball despite a glancing hit. It was a great showcase of the receiver’s blue-collar qualities in the middle of the field, and Cotchery’s physical presence should continue to benefit the Black and Gold inside the 20-yard line.
With Big Ben and the receiving corps having their way with another defensive backfield, focus in the Steel City this week will largely revolve around a quarterback's big arm and receivers' fast legs and great hands.
Yet, it would be remiss to not mention the importance of feet. And, from toe to heel, Pittsburgh's kickers have been the real deal so far in 2012.
Shaun Suisham and Drew Butler have performed well. Butler’s opportunities in enemy territory to punt and pin the opposition have proven fruitful, and he has yet to give fans any reason for apprehension on fourth down.
"Shanks a lot" in training camp has given way to "thanks a lot!" in the regular season's early going. Let's hope this continues.
Yet, the special teams player that may be earning the most fresh confidence in the Steel City is Suisham, who has showcased both power and consistency in 2012.
On kickoffs, the Steelers have been able to fully take advantage of teeing up at the 35-yard line; after all, Suisham’s thunderous boots have cleared the back of the end zone on all but one of his kickoff attempts.
More importantly, it is obvious that Suisham is gaining confidence with success, and that is translating to more authority and accuracy on his field-goal attempts. Yesterday, Shaun connected twice in the first quarter, both attempts from 45 yards. Heinz Field is a “House of Horrors” for the NFL’s best, making the two conversions an impressive feat.
If Suisham continues to kick with confidence, particularly in Pittsburgh, Steelers fans who questioned his reliability will gladly confess an error in judgment. It’s a long season, and much remains to be seen.
So far, so good. Now, what will happen when the game is on the line? The confidence-breeding conversions of today could translate well to the critical kicks of tomorrow.
In a community that identifies itself with the success of its football team, the panic button can seem irresistably tempting so early in a season, particularly following failure. Following victory, problem areas are labeled as “room for improvement,” whereas defeat earns the denotation of “areas of concern.”
Half-full vs. half-empty, at its finest…
Luckily, despite showing “room for improvement” against the Jets, particularly early, the Men of Steel were resilient in victory. Among the signs of relief for Steelers Country, loyal fans could be most happy about improved results in numerous areas, but two areas will have season-long implications if success continues: time of possession and finishing!
While turnovers, quarterback rating differential and third-down conversion percentage all correlate to winning, the two aspects above are being mentioned specific to Pittsburgh. The former is an adjective that helps forge the team identity, though the Steelers needed to improve on minor details—namely staying ahead of the sticks—in order to win time of possession the "right way." The latter is a key area for improvement that has cost the team, as recently as last week!
While the team dominated T.O.P. in Denver, the statistics were a bit fluky, the end result of dynamic (and defiant) playmaking on inopportune third downs and not the product of sustained production on early downs or balance (offensively or defensively). Big Ben and his receivers covered up problems Week 1, but they couldn’t prevent the end result. Peyton Manning was deadly during his abbreviated time on the field and the offense finally succumbed to being “behind the sticks” on their final drive.
Last evening, the Steelers dominated T.O.P. against the Jets, once again despite inconsistency on the ground. Yet, as the game progressed, the rushing attack did slowly find its legs as the offensive line finally showed a bit of push. Its progress culminated in a balanced fourth-quarter drive that showcased “what could be” if the team’s offensive talent gels. The 10-minute, clock-killing march saw the Jets’ defense being manhandled at all levels, from front line to secondary, while the Steelers’ new offense showed poise and promise that was far too intermittent in the seven previous quarters.
In addition to the offense, the defense also facilitated the time of possession discrepancy. The heavily scrutinized front line (Hampton, Hood and Keisel) began to dominate the All-Pro offensive linemen in front of them, stuffing the Jets’ run game in the latter stages and forcing the comeback into Mark Sanchez’s hands. Pressure on the passer made the Jets’ effort futile, particularly with the secondary also playing so well.
The fact that the team’s improvements manifested in such improved play late in the game adds a further relief. Many have criticized the team recently for not playing a “60-minute game,” dating back to last season, either derailing after fast starts, blowing late leads or surrendering big plays in the fourth quarter.
Yesterday saw a return to form for a team so long identified with putting games away, particularly when Bill Cowher finished with a career record of 105-1-1 when leading by more than 10 points in a game. In the Steel City, FINISHING is a big deal.
Against New York, the Steelers FINISHED emphatically.
The Steelers have a great tight end in Heath Miller, for reasons that range from professionalism to blocking and humility to pass-catching. He is the perfect blue-collar athlete with a white-collar moxie, able to pop pads with a linebacker as well as make the unbelievable reception.
