Last week, I wrote an article on why the Pittsburgh Steelers should thank the New England Patriots for the embarrassment before a national television audience. All this week, the national media overreacted and wrote the Steelers off as a pretender who can easily be beaten by the short pass, a team with serious kicker issues and a team with perhaps the worst offensive line in the NFL today.
Yesterday in Heinz Field, some questions about the Steelers were answered, others were left unanswered and new questions arose, as the Steelers dominated the upstart AFC West leaders Oakland Raiders, 35-3. For the most part, the Steelers answered back with vigor and fire not seen in Heinz Field for a while.
Now for my observations and naturally, my overreactions, from yesterday's performance:
Let the Conspiracy Theories Begin
It seems every week this season a different Steelers defensive player has been fined for a late hit or a helmet-to-helmet hit. Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley (one of the fined players) even admitted he held up a few times, but that did not help him today, as he too was flagged for a questionable late hit on Raiders QB Jason Campbell.
Commissioner Roger Goodell's favorite whipping boy, 2008 Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, also was flagged for a hard hit on Campbell that negated an interception return for a touchdown by CB Ike Taylor.
Safety Ryan Clark was flagged for a hard hit on speedy rookie WR Jacoby Ford, which puzzled everyone. There were at least four more I probably omitted, but you get the picture. The Steelers for the most part were penalized for playing hard-nosed defense.
This game was marred with one penalty after another. The third quarter was harder to watch than a Dane Cook movie. Despite playing their best game of the season, the Steelers left at least two scores on the field because of the over-zealousness of Tony Corrente's crew.
Did the league office (I specifically mean Ray Anderson and Goodell) tell Corrente's crew to "crack down" on the Steelers?
I for one would like to believe that Tony Corrente, a respected official who worked a Super Bowl before as a referee, just had a bad day, as did his crew. However, that will not save him from the venom of the Steeler Nation and even casual fans everywhere this week.
Luckily for Corrente, the game ended in a blowout, so his calls likely did not affect the outcome. But that should not mean Corrente and the league gets a pass.
Wins might be the ultimate cure-all, but this is an issue that must be nipped in the bud immediately.
I would hate to think that the league wants to get rid of the toughness and hard hits that have defined the game for nearly 100 years. It was pitiful hearing color commentator Dan Fouts, a former QB, constantly blast the officiating crew for penalties called for hard hits on the QB. I would hate to think what would have happened if it was Peyton Manning or Tom Brady taking those hits instead of Jason Campbell.
I have a feeling this issue will linger on the entire season since the Steelers will not change their identity on defense and will keep the hits coming.
The Steelers Defensive Identity is Back
Last week against the Tom Brady-led Patriots, the Steelers defense were surgically sliced and diced to pieces and undressed, 39-26. It was anyone's guess as to how the Steelers would react after an embarrassing performance like that. Luckily, the Steelers found their defensive identity again against the Raiders, a team tailor-made for the Steelers defense.
Styles make fights. The Steelers do not match up well against teams who heavily rely on a spread-out, short passing game that negates the pass rush. The Steelers match up great against teams that rely on the run heavily and like to throw the ball deep off the success of the running game.
The Raiders were the perfect tonic for what ailed the Steelers defense this week. Raiders running back Darren McFadden, who led the league in rushing yards per game this season, was stopped in his tracks with 10 carries for 14 yards. Outside of one draw play for Michael Bush, the running game for the Raiders never got going.
Because the Raiders got behind by multiple scores so quickly, they had to rely on Jason Campbell, and later Bruce Gradkowski, to make plays in the passing game. This opened the floodgates for the Steelers pass rush. Penalties be damned, the Steelers made life miserable for the Raiders offensive line and both QBs in silver and black yesterday. The same pass rushing crew that could not touch Tom Brady once earned six sacks against the Raiders.
Here is hoping (at least for the sake of the Steeler Nation) that the pass rush does not slow down or stop for the remainder of 2010 season.
Mike Tomlin Making Changes
If you noticed today, the Steelers had both rookie WRs Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders active yesterday for the first time all season, and both contributed greatly while veteran WR Antwaan Randle El did not. Randle El himself was not targeted for a single pass, and outside of the almost disastrous gadget play in the first quarter, he was seldom on the field.
