The Pittsburgh Steelers fell to the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints Sunday night by a final score of 20-10. The final score, however, gives no indication of just how poorly each team played offensively for the first three-and-a-half quarters of a game that was supposed to compete with and steal substantial ratings from the World Series.
On Halloween night it was pretty spooky to see the boys in black and gold masquerading like the 2009 version of themselves.
The Steelers were standing at a crossroads as a team this week after regaining Ben Roethlisberger and losing Aaron Smith in the last two weeks.
To the left loomed a return to their 2009 form whereby they caved defensively without their run-stopping, pocket-collapsing defensive end and abandoned the run game in order to live and die by the deep pass. To the right, a decision to stick with what has made them successful thus far offensively and defensively, while incorporating a more potent passing game into a much improved and balanced running attack.
What did the Steelers do?
Instead of hanging a hard right, they plunged headlong through the fork in the road and refused to do either entirely.
While the front seven were simply outstanding defensively, despite not having starting defensive ends Aaron Smith (IR) and Brett Keisel (hamstring), the Steelers continued to struggle against the pass once they stopped applying pressure in the fourth quarter. Despite the common theme of fourth-quarter let downs, the Steelers showed no breakdown against the run in Smith’s absence.
The offense, however, brought back nightmarish memories of a the team that began the season 6-2 before becoming a pass-happy, flag football team that didn't have the meddle to punch the ball across the goal line with a shortened field in the red zone in 2009.
Are the wheels falling off once again in Pittsburgh?
For those of you on the ledge, don’t jump off the hot, metal bridge just yet. While there are reasons to feel uneasy about the team going forward, the 2010 version of the Steelers certainly provides you with more positives to keep you on this side of eternity than last year’s version of the team.
While you may have to wade through the ugly to get to the positives, there may be more good to take away from Halloween night in New Orleans in this week’s edition of the good, bad and ugly than you may have seen at first glance.
Say what you want about James Harrison and the way he plays the game of football, but there is no denying the fact that what he brings to the field on each and every play is game-changing in nature.
James Harrison was not good Sunday night— he was great.
Harrison’s night (five tackles, three quarterback hits and a sack) was not staggering from a numbers standpoint. When those numbers are further evaluated and combined with the aspects of the game that don’t garner stats, however, it is hard to overstate his importance to the Steelers defense.
Harrison’s lone tackle for a loss was during a goal-line stand that thwarted six offensive plays from inside the six-yard line by the Saints. While he hit Drew Brees four times—once on a sack—Harrison was breathing the same air as the Saints Pro-Bowl quarterback all night.
The kind of pressure and intensity he provided to a team that could have easily become tired and flat with little to no offensive production was simply invaluable, especially to a Steelers defense that was lacking one of its cornerstone veterans in Aaron Smith.
If James Harrison was great, the rest of his supporting cast at linebacker was very good.
The Steelers line-backing corps played with an intensity that mirrored Harrison's and in the process were responsible for 26 tackles, including five of the Steelers’ six tackles for a loss and five of the seven quarterback hits on the night.
Lawrence Timmons (12 tackles—two for a loss—and one quarterback hit) is continuing to prove that his athletic abilities in terms of speed and strength are in the upper echelon of linebackers in the NFL. If his mental game and his ability to stay home and man his gap in running situations improves in the near future, he could become the name everyone mentions when they talk about the Steelers defense.
While the Steelers defensive line may not have had the stats that the linebackers did—and they seldom do—their play, in comparison to the better games they have had this season, was right there with their best performances.
Despite playing without two of three starters in a 3-4 defensive scheme that demands so much in terms of responsibility from its defensive linemen, the Steelers defensive line, especially nose tackles Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke, stepped up to the challenge.
Both Hampton and Hoke made key plays in goal-line situations Sunday night and continued to clog the running game, something the Steelers had a difficult time doing without Aaron Smith last season.
If this particular unit can continue the level of play they showed against the Saints, there is little reason to be concerned moving forward this season—especially once Brett Keisel returns from his hamstring injury.
