Steel Having Issues: New York Jets Fly Out of Pittsburgh Winners, 22-17
However, the Steelers leave tonight's loss with more questions than answers. Some of these questions are the same old ones that have haunted the Black and Gold for the last several seasons; some of these questions do have solutions but others will have to wait.
While the Steelers are now tied with the Baltimore Ravens atop the AFC North, the Steelers hold a tiebreaker over the Ravens due to the overall divisional record. However, there is a silver lining to take away from the Jets' first ever win in Pittsburgh.
According to the team's official site, the NFL informed the Steelers after tonight's tough loss that they have clinched a playoff spot for the 2010-11 postseason.
How they actually got in tonight without winning a game is anyone's guess. It is probably easier to figure out the BCS formula than how the Steelers clinched a playoff berth tonight.
So while Steeler Nation can breathe a sigh of relief for clinching a playoff spot, here is the weekly observations, solutions and overreactions from tonight's disappointing loss:
Who/what do you blame for the Steelers' loss to the Jets?
1. By not playing tonight, Troy Polamalu won the Defensive Player of the Year
Troy Polamalu, in the previous four games prior to today, caused at least one turnover per game. He showed against the Ravens why he needs to be accounted for on every snap and against the Bengals, he provided spark and offense to a Steelers team that desperately needed both.
However, Polamalu also has been bothered by a nagging ankle injury that has progressively been getting worse.
Polamalu did not practice at all last week and his status for this game was not good. According to several media reports, the Steelers have considered putting Polamalu down for the remainder of the regular season with hopes of getting him back healthy for the postseason.
The Steelers gambled that they could win enough games without their dynamic playmaker to clinch a playoff spot and perhaps the first round bye they desperately need.
The Jets came into today's game struggling horribly on offense. Some thought due to their struggles, the Steelers could afford to sit Polamalu out today.
Well, the defense once again was just not the same without him.
Yes, the defense only gave up one touchdown, a brilliant fake hand-off keeper by Mark Sanchez on a gutsy fourth down call, but the Jets overall converted six of 13 third downs and ran for 106 yards.
The much criticized Sanchez looked respectable, going 19 for 29 because equally maligned Jets' offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer put Sanchez and the Jets in situations they would most likely succeed.
It might sound like a broken record, but here it goes: With Polamalu, the Steelers have a Super Bowl caliber defense; without him, they are slightly above average.
If LaDainian Tomlinson and the Jets can run for over 100 yards, just imagine how well Jonathan Stewart and Peyton Hillis can do against a defense without Polamalu.
I believe that Polamalu, by not playing today, showed once again he is more important to the team than they realize; I also believe he will finally win the Defensive Player of the Year award he so deserves because his importance was magnified even more today.
However, Polamalu's health is one of the top priorities as the Steelers head into the postseason.
If he cannot come back (a distinct possibility given the uncertainty of Polamalu's injury), expect the Steelers to be one and done.
2. Weekly rant of Bruce Arians's status
This is getting to be a broken record, but offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, whether the Steelers go all the way or not, cannot be allowed to come back.
Yes, he is working with perhaps a horrible excuse of an offensive line that got even worse with numerous injuries, but he does not put them in situations to succeed.
Case in point: the Steelers are inside their own three yard line and in a shotgun formation, down 20-17 late in the 4th quarter. Arians calls for a draw play to Mewelde Moore, who is promptly dropped for a game changing safety by an unblocked Jason Taylor.
Jonathan Scott, who is perhaps the worst left tackle in the league, missed the block that allowed Taylor to get through. Instead of running the ball off tackle, which worked for the Steelers all game, Arians calls for this draw play inside his own end zone to Moore, especially since it was only a field goal game at the time. Why?
Rashard Mendenhall also ran for 100 yards and a touchdown. However, he only got 17 carries and had the ball thrown his way just once. It was obvious that the Steelers' offensive line was doing well in creating holes for Mendenhall to run through but why Arians would only give him 17 carries?
Why would Arians replace Mendenhall for Moore, even though Mendenhall was definitely doing much better? Every time the running game got going, Arians would call for one pass after another, resulting in incompletions, followed by a punt. Why?
The best offensive plays for the Steelers involved QB Ben Roethlisberger getting flushed out of the pocket to find Emmanuel Sanders, Hines Ward and Mike Wallace for one third and long after another.