Randle El has struggled most of the season, and it is wonder to many why Randle El was even brought back in the first place. Sure, no one will forget Randle El's place in Steelers lore of yesteryear, but that was a long time ago, and Randle El is a shell of his former self.
Sanders is getting exponentially better every week and caught his second touchdown in as many weeks yesterday. Brown flashed his quickness and top end speed several times, proving his worth on punt returns.
Brown definitely has the ability to take any punt back for a touchdown, and expect both players to be active for all games the rest of the season while Randel El's role keeps getting lessened.
Guard Trai Essex was also benched in favor of Ramon Foster yesterday. While Foster might not evoke memories of Alan Faneca in his prime, he is clearly better than Essex, who is the worst lineman I have seen in a Steelers uniform since Todd Fordham or perhaps Sean Mahan. After last week's debacle, Tomlin had to make this personnel move before QB Ben Roethlisberger got seriously hurt by an A-gap blitzer too quick for Essex.
This does not mean the Steelers offensive line suddenly got better.
No, Jonathan Scott was still out at left tackle, and he is definitely a backup, not a starter. Any type of long-term injury to guard Chris Kemoeatu and rookie standout center Maurkice Pouncey could sink the Steelers out of the playoff race.
Pouncey and Kemoeatu suffered injuries yesterday, but early prognoses say both will be okay. However, expect to see rookie Chris Scott, just activated from the PUP list, to get more reps at practice as the season progresses and possibly enter the starting lineup.
Here's Hoping Shaun Suisham Has a Quiet Stay in the 'Burgh
Did anyone notice the new guy kicking for the Steelers yesterday? He is no other than ex-Redskin and ex-Cowboy kicker Shaun Suisham, who made his 2010 debut with five points.
The Steelers and the Steeler Nation did not get to find out if Suisham can overcome the turf and wind of Heinz Field and won't for at least three more weeks. the Steelers don't return home until Dec. 12.
My take on ex-kicker Jeff Reed. I was a huge Reed fan. Reed might have been a drunken frat boy who loved to party, but come game day, Reed was money, especially in Heinz Field. However, Reed did himself a great disservice by blasting the Rooneys and VP of football operations Kevin Colbert in the summer for not extending his contract (strike one), for missing kicks (strike two) and for making excuses for missing said kicks (strike three).
Reed was ejected for criticizing the fans and the turf at Heinz Field, which face it, will never be mistaken for the fairway at Augusta National, but it is ground that Reed kicked on with success for over eight seasons.
Kickers can lose it at the blink of an eye. I wish Jeff Reed the best of luck, but here is hoping the Steelers never have to find out if Suisham can make a 40-yard plus field goal toward the open end of Heinz Field, down by two, with less than 30 seconds to go in the game. If Suisham's past history is any indication, the Steelers are doomed, and Reed will get the last laugh.
Last thing this Steeler Nation member needs is nightmares of Kris Brown and Todd Peterson coming back in December and January.
Mike Wallace is Officially the No. 1 Receiver
While I don't want to marginalize Hines Ward's role on the team, Mike Wallace has become the Steelers go-to receiver. Sure, Ward is still important to the team, especially on third-and-shorts and in the running game, but Wallace is slowly becoming the team's No. 1 receiver.
Everyone knows about Wallace's speed, but it was a 27-yard catch in the first quarter that confirmed it for me. It jump-started a Steelers offense that day, but it also showed Wallace's ability to catch the ball in traffic while covered. The Steelers scored their first touchdown on that drive and never looked back.
Wallace later took a short crossing route to the end zone for a 52-yard touchdown. No one in the league is going to catch Wallace from behind, and his progression this season from last season has been one of the bright spots on offense.
It is good to see embattled offensive coordinator Bruce Arians finding more ways to get Wallace the ball beside through deep throws and reverses. Wallace is not just a one-trick pony anymore. He is developing into an all-around receiver.
With Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders developing as well, the future of Steelers receiving corps is bright.
The Steelers answered the bell after a disaster against the Patriots. Last season, the Steelers lost a fourth quarter lead and could not hang on to beat the Raiders, which further put the Steelers in the downward spiral. That 2009 game against the Raiders defined the Steelers season.
Will this season's game against the Raiders define the 2010 Steelers?
It remains to be seen, but in today's week-to-week NFL, the immediate future shines bright on the Men of Steel.