The Steelers lost to the Cincinnati Bengals today, simultaneously giving an upstart team much needed momentum and drawing more questions from a traditional powerhouse. For first time since December 2001, the Steelers lost a game that they held a lead of at least 11 points (that December 2001 loss was also to the Bengals, 26-23 in overtime).
The Steelers have more questions than answers after today. Identity on offense? What identity? Play calling in the second half? What about that "great" defense? Here are some observations from today's debacle in the Jungle:
1. Bruce Arians still needs to go: The offense once again looked OK in the first half. The running game led by Willie Parker appeared to be back to his old form, rushing for season high 93 yards on 25 carries. Ben Roethlisberger kept plays alive like only he could, completing deep passes to Hines Ward and rookie Mike Wallace. Then the second half began.
In the second half, Parker rushed for 21 yards on 11 carries, compared to 72 in the first half on 14 carries. Suddenly, the Steelers' offense stagnated once again. In the third quarter, Roethlisberger threw an interception that Johnathan Joseph returned for a touchdown, a devastating play given the final score.
The offensive line gave up just one sack today and played much better than they have in the past. However, the run blocking and schemes still need much work. Willie Colon is still not a right tackle and it baffles me that he has started at that spot since 2007.
Once rookie tight end David Johnson left the game with an injury, Arians gave up on the lead blocker, once again sticking by his infamous line, "I will never have a fullback in my offense." Last season, the Steelers won in spite of Arians and this season, the Steelers lost two games that they had no business losing because of his play calling and lack of imagination.
The Steelers scored only seven points in the second half and made some questionable calls (such as the fourth down call on the Bengals 35 but then kicking from the same spot a series later, among other calls). Did Cincinnati make the correct adjustments or did offensive coordinator Bruce Arians make no adjustments? Either way, Arians's play calling once again let the Steelers down. He needs to go before he costs the team another game.
2. Limas Sweed is making me pine for Lee Mays. Sweed, the second-year receiver out of Texas, was supposed to be a dependable big target that Roethlisberger so desired after the 2007 season ended. At 6'4" with good speed, Sweed appeared to be a quarterback's dream.
However, Sweed has been nothing but a disappointment thus far. He has not been the Plaxico Burress type player that some envisioned, or even an Amani Toomer type. Sweed dropped a critical pass in the end zone, which might have been the game sealing score.
Remember his drop against the Ravens in the AFC championship game? Sweed is now known more for dropping the ball and anything else. Not even I can blame Bruce Arians for this one. Sweed needs to shape up fast or else someone might take his job if he has not done so already.
3. Speaking of taking Sweed's job, Mike Wallace is as good as advertised. In just his third game in the NFL, Mike Wallace caught seven passes for 102 yards and flashed the uncanny deep speed that got the Steeler Nation excited when the Steelers drafted Wallace in April.
While many people thought that Frank Summers would be the rookie that would make the biggest impact this season. I too fell in love with Wallace's deep speed and figured he would have the biggest impact, but as a kick returner (more on that later).
I did not think that Wallace would get a 100 game so early in his career but he did. From setting up the game winning field goal in week one against the Titans in overtime to today's big day, Wallace has been as good if not better than advertised. That is one sliver lining that the Steelers can take away from today.
4. Despite his one big return, Stefan Logan has been a disappointment. Logan, the mighty mite underdog from the CFL, won a roster spot based on his performance in the preseason. After all, a glaring weakness of last season's championship team was the return game, or lack thereof. Enter Logan.
However, Logan has not been anything special. Matter of fact, I still believe Mewelde Moore was just as good last season. While Logan has amazing lateral quickness and acceleration, he has not been a valued asset that I thought he would be. No one fears him like I thought they would.
I still think that Mike Wallace should be given some kick return duties. Yes, there is a greater risk of injury but with Wallace's speed and acceleration, he would actually cause fear in opposing special teams unlike Logan. After all, Logan did his damage against most guys who are no longer on NFL rosters, not special teams aces.
5. Until further notice, the Steelers should not be lauded as the "No. 1 defense." This defense reminds me of the 2003 6-10 team more than anything, just waiting around and reacting instead of attacking. It surprises me that Dick LeBeau (who was not with the team in 2003) is the defensive coordinator given his past track record.
Does the defense miss Troy Polamalu? Absolutely. However, before this season, the Steelers were 6-2 without Polamalu. Polamalu's replacement Tyrone Carter is not the freakish athlete and playmaker that Polamalu is but he was at fault for both touchdowns against the Bears last week.
Today against the Bengals, the Steelers got nickeled and dimed by Carson Palmer, often using the three-step drop and throwing short slants to complete passes against the Steelers' secondary, who gave the Bengals' receivers a huge cushion on most plays.
In the first half, the Steelers' run defense was very stout, shutting down Cedric Benson. In the second half, Benson gashed through the vaunted Steelers defense, capped off with a 23-yard touchdown run that brought the score to 20-15.
What happened to the attacking, aggressive Steelers' defense? Where is the intensity from Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison? What has LaMarr Woodley done thus far? Last week, the Steelers gave up an inconceivable 97 yard drive to the Bears.
Today, they got picked apart a piece at a time by Carson Palmer. I do not want to hear how good the defense is until they make a critical stop like they did many times last season.
Hopefully the Steelers will answer these questions next week against the 2-1 San Diego Chargers, whom the Steelers defeated 35-24 in the AFC Divisional Round this past January. This will be I think the most important game of the season given how the last two weeks went for the Black and Gold. Until next time...
Next game: against San Diego at 8:15 PM Eastern