The Pittsburgh Steelers demolished the Cleveland Browns today 41-9, finishing the season with an impressive 12-4 record. The Steelers once again won the AFC North and earned the all important first round bye in this season's playoffs.
While the Browns were finishing out another disappointing campaign, this was by far the best game played by the Steelers this season. The Steelers allowed most of the Browns' 225 yards when the game was already decided and the Steelers did not turn the ball over on offense. While the Steelers rest up and get well before their next game on January 15, here are the observations, analysis, and overreactions from today's game.
1. Finally, a game where I can't criticize Bruce Arians
This was the one game the entire season where the offense had true balance and the playcalling was well timed and inspired. I have criticized offensive coordinator Bruce Arians time and again but today, I cannot find any real faults. The red zone issues? How about four touchdowns from inside the 10? Bland playcalling? How about the wide receiver reverse pass by Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward?
How about not taking enough deep shots to super fast receiver Mike Wallace? How about the deep post to the second year pro from Ole Miss for 56 yards to start the game?
Sure, the tone on Arians can change very quickly in the playoffs. Do I still want to see Arians gone? Yes, but at least for today, Arians showed he can dig deep into the playbook for well timed gadget plays and he also showed he is willing to run the ball, even if Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer average around three yards per carry.
Yes, the offensive line still scares me and it could end up being Pittsburgh's undoing in the playoffs. However, Arians needs to stay aggressive in the playoffs and stay with the run since the much maligned offensive line's only strength is run blocking, as seen in the past several weeks.
2. Troy Polamalu=Defensive Player of the Year
Sure, Green Bay's Clay Matthews, Chicago's Julius Peppers and Dallas's DeMarcus Ware will all justifiably get consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award but Troy Polamalu should win the award. Yes, he does have seven interceptions and has countless other game changing plays, but his impact on the Steelers' defense is greater than any other defensive player in the NFL.
Polamalu quickly showed his importance when he intercepted a tipped pass in the first quarter which set up the Steelers' first touchdown. The Steelers' defense plays with much more confidence and swagger with Polamalu on the field. Without Polamalu, the Steelers have a good defense. With him, well, they won two Super Bowls and are now contending for a third.
While the 2010 Steelers' defense set a new record for stopping the run, this defense is nowhere near the level of the 2008 or even the 2005 teams. However with Polamalu's ability to hide some of the deficiencies, this defense is definitely championship caliber.
3. So after much thought, the bye week was important
Speaking of Polamalu, there was much debate on whether he should have played today or not. After all, the Steelers already clinched a playoff berth, were the best road team in the NFL this season, and the Browns were playing out another double digit loss season. However, the Steelers have long memories. They remembered that last season, a 1-11 Browns team beat the Steelers 13-6 which sealed their playoff fates in Cleveland. No way something like that was going to happen again.
The Steelers took the chance and activated Polamalu, who made his presence felt on the first drive of the game with his seventh interception of the season. Polamalu played the first half and left the game with no known injuries. The Steelers needed a first round bye more than any team in the league (the Eagles could probably argue this point) and they put themselves in good position in the race to Dallas.
Defensive lineman Aaron Smith has not played since late October but he could come back in a couple of weeks or the AFC championship game should the Steelers advance. A bye also gives a banged up Ben Roethlisberger another week to rest and not get hit by opposing linemen. Yes, the Steelers finished with a league best 7-1 road record, but playing at home is still better than going on the road for the playoffs.
4. Regular Season review
With the regular season officially over, I would suggest you all to go back to various experts' picks (ESPN, SI.com, etc.) and remember how they thought the Steelers would finish this season. Many of them had the Steelers missing the playoffs with an 8-8 or 9-7 record. Given that the Steelers surpassed the expectations of many of these "experts", is the season a success no matter what happens in the playoffs? If you ask the Steelers, the answer is no.
There was no champagne in the locker room after today's win and very few players actually wore the hats and t-shirts with "2010 AFC North Champions" emblazoned on the front. As Mike Tomlin stated, it's hardware on the way. You have to love the attitude of the Steelers team and their leader.
This Steelers team, after every loss, bounced back with a win. In every quarter of the season, they finished 3-1. Sure, they lost in every way you could think of, from a last second heartbreak against the Ravens, a sloppy game in New Orleans, a blowout against the Patriots, and horrible offensive coaching against the Jets.
After each game, the Steelers bounced back and won. Mike Tomlin, the leader of this team, has to be given credit for the results and the effort.
5. Shout outs for some awards
Speaking of their leader, Tomlin should be the NFL Coach of the Year. Will he win? I doubt it. The award will likely go to Kansas City's Todd Haley, Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris, New England's Bill Belichick, Atlanta's Mike Smith or Chicago's Lovie Smith. Tomlin will likely not win because most writers who vote on these awards will point to the talent on the roster which did not have much turnover from the 2008 team.
However, that should not take away from Tomlin's ability to keep the team in line during the Roethlisberger suspension, replacing Santonio Holmes, and the development of the rookies on offense this season. Tomlin should win the award but he likely won't.
Speaking of another guy deserving some hardware, after watching the St. Louis Rams-Seattle Seahawks game, I want to say that Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey deserves to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Will Pouncey win? Heck, he probably won't even finish in the top five in voting but that does not take away from what Pouncey brought to the Steelers this season.
Pouncey became the first rookie center to make the Pro Bowl since 1955, meaning not even Dwight Stephenson, Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson did it. Rams QB Sam Bradford is a good player and will likely win the award, but Pouncey deserves it. OK, it is really tough to play QB in the NFL as a rookie, but think about this. Rookie QBs can be put in situations where they can best succeed or be "game managers" (see Ben Roethlisberger 2004; Matt Ryan 2008, Mark Sanchez 2009, Bradford this season).
To say that Bradford singlehandedly carried the Rams would be a stretch. The Rams did not allow Bradford to throw the ball downfield too often and relied on running back Steven Jackson and a short passing game: the Rams averaged 10 yards per catch coming into tonight's game, the league's lowest.
You can "hide" QBs, but how do you hide centers? Pouncey was a rock all season and the primary reason why the Steelers rushed for over 100 yards in 12 out of 16 games this year. Sure, there are no ways to quantify Pouncey's impact like you could for Bradford or Tampa Bay's Mike Williams, but that should not take away from voting for Pouncey. After all, it is Offensive Rookie of the Year, not the best Rookie Position Player of the Year.
The Steelers got what they wanted, a first round bye and at least one home playoff game. Just like the regular season, it is anyone's guess how the Steelers will do in the playoffs. Will they come out aggressive and firing on all cylinders like they did today in Cleveland or will they be lackadaisical and flat from the time off?
Will the Steelers have Troy Polamalu at full strength and will they have Aaron Smith at all? If the Steelers do have Polamalu and Smith close to full strength, you have to like the Steelers' chances against anyone. Until next time.