In response to the team's red-zone touchdown struggles, as well as with consideration to Miller’s ability to be a more recognized force in the passing game, many fans clamored for the tight end to see more action in the new offense.
If the first two games are any indication, tight ends and fullbacks (Leonard Pope and Will Johnson had a reception) will benefit from increased opportunities in the Todd Haley system, which correlates with his track record.
More specifically, Heath Miller has become a prime target in the early season, particularly in the red zone where his size, strength, deceptive speed and hands combine to make him an ideal target.
Just as he has used tight ends with his former squads, Todd Haley is also known for utilizing available talent. It is clear he knows exactly what he has in Miller: the most underrated tight end and team player in the game today.
With his second touchdown catch in as many games, though it should have been his third with consideration to an underthrow by Big Ben in Denver, Miller has been a force on offense. His beautiful catch in the left corner of the end zone before halftime helped the Steelers to seize back momentum in their home opener. It was the second time in two games that "Heeeeeeath!" had a huge role in getting the offense into a higher gear.
While his score was important, his catch along the right sideline late in the game was even more impressive. Miller, while in the air, got body position against coverage along the sideline and made a beautiful over the top catch, landing in bounds and helping the team to effectively put away the opponent. Yeremiah Bell had to have felt undressed after the big boy ball baptism that Miller put on him.
It was a reminder that Heath, despite his understated role in the offense in recent seasons, has all the intangibles in his favor of the league's top-rated fantasy ends.
The Steelers offense is a force to be reckoned with, featuring such a dangerous array of receiving weapons, and the addition of Miller as a productive cog in the passing game is just another reason for defensive coordinators and defensive backs coaches to lose some sleep.
There's still work to be done, but the improvement over the course of the game in the trenches is a source of inspiration for Steelers fans.
The offensive line began to open holes late as the Jets defense, on the field for a grueling 10-minute possession, began to suck wind in the fourth quarter. Likewise, though they "allowed" three sacks of Big Ben and forced the quarterback into some Houdini-like productions in the backfield, the overall pass protection saw profound improvement from last week, even though the Jets' defense was strikingly non-aggressive for most of the game.
Still, the Steelers kept Ben mostly upright, and the quarterback's performance reflected a confidence in the pocket.
On defense, the Steelers still felt the absence of James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, failing to force a defensive turnover and not quite getting the type of sustained pressure they truly desire. Nevertheless, with the secondary playing lights out in the final 45 minutes, the defensive front had the opportunity to shore itself up... a bit!
It was refreshing to see LaMarr Woodley's boot before tens of thousands of towel-twirling crazies, and the defense did manage to get to Sanchez twice in the backfield. Against a better quarterback, this may not be enough, but hopefully with health and cohesiveness, the defense will continually improve throughout 2012.
Brett Keisel, "Ziggy" Hood, and Casey Hampton had an enormous task against a celebrated Jets O-line, but they proved up to the task, particularly in the second half. Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell combined for 56 yards on 20 carries, less than three yards per attempt.
Sure, there were a few missed tackles and a couple of blocks that reminded us all that "Big Snack" may be getting expired, but if he can play like he did on Sunday, he may not get taken off of the shelf just yet!
We'll see how Hampton fares against stiffer competition or a more renowned running attack.
The jury may still be out on Dwyer, but I'd give him a shot with the bulk of carries against Oakland.
Through their numbers were similar, Redman's hesitation in the backfield, in addition to the odd penchant to run him to the outside, resulted in a number of negative runs, any of which could have been a potential drive-killer.
Four of his first six touches landed the negative yardage for the offense, totaling -13 yards. In that series of rushes, he had a lone positive gain, a 13-yard burst that statistically washed his previous backwards efforts.
In the second half, Redman showcased flashes of his late 2011 self, but this was against a defense that was sucking wind in the midst of a emasculating drive that lasted for two-thirds of a quarter straight through their heart.
Again, Jonathan Dwyer's numbers weren't mind-blowing, but he performed well in the offseason (coming into camp in the best shape of his life), camp (contending for the top job), the preseason (he was easily the most productive runner in exhibition, as well as the most durable), and the season opener (he averaged nearly five yards per carry).
Frankly, despite statistics, his quickness to the hole—or at least to the line of scrimmage prior to any change in direction—prevented the slew of negative plays that the unit suffered with Redman as the primary runner.
Certainly, the team is anxious to see the state of Rashard Mendenhall, who is likely the best option on the roster even at only 80 percent of his former glory. In the meantime, until it is certain that Rashard is ready to carry the load, the team needs to strongly consider swapping the starting and relief roles between Dwyer and Redman.
Keep in mind that Redman was effective as a change-of-pace back used in exclusive situations as a backup to Mendenhall.