Many have been very critical of Roger Goodell and the NFL front office for trying to legislate the game in ways that most would say take away the very essence of the game. But Steelers fans may need to thank the commissioner for waking up the peaceful warrior.
James Harrison has taken changes to the NFL’s big hit policies perhaps harder than anyone. After the league shelled out a $75,000 fine on the league's most violent hitter, Harrison considered retirement because he wasn’t sure how to play the game any other way than he had been taught.
Yet it seems that the guy in the Steelers locker room that took more offense to the changes than anyone else was one Troy Polamalu.
While Troy Polamalu has always been a Samoan warrior on the field—resembling a lion stalking and perusing his prey with his main blowing in the wind behind him—he has more closely resembled an orthodox monk off of it.
Polamalu rarely has much to say when asked his opinion, but this past week Polamalu had some strong things to say concerning the rules and changes the suits of the NFL are making.
Polamalu is a spiritual man with deep faith and an even deeper sense of purity. If you have ever spent just five minutes in conversation with him, you understand the almost inexplicable dynamic of purity I am trying to describe in his conversational skills.
He is quick to think but slow to speak, an almost extinct characteristic amongst NFL players.
So when he was asked about the new rules this week it was quite surprising to hear this soft-spoken man of mystery speak so candidly and passionately about his feelings on the subject.
Phrases like “find a new profession” were used about players who don’t like the violence of the sport, or “you are overstepping your boundaries as a commissioner or a referee when you try to legislate aspects of the game that change the very essence of football.”
When Sunday night rolled around Polamalu played with a passion and an intensity he has been lacking for more than a few weeks. Not known for big hitting, Polamalu exploded into receivers with textbook form several times.
The idea of a post-play skirmish involving a Steelers defender and an opponent is not hard to imagine—one involving Polamalu, however, is almost incomprehensible, but it happened in the first quarter.
While no one wants Polamalu to change his ways off the field, his new attitude regarding the game almost seems to have become his cause. He played fired-up mad and proved his point in the process.
Whether it is a righteous crusade to protect the purity of the game or just something that struck a nerve with Polamalu, it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Steelers.
Their play has been poor, lacking, ugly even. Heck, the way they have played in pass coverage this season should make the presence of the Steelers secondary (with the exception of Polamalu) on the same field borderline insulting to the front seven.
Some of it has been play calling in the fourth quarter, but for the most part the Steelers secondary has been the weakest link in terms of performance all by themselves.
Despite being in the bottom quarter of the league in pass defense and being on the ugly list of shame for the better part of the season, the secondary managed to fluctuate somewhere between ugly and borderline-good last night until the bottom fell out in the fourth quarter.
In the blink of an eye the fourth quarter came, the carriage turned into a pumpkin and a nice night in the big easy left the Steelers faithful wondering if it had all just been a dream.
With the exception of William Gay, the Steelers corners have the speed necessary to cover receivers in man coverage. However, the cushion given at the line of scrimmage is becoming bigger by the game, and it has opened up the short passing game for opponents almost as much as using zone coverage at midfield.
The Steelers are going to need to tighten up pre-snap and may need to look at bringing an inverted cover two into the mix more frequently as things progress if they hope to right the ship. Of course, the idea of continuing the blitz rather than abandoning it during the fourth quarter will make the situation a lot easier as well.
The way the Steelers secured the football Sunday night was a continuation of the ugliness that began last week in Miami.
After finding new ways to fumble the football a week ago, the Steelers continued to put the ball on the ground in Week 8.
Rookie kick returner Emmanuel Sanders once again put the ball on the ground after fumbling the opening kickoff last week.
While there is no denying that Sanders has some impressive physical tools, he might want to think about spending more time in the gym working on his upper extremities. The way the ball is being so easily separated from his body is indicative of a strength issue as much as it is of his trying to do too much and growing careless with the football.
Perhaps nothing hurt the Steelers more in Sunday’s loss than Heath Miller’s fumble as they were driving downfield, 13-10, in the fourth quarter.
The Steelers had just scored their first touchdown of the game on the prior drive and forced a fumble to get the ball back. With all of the momentum in their favor the Steelers came out moving the ball down the field in chunks. Then the normally sure-handed tight end caught a pass over the middle for a 25-yard gain and fumbled the ball as he was fighting for extra yardage.
