This afternoon, on a cold and rainy day at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-7. All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and OLB LaMarr Woodley had big days, returning two Carson Palmer interceptions for touchdowns, the only touchdowns the Steelers scored against the now 2-11 Bengals.
While this win can be interpreted as a great day for the defense and further proof why Polamalu is the most exciting gamebreaker on defense today, one thing should not be overlooked. The Steelers offense was putrid and stagnant at best, especially in the red zone. Have we not seen this movie before, like the last several seasons?
For loyal readers of B/R, you all know I have been one of the harshest critics of Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. I would be lying if I said I was not happy about Arians' alleged firing last January and would be lying even more if I said I was angered beyond belief when the KDKA reports of Arians' dismissal proved to be false.
A quick recap on my dislike of Arians:
One, he should have never been promoted to the position in the first place. Why? Because he was not as qualified as then-QB coach Ken Anderson, who should have been given the shot to call the plays. Arians' only claim to fame prior to sabotaging the Steelers was that he was the offensive coordinator in Cleveland when Kelly Holcomb had a career day against the Steelers in a playoff loss, key word being loss.
Second, the Steelers won the Super Bowl two seasons ago in spite of Arians' ineptitude.
Third, he single-handedly cost the Steelers at least two games last season, the most infamous one being a Thursday night disaster in Cleveland where the Steelers could not muster a touchdown against the lowly Browns. That alone should have gotten Arians' fired.
This season, Arians hasn't exactly been consistent. Sure, when Ben Roethlisberger was out the first four games, the team relied on the running game (the bane of Arians' existence) and went 3-1 as a result. The last three games, the Steelers tried to put their faith behind perhaps the worst pass blocking line in the league and a QB who looks like he went five rounds with Georges St. Pierre after every game. You would think Arians learned by now the offensive line he works with has no pass blocking ability but are solid run blockers. But Arians can't or won't accept this notion.
Today was no different. Despite the win, Arians' ineptitude cannot be overlooked. For one, Arians does not call the run as often as he should. His play calling in the red zone is among the worst in the league. Not only that, the Steelers have now failed to score offensive touchdowns at home against the Bengals in back to back games for the first time. The Steelers have scored just two offensive touchdowns in three games. Who's to blame? You know it, that Mike Martz wannabe named Bruce Arians.
Arians' other claim to fame is his almost Wade Phillips-like touch with the players. The players, especially Roethlisberger, have always supported Arians. Arians is definitely a players coach, a yes-man who allows the players to get away with anything, which is why most players (especially ones who lack self-discipline) love him.
This time around, Big Ben cannot support Arians as much as he did in the past because Big Ben has more important things to worry about, like his own physical well-being every time he drops back to pass. Doing trick plays involving Antwaan Randle El can only get you so far. Even trick plays (like the flea-flicker attempt) nearly end in disaster if not for Roethlisberger's playmaking ability. Even these attempts at creativity gets little love because Arians has worn out his welcome that much.
The way Arians is going, the Steelers will be one and done in the playoffs no matter how well the defense plays. Days like today are not the norm. The Steelers cannot expect to win games against playoff teams when they don't score touchdowns on offense.
If these Steelers are truly Mike Tomlin's team, he should consider taking the playcalling duties away from Arians and giving QB coach Randy Fichtner a chance with more no-huddle packages for Roethlisberger. Please do it Coach Tomlin, before it's too late. This team is not the 2008 version, so good on defense they can overcome bad offensive line play and putrid playcalling. I hope I am wrong about this but either Ben Roethlisberger is going to end up on injured reserve and/or the Steelers will be one and done because of Arians' incompetence.
Now for this week's observations and overreactions.
1. Troy Polamalu is the Defensive Player of the Year
Sure, Polamalu looked silly against Drew Brees and Tom Brady earlier this season, but what defensive player hasn't against those great QBs? However, Polamalu has shown the last four weeks why he is one of the most valuable players on the Steelers. Two weeks ago, he saved the Steelers with an interception at the goal line against the Buffalo Bills. Last week, he had the famous strip sack of Joe Flacco which led to the Steelers win in Baltimore. This week, he provided the offense and a spark for a struggling and stagnant Steelers team against the Bengals.
Down 7-0 in the second quarter, Polamalu intercepted a Palmer pass intended for Terrell Owens and took it all the way to the end zone for the tying score. The Steelers never looked back and scored 16 more points while shutting the Bengals down. Without that touchdown, the Bengals might have (gasp!) won the game today. However, Polamalu would not allow it to happen and further made his case for the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Polamalu works best as a freelancer, which he didn't do several times this season. Polamalu's instincts are unparalleled, which makes him so dangerous for opposing offenses. Trying to put Polamalu in an assignment role is like having a Ferrari that never leaves the driveway. Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau realized Polamalu needs to go back to his role as the wild card and it has paid off the last four games: 4 interceptions, 1 touchdown, 1 sack, 1 fumble caused and 2 tackles for loss. Polamalu is definitely one of the candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, along with Clay Matthews and Cameron Wake of Miami.
2. The officials should help to protect Ben Roethlisberger
For the second straight week, Roethlisberger was hit in the face by a defensive lineman, this time being facemasked. Also, for the second straight week, the officiating crew missed the penalty, further driving the conspiracy train that the NFL is out to get the Steelers.
Yes, Roethlisberger is a beast who shakes 300 pound lineman off his shoulders with regularity, a skill that he calls on often due to the poor excuse of an offensive line that tries to block for him. Yes, Roethlisberger is perhaps the most difficult QB to officiate but how do you miss a blatant facemask?
Are the officials out to "get" the Steelers? I will say no but if the New York Jets hit Big Ben late or facemask him next week with no flags being thrown, I reserve the right to consider changing my stance on this.
3. No let up in the defense
The defense today played superb as expected. The 3rd down defense was very good, only allowing two conversions in eight attempts. The defense gave up a total of 190 yards. Even the embattled William Gay got into the act, recording his second sack of the season. He might be horrible in coverage but Gay has proved to be a very good blitzer.
Sure, the Bengals are a team who are just playing out the string of a horrible 2010 campaign. However, this team still had some good players like Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Cedric Benson.
The pressure on Palmer kept coming and this is a great sign. In the past, the Steelers often went to a 3 man rush and allowed the QB time. The last few weeks, the pressure on the QB was constant, forcing teams to throw quick hot routes or incompletions.
The defense must not let up in the remaining three games, especially against the Jets next week. Next week's game will have playoff clinching scenarios and it will be physical. Sure, Mark Sanchez has looked lost the last few weeks and the Jets vaunted defense has not been as vaunted as it was in 2009. However, there must be no let up and the Steelers must pressure Sanchez into mistakes.
I could also discuss Hines Ward proving he still got it and Mike Wallace getting closer to a 1,000-yard season. I could even discuss Shaun Suisham looking good (for now) kicking toward the south end zone in Heinz Field or about the toughness of Ben Roethlisberger and the freakish speed of Lawrence Timmons. However, all these topics are for another day.
There was concern of this being a let down game after an emotional and physical game in Baltimore last week and the Jets coming to town next Sunday. However, Mike Tomlin and Troy Polamalu would not allow it today. Next week's game against the Jets will be a good barometer for both teams. The Jets have several players who are familiar with the Steelers in some fashion, from former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes to former Raven LB Bart Scott, along with head coach Rex Ryan. Next week will give the Steelers a shot to clinch a playoff berth. Here's hoping that the Steelers keep the winning streak going and Arians does not hinder the offense as he has in the past. Until next week....