Steelers vs. Titans: 10 Observations from Thursday Night Football
Entering the key Week 6 contest, both teams desperately needed wins for different reasons. Fans in the Steel City hoped for their team's first winning record of 2012. For the Music City, well...any positive momentum would aid in the recovery from a 1-4 start.
That momentum was realized, and Titans fans had reason to celebrate following a game-winning 40-yard field goal by Rob Bironas.
Once again, it was the same story for the 2-3 Steelers: lost opportunities, key blunders, frustrating injuries, poor play on the road and another loss in the final seconds. Worse yet, it was a third defeat to an AFC opponent.
Instead of 10 days to celebrate a tough win, the Black and (Blue) Gold get to spend a week-and-a-half soul-searching. Another loss to a seemingly overmatched underdog has fans wondering if the Steelers aren't already out of the division race in a competitive AFC North.
With tough questions ahead in the coming days, here are 10 observations from a nightmarish night.
The Steelers Lack Killer Instinct
It is the ability to extend on an advantage, widen a scoring margin, attack an opponent when they're in a fragile state and (novel words for Steelers fans lately) put the opposition away!
It's called killer instinct, and the Black and Gold lack it, particularly away from home and especially...
...with the lead?!
In the second quarter, it was the result of a collapse from all three phases, and it turned early game optimism in the 'Burgh on its head.
Pittsburgh led 10-3 after a perfectly thrown deep bomb from Ben Roethlisberger to his deep-threat receiver Mike Wallace. The defense took the field after a stop on Tennessee's previous possession, and all mojo seemed positive in the Steel City.
Then, the lack of K.I. proved to be a P.I.T.A. once again.
That same defense, oft-reliable in former seasons, allowed a scoring drive. Scores haven't been an issue to-date, but the subsequent stops have been relatively non-existent on the road.
Next, a clean block of Drew Butler's punt attempt by Tennessee's Tim Shaw gave the Titans possession at the 1-yard line. This allowed the "Men of Music City" to punch in their first rushing touchdown of the year, music to Titans fans' ears.
Lastly, the offense became far too constricted, foregoing their earlier downfield attack for a series of dinks and dunks that allowed the Tennessee defense to gain some momentum. Pittsburgh's offense failed to score another point before halftime.
One more lackluster showing by the defense had Pittsburgh trailing at halftime to the "lowly" Titans, 16-10.
When you have 'em down, you gotta' kick 'em! If they're in a hole, you have to put dirt on them. Instead, the Steelers have turned their opponents into zombies (game-winning zombies!), the risen dead who come back to bite the 'Burgh you know where!
Strange analogy, you say? Well, admittedly, I may be reaching. The team did do some good late in the contest.
A Lawrence Timmons interception in the fourth quarter raised hopes in the 'Burgh. However, it would turn out to be a herring as the offense had to settle for a 52-yard Shaun Suisham field goal—despite ideal field position—that kept the Titans within a score, 23-16.
True to form this season, the opposing Titans drove the field and tied the game! Then, on offense, Baron Batch lost two crucial yards in the final moments, putting the offense behind the sticks on down and distance! Big Ben missed a wide open pair of targets on third down, and the defense allowed the TItans a third-down conversion to drive for the win!
Their inability to knock out stunned opponents has come back to haunt the Steelers in the standings. They deserved to lose.
Unending Injuries Along the Offensive Line
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The photo above shows Maurkice Pouncey in a t-shirt before Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh center looks much better in a jersey than street clothes. Sadly, he wore the latter once more Thursday night.
When David DeCastro's injury put him on the injured reserve, preseason optimism about the new look offensive line was tempered. As it turns out, his was just the first in an annual series of 300-lb. collapsing dominoes.
Foster. Pouncey. Gilbert.
On the NFL Network broadcast, Mike Mayock and crew stated their disbelief about the endless injuries the Steelers have suffered on the O-line.
The offensive line struggled again, but theirs is a chain with so many replaced links. It's difficult to fathom how line coach Sean Kugler sleeps at night.
Mike Adams' development at tackle has been a baptism by fire, Doug Legursky's stints in center aren't up to his All-Pro superior's standard, and even the typically reliable pass-blocking Max Starks got turned around.
The current line reads from left to right like summer's worst-case scenario. Whether the unit can show more consistency or (sue me for even insinuating this) get healthy could determine whether Pittsburgh continues to play down to its opposition.
The line's struggles had deeper influence that many fans may realize regarding the success of the offense at large (next slide).
If Roethlisberger is excelling statistically in 2012 behind this front, can you imagine a No. 7 with the option to stand pat or move? Early in his career he had that luxury, winning 15 games as a rookie and winning a Super Bowl one year later.
Run to Pass, Run to Win
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This was the title of one of the slides from my preview piece before this game, and the contest in Tennessee bore out my point. Though the running game may take a backseat to a franchise Q.B. in a pass-happy league on an offense with deadly receivers, you still have to...
Run to pass. Run to win.