The Saints recovered the fumble before it even touched the ground and proceeded to methodically pass the ball down the field for an eight-play, 48-yard touchdown drive ending in an eight-yard touchdown catch by Lance Moore with 2:37 left to play.
Ben Roethlisberger would come out to throw an interception on the ensuing drive, but not before the momentum and the game was all but out of reach.
If the Steelers are not going to run the football as in weeks past, they are going to have to take better care of the football in every facet of the game. Turnovers have led to substantial scoring opportunities over the course of the last two weeks, and as last the score shows, the defense is not going to be able to make a stop every time in order to compensate for the mistakes.
The Steelers gained an offensive lineman in Trai Essex but continued to play as though they were only allowed to have three of them on the field at a time Sunday night.
While Max Starks has been relatively solid alongside Chris Kemoeatu, rookie Maurkice Pouncey, the right side of the Steelers line, has not played well as of late.
Essex, along with right tackle Flozell Adams, were solely responsible for the Saints’ three sacks on Ben Roethlisberger. Aside from the obvious stats, the complete lack of chemistry between the two after Essex missed the better part of a month was compounded by a full out argument on the sidelines in the first quarter.
After the layoff many will want to blame Essex’s performance on rust, but frankly he is only confirming what we already knew with regards to his body of work from last season. Essex was slow off the ball and even worse at staying on his feet once he got them moving in Sunday’s loss.
While Doug Legursky had a week to forget last week and his three penalties against the Dolphins, his presence in the running game was especially missed this week in the limited playing time he saw.
While the Steelers coaching staff is likely going to give Essex another week to regain whatever form it is they think he has, Legursky seems to be a better choice at this point in both facets of the game.
With the success the Saints had recklessly blitzing the Steelers, they can expect to see a lot more of it in weeks to come.
The Steelers are slowly but surely abandoning the running game once again, and their "live by the long pass" mentality could very well become the sword they fall on if they don’t find a way to protect Roethlisberger long enough for receivers to get downfield.
The only thing worse than watching the Steelers red zone offense the last two weeks has been the play calling going into what is seen on the field.
When the Steelers are having little success running the ball, tightening offensive formations against an already swarming defense is clearly the wrong choice. The Saints had been stacking seven to eight men in the box all night on the Steelers, but Bruce Arians continued to run goal-line formations with an extra offensive lineman, pulling defenders even closer to the center of the play rather than spreading them out.
While Ben Roethlisberger’s return has done wonders for the passing game, it has seemingly given Arians the license to jump ship on a pretty successful running game to this point.
As I have said time and time again, you cannot change your offensive philosophy once you get in the red zone. If you get the ball in the red zone in one particular fashion—in this case passing it—it makes no sense to change the rhythm and timing of the offense by taking the air out of the ball on the goal line.
Losing is never a good thing, but it can certainly have its positives if you will.
The combination of Troy Polamalu coming out of his shell a bit combined with the performance of the front seven is enough to give fans hope moving forward.
When you can score just three points through the first three quarters of a game against the defending Super Bowl champions and still be in it, there is reason to believe progress can be made.
The continued persistence of Rashard Mendenhall and Hines Ward despite continued changes in philosophy after all but seemingly having formed an offensive identity with a solid running attack and the return of Roethlisberger is encouraging—especially after watching the team dynamic fall apart under similar circumstances in 2009.
The Steelers will play a struggling Cincinnati Bengals team next week on Monday night. The Bengals are likely to come into the game with the same chip on their shoulder that the Saints did this week, and the Bengals always get up for a game against the Steelers regardless of their record.
While some may think this is a game to get back on track against an inferior opponent, this is precisely the type of game the Steelers need to avoid being trapped by.
The Bengals are coming into the game with Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco playing very well, and their defense boasts two of the more dynamic cornerbacks in the league in Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall. With the struggle the Steelers are having stopping the pass and with their best success coming from throwing the football, the Bengals are still a formidable opponent despite their recent performance.