However, those plays would not have been necessary and the Steelers would have been set up in manageable third downs had the playcalling been more efficient.
Why would you sabotage your entire team time and again?
While exciting as it looks, it is pitiful that the Steelers' best offensive strategy the last several seasons was Roethlisberger calling a hurry-up, no-huddle offense, which does not involve Arians as much.
It did not help the Steelers that Heath Miller missed today's game with a concussion. Matt Spaeth, simply put, is not Heath Miller.
Spaeth caught three passes but he also dropped a lot of passes, something that has plagued Spaeth his entire career in Pittsburgh. He could not come down with the game winner on two different occasions on the final drive, the first one not even intended for him according to Roethlisberger.
Spaeth is also an average blocker at best and given his contract runs out at the end of this season, I do not see the Steelers bringing Spaeth back for a fifth season.
I could go on for days about Arians's ineptitude and/or stubbornness, but what's the point?
The Steelers better hope they can rally in spite of Arians as they did in 2008. Arians should receive a lot of the blame for today's loss. One can only imagine if he will cost the team in the playoffs.
However, he cannot and should not be back for 2011 no matter how 2010 ends for the Steelers.
3. The special teams was not so special today
First, give all the credit to Brad Smith, who is probably one of the 10 most exciting returners the league has seen in the last 10 years.
Smith showed his deceptively blazing speed to get past the Steelers' kick coverage team to open the game with a touchdown. However, how many of you were experiencing deja vu—2009 all over again—as Smith blazed past a falling Shaun Suisham?
The Steelers' special teams units for the most part had done well under Al Everest. Today, they did not maintain backside lane discipline and Smith was too fast for anyone to catch.
That kick return changed the course of the game because for the remainder of the game, the Steelers did not kick deep to Smith.
Obviously, nightmares of 2009 danced in the Steelers' heads. That one touchdown gave the Jets the confidence boost the team desperately needed.
Is this one kick return a cause for concern? If it was any other team, the answer is no.
However, given last season's disaster on kick coverage, this should not be overlooked. Jerricho Cotchery also had some good returns on punts.
The special teams needs attention this week.
Antonio Brown should be replaced as the punt returner because his decision making is poor. Last week, he tried to field a punt while several Bengals waited for the right moment to cause a fumble, which they did; this week, he did not do an effective job in stopping the Jets coverage men from downing the punt inside the Steelers' 10 yard line.
Yes, he might be explosive but someone with more experience and better decision making skills needs to be there.
4. The Official Blame Game
The Steelers have felt they were targeted by the NFL for unjustified fines and penalties all season. Today's game is no exception.
Ryan Clark hit Braylon Edwards hard after a reception, which drew a flag and got the Jets closer to their first offensive touchdown in nearly a month.
There were several times where the officials did not throw the flag, most notably when Jets' Dwight Lowery grabbed Emmanuel Sanders's jersey as Sanders streaked into the end zone for a potential game winning catch.
It would be very easy to blame this loss on the officials (and FYI for Steeler Nation, it was Pete Morelli who officiated this game, the same Pete Morelli who reversed the Troy Polamalu interception during the Colts-Steelers 2005-06 AFC playoffs) but the Steelers could not get it done.
Great teams find ways to win and make no excuses. The Steelers have no one to blame but themselves. They lost this game, not the officials.
The Steelers must learn to play to their strengths and execute, not allowing anything to come down to an official's decision. The Jets made all creative plays and the Steelers did not.
As mentioned before, the Steelers have one silver lining from this game: Due to several tiebreakers and other events that occurred prior to the Steelers-Jets game that went in the Steelers' favor, the Steelers clinched a playoff berth.
Another silver lining is the injury to Jonathan Scott, who is perhaps the worst offensive lineman in the league today. His injury will open the door for Trai Essex, who is a horrible guard but did well on the final drive in place of Scott at tackle. Stay tuned on this one.
The Steelers have a quick turnaround, as they face the 2-12 Carolina Panthers this Thursday. Heath Miller should be back for this game while Polamalu will sit this one out again.
Panthers are a team who are in disarray and a team which will likely face serious personnel overhaul in the offseason. However, the Steelers lost to teams like the Panthers last season so they better take this game seriously.
Until next week.
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