The controversy of an offseason became a quiet hush after Mark Sanchez had a superb opening game, causing the fickle, over-reactive football public to immediately put complete stock in one game. With the reality of his apparent greatness intact, it was clear that Sanchez would be the man in New York.
It sure looked to be no aberration in the early going at Pittsburgh, where a stunned Steel City witnessed a 4-for-5 performance on New York's opening drive. Sanchez rallied the Jets to a first-quarter lead, 7-3, completing the march with a deadly accurate and smart throw to Santonio Holmes on a slant in front of Ike Taylor.
Then, things changed.
Remember that fickle, over-reactive football public? In New York, they're even more dramatic after a bad performance like that in the 'Burgh, where Sanchez suffered through a humiliating 10-of-27 performance. Murmurings of the impending circus in New York are spreading, though the initial flickers of the flame aren't quite a raging inferno...
Nevertheless, leave it to a viewing public that loves a good story to notice Sanchez's anemia yesterday coupled with Tim Tebow's success over a whopping sample size: two plays.
Fans who wondered what impact Tebow, the man who dismantled the Steelers as AFC Champions in the 2012 Wild Card Playoffs, would have on the contest got their answer. Taking two snaps, it appeared that the quarterbacking craze of 2011 was at it again against the Black and Gold, though circumstances took him out of action after the pair of plays.
It may seem ridiculous, but the seeds of discussion were certainly planted, and it will be up to Sanchez in the coming few weeks to decide if he wants to fertilize them with failure or dig them out with success.
That's not sensationalist journalism; that's the truth based on the knee-jerk culture of today's game.
After all, two of the next three Jets opponents are among the finest pass defenses in the game, along with the Steelers (at least, statistically speaking) who made the former Trojan look U.S.C. (utterly stunned and clueless). Following its upcoming game against Miami, New York squares off against the 49ers and Texans.
If the seeds for a quarterback controversy are planted, albeit in the locker room or community and despite any Jets denials, the Texans and Niners could be the equivalent of sunlight and water. It's up to Sanchez to determine if the seeds get fertilized.
In his career, Ben Roethlisberger has left the field feeling blue after seeing Gang Green.
His rookie campaign featured a 17-6 win over the Jets, though it marked the first time No. 7 had more interceptions than touchdowns, finishing 9-for-19 with no scores and two picks.
The 2004-05 Divisional Playoffs featured a rematch against New York, another victory by Big Ben by a stroke of sheer fortune. In the game, he struggled to complete half of his passes and threw two more interceptions.
The 2007 Jets were a woeful bunch, but Roethlisberger's 15-for-25 performance, including both a touchdown and giveaway, weren't enough to avoid overtime or a 19-16 defeat.
The 2010 regular season marked the first Steelers matchup against head coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez. In a 24-19 Jets win in the 'Burgh, Big Ben averaged a mere six yards per pass attempt, throwing no touchdowns and three interceptions.
Most recently, the Steelers defeated the Big Green Apple in the AFC Championship Game, 24-19. Despite holding a 24-0 halftime lead, Ben's play (though not as bad as the numbers would indicate) consisted of two more interceptions without a passing score.
Cumulatively, the numbers had been ugly.
Two passing touchdowns.
And a lot of down and dirty struggles against a surprisingly game AFC East foe.
This time around, against the self-proclaimed "greatest defensive coach" in football, Roethlisberger put on a great performance against New York, sending Rex Ryan and crew back to "New Jersey/Manhattan-ish" with a 27-10 loss to muse over.
It was by far Ben's greatest performance against the pesky Jets, completing 24 of 31 passes for two touchdowns without a turnover, translating to a 125.1 quarterback rating. In all, Roethlisberger connected with ten different receivers, utilizing the talent around him and spreading the wealth.
In a preview for this game, I wrote:
Sure, quarterbacks need to play their best against the best. But a large proportion of Steelers games are contested against mediocre signal-callers, or at least those inferior to No. 7. As this is the case, it is up to Big Ben to make this decided edge count. Before even taking the field, if Roethlisberger is poised to play a polished game, the Black and Gold have leverage at the most important position.
Big Ben made the matchup against Mark Sanchez count... and the defense made sure the disproportion stood out!
Whereas Roethlisberger had one of his best games, Sanchez had one of his worst, completing only 10-of-27 attempts, including a 6-of-22 finish following a fast start. While Sanchez avoided turnovers, it was obvious that he was unsettled in the pocket, consistently missing his target and frequently mistiming pressure.
Indeed, the defense vaunted for its ability to confuse an offensive front got handled, while the "aging, injured" group rattled last week's most surprising signal-caller not nicknamed RG3.