Steelers vs. Giants: 6 Observations After Pittsburgh's Huge Week 9 Win
After a slow, uncertain beginning that included two fourth quarter collapses against non-quality opponents, the Men of Steel have now earned their first winning record of the year thanks to a three-game winning streak. Consecutive successes over NFC East foes have infused optimism in Steeltown.
Frankly, if the Steelers finish atop the NFL for a seventh time this February, few will debate that the team's rally against Big Blue was a "Big Boost," making Week 10 the potential cornerstone Sunday.
Meanwhile, while communities in New York and New Jersey continue to pick up the pieces in an effort to carry on—both figuratively and literally—the Steel City is looking forward to a familiar (and very purple) foe in the coming weeks with hopes of a division championship still intact.
Before moving ahead to a pivotal Monday Night Football homestand, let's reflect on the momentous Pittsburgh victory at MetLife Stadium.
The Offensive Line and the Running Game
A three game tally of 376 rushing yards has turned early season ground game frowns upside-down. Against the G-Men, the 'Burgh ran roughshod.
Isaac Redman picked up where Jonathan Dwyer left off last weekend. Credit must be given to both backs for hitting the hole hard in recent weeks, continuing to drive their legs in the effort for every last available yard, and showcasing a beautiful combination of agility and power not seen since Jerome Bettis.
Part of the problem for the backs may have been an overly complicated and foreign playbook, considering the transition to the Todd Haley offense. Haley slimmed down the run options, and many on the team feel that this concerted focus on mastering a smaller number of rushing plays has benefited the offense as a whole.
Per guard Willie Colon, "Early in the year, we were doing a little too much maybe. We’re keeping it extremely simple and starting to be repetitive and really owning in to what we’ve got to do.”
However, the biggest reason for the sudden surge of the Steelers' running attack is the offensive line. Not only are the linemen blocking more effectively and keeping open holes that closed so quickly in the early weeks, but they're also not shooting themselves in the foot presnap.
Gone are the foolhardy penalties that put the offense "behind the sticks" in down and distance. The combination of great blocking and the everydown option to run has translated to a (drumroll!)... ground game.
In place of infractions and missed blocks, the offensive hogs are now winning their individual battles and even getting into the second level. Re-watch Redman's final, game-clinching run to witness a run blocking clinic.
On a line that is opening holes and showing a proficiency absent for at least a few seasons, Maurkice Pouncey and Willie Colon have been particularly special, blocking with authority and often continuing their onslaught into the second level of the defense. Colon has often demanded two defenders.
Additionally, despite little acclaim, Mike Adams- who has struggled in pass protection- has laid down solid blocks from his tackle spot. And, lastly, let's not forget the hard work in the run game put in by the tight ends and wide receivers.
Keenan Lewis and Friends
Often, success in the Steelers' secondary is attributed by cynical fans to other factors. Did the defensive line get pressure? Was the opposing passing game mediocre or worse? Did the backfield get lucky?
However, even those most critical of Pittsburgh's defensive backs can agree that Sunday's fine effort was the result of their skill. Sure, Eli Manning did see some pressure, and the Giants did force a few penalties.
So what? In today's NFL, passers will make plays, but containment is the key. By current standards, Sunday's effort was about as close to shutting down an elite quarterback as anyone can ask for.
Eli Manning finished 10-for-24 for 125 measly yards, throwing no touchdowns and suffering an interception. Regarding the pick, did I mention that Ike Taylor caught a football...with his hands?!
Sarcasm aside, the real star of the secondary was Keenan Lewis, who sported a Rod Woodson swagger.
Though that may be overstating things, nobody can contest that Lewis's impact on defense was huge. He got a hand in to break up a potential touchdown pass in the first half and made a masterful play in coverage against another Manning deep ball. A pass interference penalty was called against him, a ridiculous error in officiating, but Lewis' performance on the play was superb.
Whereas nine Steelers caught passes, only four Giants had at least a catch. Early last week, one marquee matchup we focused on for the game pitted Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz against Keenan Lewis and Ike Taylor.
Combined, Nicks and Cruz caught six passes for 77 yards.
Antonio Brown Will Be Missed, but the Steelers Will Be Fine
Antonio Brown is projected to miss Monday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs, begging the question of how the offense will fare without him.
Having Brown on the field is always the better option. He is a great intermediate level receiver and a true nightmare for defensive backfields, always finding a way to get open, turning short passes into long gains and picking up first downs of any distance.
He is the essence of a possession receiver and his blazing speed only makes his style of play all the more deadly. He fits perfectly into the Todd Haley mold, a great target on an offense that is clearly focused on getting the football into playmakers' arms quickly and efficiently.
In all of these ways, he will be missed. An ankle injury against New York took him out of the game, and the Steelers offense initially struggled in his absence. With Brown having limped out of the contest, many surely wondered just how extreme the offensive dropoff would be minus Antonio.