A week after making an emphatic comeback, Rashard Mendenhall had as many yards as carries: six. To boot, his status going forward is unknown following another... (injury).
Can we officially label the word injury as profane?
Big Ben was under duress for much of the night, and the team combined for a paltry rushing total. In fact, neither Redman, Batch or Mendenhall managed to eclipse three yards per carry. Able to concentrate their efforts to one phase of the Steelers' attack, the Titans defense gained momentum as the game progressed.
Compare the Steelers' passing totals against Tennessee this year to last year: over 100 more passing yards (as the team had to pass far more often)...but far fewer touchdowns. Volume numbers are deceiving and do not consistently coincide with winning football games. Efficiency is the key behind center, and those are statistics that correlate to victory!
Examples include yards per pass, completion rate, touchdown percentage and avoiding turnovers.
The inability to run grossly affected the impact of the passing game. With no open holes to attack, the ground game stalled and the restricted Pittsburgh offense was in a dogfight!
Only an Idiot Would Place Blame on Shaun Suisham
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Suisham has proven his case as a capable NFL kicker, and he proved it on Thursday night. He missed a game-winning 54-yard field goal attempts after hitting three previous efforts, coming up just short.
It was a low percentage kick in the first place. Anyone who puts this loss on his missed kick ("Well, we would have won if...") very plainly and simply has absolutely, positively, irrefutably no clue what they're talking about.
In 2012, Suisham has put critics' claims to rest. Oddly, in his failure in Nashville, my confidence in him grew to its peak to-date.
1) Some may say that it is no coincidence that his first errant kick came in the clutch. Apparently, they're suffering from amnesia. (See: last week)
2) Others may question the power in his leg regarding his final attempt falling short, even though he missed narrowly and nailed a 52-yarder earlier in the contest.
3) And, the final few to question the kicker will say, "He has one job! Only one! And, he didn't get it done..." Quarterbacks get to throw again after an incomplete pass, and they get three downs to do it.
What do 1-3 have in common? They're all ignoramuses.
The losing factors tonight included a punt block, a lackluster running game, a porous offensive line, an errant throw (albeit on a desperate scramble) on third down of Big Ben's final drive and the lack of a defensive stand in the clutch again (again...again...).
Suisham was again among the team's best players through five games.
A Few Positive Nods: Redman, Clark, Wallace, Miller, Allen, Worilds
Image courtesy of the Associated Press
Before continuing this largely pessimistic and scathing reflection on Week 6's contest, it would be neglectful not to mention some great player efforts.
Isaac Redman was a force in the passing game, snagging Big Ben passes to the tune of 105 receiving yards and fighting for every YAC (yard after the catch) that was remotely available. While many will recall his pass reception down the left sideline, his most impressive play was a fiery and powerful run after the catch on a dump over the middle in the first quarter.
Ryan Clark continued to be on a veritable island in the secondary, a unit that has been victimized by poor play by the defensive front and untimely penalties. Clark's shoulder pads have broken up more passes than (it seems) his peers combined, and the safety always seems to be in the right place when called upon to be.
On a defense that failed to get pressure when it was desperately needed, Jason Worilds had more success than his peers in replacing Lamarr Woodley. Worilds' presence was felt more than once in the backfield, and he tallied his third sack of the season.
Mike Wallace may have had a couple drops, but he more than made up for those with an amazing grab of a third down pass along the right sideline in the second half. If the team had shown more killer instinct, perhaps No. 17's 82-yard touchdown grab would have carried more weight in a winning effort.
Heath Miller, despite being needed as a blocker on a number of downs, still put up his typical solid numbers. His six catches for 67 yards were all important, a majority of those converting third downs into first downs. He continues to be the ultimate safety valve (and safe option) for Big Ben to utilize.
Lastly, Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis both had a pair of important passes defensed, and the latter finally made a confident tackle of a sized-up receiver in the backfield.
Ike Taylor Is in a Funk
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Go back and review my Steelers articles over a lengthy period of time, and you will find that I'm a shameless Ike Taylor apologist. In fact, I'm one of his more vocal supporters, a fan of his play, and I believe he is a largely overlooked cog in Pittsburgh's success in recent seasons.
Yet, he is making it more difficult for me to defend him with each passing week in 2012.
Receivers are getting open, and when they're not, he's taking penalties—both necessary and unnecessary. In fact, the Titans attacked the corner relatively often and with great success.
All year, the normally confident defensive back has been in a funk. Though the defensive front has failed to get acceptable pressure on opposing passers, allowing them the luxuries of time perfect footing to fire the football, Ike has been victimized more often that his peers and simply isn't himself.
Though all of the Steelers' corners have excelled far more in man and press coverage than zone packages, Taylor hasn't been able to find a single cure-all (or, even "cure-some") for what ails him.
Ike—where are you?
Congratulations to Big Ben!
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In the words of my Bleacher Report columnist, Nick Dewitt:
Once again, the Steelers wasted a great offensive game by their quarterback and his receivers. Roethlisberger gets the big win tonight for setting a record for most passing yards by a Pittsburgh quarterback.
