After one day to think about how close the Pittsburgh Steelers were to getting upset by a tough Buffalo Bills team yesterday, one word still remains on my mind: luck.
How else could you explain Bills' return ace Leodis McKelvin running into his own blocker at midfield to start the overtime period? How else could you explain Stevie Johnson, a second year player who is having a Pro Bowl caliber season, drops a perfect pass in the end zone in overtime?
One could answer, hey, these are the Bills, and that could serve as a rational answer.
However, the Steelers still escaped from Buffalo with a 19-16 overtime victory and are now 8-3. Yesterday's miracle did several things, such as make one usually pessimistic person (me) believe in miracles and two, kept the Steelers firmly in the very tight AFC playoff race, a playoff race where 10 wins might not be enough. Now for this week's observations, answers, and yes, overreactions from yesterday's game.
1. Daniel Sepulveda is the Steelers' true MVP
During the first quarter of the season, the Ben-less Steelers relied on the defense and running back Rashard Mendenhall to earn a 3-1 record. During the second quarter of the season, the Steelers took advantage of QB Ben Roethlisberger's playmaking ability and the best deep threat in the NFL today in WR Mike Wallace. The second quarter Steelers also went 3-1.
As the Steelers are about to close out the third quarter of the season in Baltimore next Sunday, only one word can describe them: inconsistent. Inconsistent has been the hot word describing the Steelers since the Mike Tomlin era began in 2007. Inconsistent offense, inconsistent defense, you name it. However, there has been one player who remained consistent throughout the entire season: punter Daniel Sepulveda.
Sepulveda has quietly been the best Steelers' player all season, key words being all season. Yes, early in the season, safety Troy Polamalu and running back Rashard Mendenhall helped carry the team. Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison (the fines aside) have put up great numbers.
Roethlisberger has also done his part, as did Wallace. But throughout the entire 2010 campaign, Sepulveda has bailed out the Steelers by consistently making excellent punts and yesterday was no exception.
In overtime yesterday, Sepulveda, backed up in his own end zone due to a Roethlisberger sack, boomed a 55-yard kick that flipped field position. Yes, McKelvin fumbled the ball and the Bills recovered on their own 34-yard line, but Sepulveda's efforts should not be understated.
Sepulveda punted the ball at his best when the Steelers needed him to and has been one of the key reasons why the Steelers' defense does not face too many short fields since being drafted by the Steelers in 2007.
Sepulveda's contract will run out at the end of this season and it's anyone's guess as to how the new CBA will go for 2011. However, the Steelers would be a lesser team without Sepulveda and they must make him one of the top priorities in the offseason.
2. At least for now, questions about Shaun Suisham have been answered
Shaun Suisham, who replaced long time kicker Jeff Reed, kicked four field goals yesterday to help the Steelers in their escape from Buffalo. While we have seen Reed kick many field goals before, the Steelers have not seen Reed make one between the 40s this season, a red flag indeed. All four of Suisham's field goals were in the 40s.
This does not necessarily mean that the Steelers as a whole will breathe a collective sigh of relief because this was not done in Heinz Field, the bane of all kickers' existence. Yes, Buffalo and its weather conditions make it a tough place to kick but its turf allows for more sure footing than Heinz Field does.
While I applaud Suisham for his efforts, let's wait and see if Suisham, who has a history of missing big kicks (how else could the Steelers just pick him up off the street if he was great?), can make a 40-plus yard kick in Heinz Field when the game is on the line, which Reed has done for many years. Until then, that question about Suisham remains unanswered.
3. Bruce Arians is still an issue....
But that issue got some brains yesterday during overtime. The Steelers started out hot with the run yesterday, going nearly eight minutes on a long drive that ended with a Mendenhall touchdown run.
However, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians would call up one pass play after another in the second quarter, putting his weak offensive line and his QB in greater jeopardy.
One drive in the second quarter comes to mind and here are the numbers: 11 plays, 21 yards, eight minutes, one holding call, and two sacks. Arians single-handedly tried to put Buffalo nose tackle Kyle Williams into the Pro Bowl on that one drive.
Arians dialed up the run against the worst run defense in the league during overtime but you get the picture. It's the same old thing with Arians every week. The 2010 Steelers, however, are not on the level of the 2008 Steelers.
The 2008 Steelers won in spite of Arians's stubbornness and ineptitude. Why pass the ball so much when the offensive line, already decimated by injuries, is struggling worse than usual? Why pass the ball when the opposition has the worst run defense in the league?
On the game winning drive in OT, the Steelers ran 13 plays, only three being pass plays. Just putting it out there. I know that Mendenhall fumbled again and he is one game away from being put in the Ahmad Bradshaw category, but he is still a workhorse and his 36 carries for 151 yards proved he can be counted on.
With news of Roethlisberger's foot injury, the Steelers might be forced to run the ball more, but with Arians, things like this never stopped him before.
4. These are not the 2009 Steelers
One thing for sure is that yesterday's game proved to me these Steelers, by luck or skill, found ways to win instead of finding ways to lose like they did last season. Whether it was defensive collapses, special teams disasters, or horrendous offensive execution and play-calling, the 2009 Steelers missed on the playoffs and failed to defend their Super Bowl title.
The 2009 Steelers lost games like the one yesterday. However, these Steelers got it done when it was necessary. The 2010 Steelers remain in the driver's seat for the playoff race and the playoff race is extremely tight. How tight? 10 wins, the standard barometer for playoff teams, might not be enough this season unless you are in the AFC West.
However, the Steelers have an easier schedule to finish out the 2010 campaign. The Steelers will go to Baltimore next week for the game of the season for both teams but then come home for three straight against the already given up Cincinnati Bengals, the New York Jets, and the hapless Carolina Panthers.
The Steelers will finish the regular season in Cleveland. It is extremely possible for the Steelers to get to 11 wins and make the playoffs this season and prove the doubters wrong. What they do in the playoffs is another story for another day.