However, the unit did eventually get things together, settling back into form despite the loss of No. 84. Here's why Brown won't be missed, or more accurately, why the Steelers will overcome his absence.
First, the ground game has been superb, which has only further confused opposing defenses and allowed great offensive balance.
Secondly, the Steelers have playmakers that have proven themselves in the new offense, albeit in smaller roles. Emmanuel Sanders' fine touchdown catch was one of a slew of his underrated contributions this season, and the physical veteran Jericho Cotchery is an experienced, sure-handed, and reliable option.
Lastly, Roethlisberger has been an "equal opportunity" passer in 2012, distributing the ball to an unbelievable array of hard-working recipients, ranging from Mike Wallace to Will Johnson and Heath Miller to Leonard Pope. An overreliance on Brown (or any one target) has not been an issue for No. 7 in the new offense.
Throwing in a Forest
In the NFL's recently released annual highlight reel, the recap of Super Bowl XLVI included audio of Tom Brady discussing the game's happenings with coaches and peers. Among those clips, New England's Hall of Fame passer noted the difficulty of throwing against the Giants, comparing it to "throwing in a forest."
Indeed, the air in the Big Blue sky is full of trees, or at least very pesky limbs! Giants defenders are among the most proficient at using their long arms to disrupt the passing game.
The great defensive fronts can not only get pressure and win individual matchups, but they also have additional elements to their attack. Part of what makes the front of Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and friends special is their ability to use their limbs to their advantage, forcing passers to make throws at awkward angles and batting down so many of those attempts.
In the first half against Pittsburgh, Big Ben realized that his big height wasn't such a big advantage against the New York defensive front. At least a trio of would-be completions fell harmlessly to the ground, deflected by a fingertip if not altogether batted back down. Many fans will recall Justin Tuck's leaping bat-down of a pass in the backfield.
A defensive front's ability to use their arms in pass defense also forces quarterbacks to change their delivery points and throwing motion, altering their normal motion to adjust for such obstacles. Nobody changes passing angles better than the Giants, and that serves to make Roethlisberger's performance on Sunday all the more impressive.
Additionally, though Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Jason Pierre-Paul each registered sacks (totaling four), they failed to sustain the type of consistent pressure that has been a Giants trademark in recent playoffs.
The Case for McLendon (Again)
The Steelers have been blessed with the presence of Casey Hampton in the past decade. An effective 3-4 defense starts with a supremely dominant nose tackle, and "Big Snack" has fit the bill.
Though Hampton has always been a far better run stuffer than pass rusher, his presence always commanded respect, taking up multiple blockers and consistently stacking up with the elite tackles in the NFL regarding individual performance. In recent months, Casey hasn't shown the same power or commanded the same respect.
Still, he's getting by. My issue of late hasn't been so much with Hampton's declining performance, which has improved in the last couple of games. My issue is with a promising young tackle that isn't seeing appropriate playing time in Steve McLendon.
In his recent article, Joseph Bruno notes the profound impact McLendon had during the Giants game despite limited playing time. In my opinion, the Steelers defense would be far better served by Steve's youth, skill, and balance of run stopping and pass rushing skills.
The team needs to balance their snaps at nose tackle, even if only to keep Hampton fresh.
Big Ben Owns His Draft Peers Head-to-Head
The 2004 NFL Draft brought in a quarterbacking trio that is compared to 1983's Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and John Elway. The modern gunslingers include Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, and Philip Rivers. Many have debated which of these passer is the most elite of the '04 draft.
Of the three, only Manning and Roethlisberger have won Super Bowls, while only Big Ben has appeared in three Super Sunday outings. Both Eli and Big Ben are known for their clutch play, particularly in the fourth quarter.
In fact, all three games pitting Manning and Roethlisberger against the other have included a fourth quarter comeback. In '04 and '12, Big Ben nipped the Giants, while Eli rallied Big Blue at Heinz Field in '08. Further, both have led a Super Bowl winning touchdown drive in the final quarter.
However, no matter one's personal preference for one of these passers over the other, one fact clearly rings true: No. 7 owns his two draft peers in head-to-head matchups. His record against Manning and Rivers improved to 5-2 Sunday evening.
In fact, Roethlisberger thoroughly outplayed Manning, who appeared to be disconcerted and out of sorts for long stretches. The Giants offense had three straight three-and-outs in the second half, Eli failed to throw a touchdown (and barely managed to lead a touchdown drive), only four Giants caught passes, and the team barely averaged five yards per throw.
Conversely, Big Ben hit nine different receivers, used his mobility and backfield savvy to avoid pressure and led the Steelers on a momentous fourth quarter comeback that could be the springboard to much bigger things in the coming weeks (or, hopefully, months).