Eclipsing Terry Bradshaw is huge in this town and something that everyone has expected from Roethlisberger after he started his career with quite a bang.
In the game itself, Roethlisberger was good but not great. He did plenty to put this team in position to win, but the running game and the defense let him down. He threw his second interception. That alone is wonderful because it took so long, but it put the Steelers behind further at the half.
Though I wasn't quite as forgiving about No. 7's overall performance in Nashville (I'd describe it as good, not great), nobody can refute that his accomplishment in eclipsing the "Blonde Bomber" in total yards is special.
Sometimes, people forget how much impact and influence Ben has had on the proud franchise, ushering in only the second championship era in team history. With six titles, it sometimes feels like more, but it truly is only two.
In an interview with Kurt Warner on the NFL Network's pregame, Roethlisberer mentioned that he may not come up in "best quarterback" discussions as it regards statistics, but that he does when it comes to winning!
He may have lost tonight, but his passing yardage accomplishment is a great milestone.
A Nomadic Nation
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Setting: LP Field
Circumstance: Second quarter, 3rd-and-7
Result: Big Ben, stepping up to avoid pressure, fires a pass down the middle to his tight end for a key conversion. Then, the "road" crowd exalted, basking the great Steelers player with praise:
From the volume of the reactionary fans, it was clear on Thursday Night that the "away" in away crowd merely referred to their being away from home. Steelers fans are the ultimate nomads.
As such, it feels asinine to call contests outside of Heinz Field road games, particularly with literally THOUSANDS of Terrible Towels swirling in the distance. Likewise, in battles fought before so many loyal jersey-wearing fans, I can't imagine how the team can suffer through such road woes.
Though Pittsburgh may be struggling in road games dating back to last season, the nationally televised game was another public testament to the amazing passion of Steeler Nation.
The Defensive Front Fell Flat
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Though he left lost yardage on the field due to an irregular pattern of indecisiveness, Chris Johnson used the Steelers defense for his own personal mojo-amplification; on the whole, the Titans back ran decisively and effectively.
In fact, on 19 carries, he finished with 91 yards, nearly five yards per rush.
On a positive note, the Steelers defensive front prevented any long, game-breaking splash plays from Johnson. However, they still left considerable holes open for CJ1K to get favorable yardage.
Likewise, though they had three sacks, the Steelers failed to sustain consistent pressure on Matt Hasselbeck. Oddly, despite harassing him all night, the Titans had one sack on Big Ben. The discrepancy had much more to do with Roethlisberger's magic play in the backfield than a differential in performance by the defenses.
Particularly on key plays and downs, Hasselbeck had time and space to find his receivers, and his completion percentage and output would have been much improved if not for some key drops by the Titans wideouts (namely, Kenny Britt).
Once again, the defense failed to make the key stop on both of the last two drives, allowing crucial third-down conversions in the fourth quarter. The biggest reason starts with a lack of dominance upfront, a glaring issue that stands in contrast with what Steelers fans generally expect.
NOTE: For the life of me, I cannot understand why Casey Hampton is being trotted onto the field, only to be domineered and treated like...
Never mind. My thoughts on the matter are like a broken record whose scratch apparently can't be fixed.
The Spotlight on Mike Tomlin
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I'm glad that he can stay composed in adverse situations, but I NEED to see Mike Tomlin get angry, particularly over Pittsburgh's repeated gaffes.
Also, I realize that hindsight is 20/20, but I have to ask a key question: did anybody else find Tomlin's decision to attempt a 54-yard field goal, even in spite of Suisham's earlier long conversion, way too risky?
Chalk me up under the list of folks who would have punted the football or attempted a fourth-down conversion. Statistics actually bear out the fact that teams are already foolish not to go for it on fourth down far more often, and the Steelers entered the game with the best third-down passing offense in the game.
Let's expand our focus on the circumstances that the team has made for itself.
The most frustrating element of the 2-3 Steelers through five games isn't their mistakes or miscues. It is the repetition of those mistakes and miscues, including:
-Losing on the road.
-Blowing fourth-quarter leads.
-Committing key penalties.
-Being unable to put teams away even under ideal circumstances.
-Failing to make vital adjustments late in games on either side of the ball.
-Playing to the level of the opposition, even when they rank among the league-worst in many favorable categories.
Once again, in the key moments, the team melted like a Sahara snowman. It's an alarming trend, and the Steelers are now 0-3 on the road. Here's another troubling pattern: three losses to AFC opponents.
In a division that features Baltimore and a conference that includes the Texans, the loss total likely allowable to win the AFC North or earn a bye is likely a maximum of four...and that doesn't even account for Pittsburgh's bad spot with tie-breaks.
Considering that an 11-5 team has missed the AFC playoffs, along with the fact that the schedule is only going to get tougher, Tomlin's team is in a tough spot.
Adversity is officially on full-blast. I suppose we're about to see a true test of Tomlin's coaching mettle.