The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers 27-3 this Thursday night. The Steelers now stand at 11-4 and still control their own destiny to clinch a first round bye for the playoffs. After a disappointing loss four days ago to the New York Jets, a win this evening against the Panthers kept the Steelers on track. However, for me personally, no opinions about the 2010 Steelers changed.
Sure, the Steelers won by more than three touchdowns and held the Panthers to 119 yards, but what did we all find out? Nothing new. The defense still misses Troy Polamalu? Knew that. Ben Roethlisberger holds onto the ball too long and takes unnecessary sacks? Knew that. Jonathan Scott is still a terrible offensive lineman? Of course. Bruce Arians still needs to be fired? Let's all hope so. All of these things we pretty much knew already.
Yes, winning games in the NFL is tough, but if ever was a 27-3 win unimpressive, this was it given all the sloppy play and ball control issues. Yes, the Steelers lost in a similar situation last season, when they went into a 1-11 Cleveland on a December Thursday night and lost any realistic chance of making the playoffs so there are no gimmes.
The defense was good but let's get real. The defense took advantage of a rookie quarterback who needed to stay in school badly. In other words, they did what they were expected to do against a team who will undergo serious overhaul in the offseason. There was nothing too terribly impressive about that. Everyone knew the Steelers had a solid defense and the Panthers' style played right into the Steelers' strengths.
What are the Steelers' biggest concerns after tonight's win against the Panthers?
In games after a tough loss, you expect the team to come out fired up and put on a great display as the team did against the Oakland Raiders after the loss to the New England Patriots. A win is a win, sure, but this did not have the emotional charge I expected after the loss to the Jets. Luckily all wins count the same in the standings.
So without further ado and to further avoid depressing you all during this holiday season, here are the weekly observations, solutions, and overreactions:
1. Mike Wallace= 2010 Pro Bowler
Wallace, the super fast second year receiver, showed once again today why he is arguably one of the five most explosive players on offense in the NFL. In the second quarter, Wallace took a quick slant from the slot position and outran the entire Panthers' secondary for a 43 yard touchdown. For at least a few minutes, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians looked smart.
That quick slant is a play that the Steelers used frequently with current Jets receiver Santonio Holmes when Holmes played for the Black and Gold. Wallace is not quite at Holmes's level in terms of route running and getting separation from the cornerback but the quick slant should be used more often as the Steelers head into the playoffs.
There are not too many defenders who can catch Wallace or run with him. Yes, Hines Ward is still the go-to guy, as evidenced by the eight times Roethlisberger targeted his way, which led the team. However, Wallace brings a rare speed element, 40 speed that translates into game speed.
Wallace has improved every week since his rookie season and he has a legitimate chance at the Pro Bowl this season, which would make him the first Steelers receiver to make a Pro Bowl roster in his second season since Louis Lipps did it in 1985. With the development of rookies Emmanuel Sanders (4 catches for 54 yards) and Antonio Brown (2 for 20), the future of the Steelers' receiving corps is bright.
2. Welcome back, Heath Miller
Ben Roethlisberger might be an exciting playmaker but Heath Miller is by far the most important player on the Steelers' offense. Miller has very good durability, missing just four games in his six year career. The Steelers are just 2-2 in those games.
Miller is very underrated as a run blocker and he displays excellent hands as he runs intermediate routes over the middle. Miller did not disappoint this evening, catching five passes for 73 yards. Miller made one crucial catch after another and Roethlisberger clearly feels comfortable throwing Miller's way. The chemistry between the two players is excellent.
Another reason why the Steelers struggle when Miller is out is because Matt Spaeth is nowhere near Miller's level. Spaeth has average hands at best and he is not a good blocker. Spaeth has to be among the league leaders in holding calls by non-offensive linemen since he came into the league in 2007. There is a reason why Miller got a big contract extension and why Spaeth will likely not return to the team next season. If you need further proof on Miller's importance, just rewatch the last three games, including tonight's win.
3. Still having red zone issues
You might think after scoring two touchdowns in the red zone, the Steelers would have solved their scoring problems. No, the problems are still there. It helps when your quarterback is 6'5" and weighs close to 250 lbs and your running back is 225 lbs and has very quick feet. Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall can erase a lot of problems just with their talents. Both scored the two touchdowns in the red zone but that does not mean the red zone questions have been answered.
The obvious issue in the red zone goes back to the offensive line, particularly Jonathan Scott. Last week, I criticized Scott as the worst offensive lineman in the league. Tonight he did not do anything to change my opinion. He misses two more blocking assignments early in the game that got him replaced with Trai Essex. However, much to many Steelers fans' dismay, Scott came back. Until Scott is benched for good, the Steelers will not be able to effectively run the ball to the left side, as evidenced by the two lost yardage plays in the first quarter.
The much maligned Arians and Roethlisberger should both shoulder the blame for red zone ineffectiveness. I will not devote this segment on Arians because that's all been done many times over. However, Roethlisberger needs to be more careful with the ball inside the red zone. Also, where is Hines Ward?
Ward has not caught a touchdown pass since week nine in Cincinnati. Ward, one of the best in the league inside the red zone, should be put in situations where he can best succeed. No, putting him in situations where he is double and triple teamed as he was this evening does not count as a situation where he can best succeed. This red zone issue must be remedied by the playoffs or the Steelers will be one and done.
4, Who should return punts?
Rookie Antonio Brown might be exciting and he is growing and maturing as a receiver, but for the rest of the season, he should not be returning punts. Antwaan Randle El might not be what he was five years ago, but he has experience and he should be given all the punt return duties for 2010.
Brown made more questionable decisions tonight, such as fielding a punt off a bounce while Panthers' coverage team was waiting to pounce. He made moves like this before and it's a matter of time before his inexperience and eagerness to try to spark the team costs the team with a fumble recovery by the opposing coverage team.
Yes, Brown is more likely to return a punt for a touchdown than Randle El, but with Brown, a costly mistake in special teams is more likely than a gamebreaking return. Returning kickoffs is one thing, punts are another. At least for the playoffs, Brown should not be allowed to return punts. Wait until 2011 season for that.
The Steelers will get a few extra days to heal before their next game, against division foe Cleveland Browns. The Browns upset the Steelers last season and virtually ended their chance to defend their Super Bowl title in a 13-6 loss, the only game from 2009 where the Steelers never held the lead in any point in the game.
Given that the division foe Baltimore is fighting for their playoff lives against the hapless Bengals and the aforementioned Browns, the Steelers will likely have to beat the Browns to ensure a first round bye which they desperately need.
No other team in the league needs a playoff bye more than the Steelers. If the Steelers do indeed get the bye, that will give the tough but battered Roethlisberger an extra week to get well. It will give Troy Polamalu an extra week to rest and heal the Achilles' tendon. It also might give Aaron Smith, missing since week 7, a chance to return to the Steelers' defense.
It might be misleading but here is a stat (what stat isn't?) that every Steeler fan should know: the last time the Steelers lost when Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, and Troy Polamalu all played in the same game? December 21, 2008 in Tennessee.
Sure, that stat is skewed by the number of games missed by both Polamalu and Smith, but you get the picture. When all four play, the Steelers are nearly unbeatable. Are they ready to play the Patriots this season? Probably not but if Smith and Polamalu come back close to full strength, don't bet against the Black and Gold.