Seattle vs. Pittsburgh: 8 Things Steelers Fans Should Watch for in Week 2
The essence of a prideful fanbase, the backdrop of Super Bowl XL saw Steelers fans taking over Ford Field. Seattle lost the championship amidst a sea of flickering yellow.
Those colorful cloths will be whipping again this Sunday at Heinz Field, welcoming back the city where tears have seemingly outnumbered raindrops since that fateful winter day in Detroit.
Unlike that enduring February 2006 night, the Steelers are heavily favored this Sunday—by as many as two touchdowns. On paper, nearly every checked box seems to be on the column labeled "Steelers."
Fans, with the fresh taste of bitter defeat overwhelming their sports palate, hope the projections are accurate.
Obviously, the hope is for a bitter Steelers squad to dominate the beatable 'Hawks, a team that was shut out on the same field in a game Seattle surely targeted for avenge against Pittsburgh in 2007.
Conversely, the team cannot afford an outcome similar to their home-opener in 1999, a 29-10 loss to Seattle. In that contest, the Seahawks rocketed to a 26-0 lead in the first half, including four straight field goals from Todd Peterson.
Since that debacle, the names and faces have changed dramatically, a natural occurrence over a 12-year span. In fact, few faces are familiar from the squads' last meeting only four years ago.
Steelers fans need no dissertation about the importance of this game, both as an opportunity to rebound from the Baltimore debacle and as a chance to seize momentum prior to a month-long, four-game marathon versus the AFC South.
Here are things to keep your eyes on this Sunday when Pete Carroll and the new-look Seahawks attempt to pull off the upset.
Sidney Rice and the Steelers' Secondary
Against Anquan Boldin, Bryant McFadden came up lame, causing a natural (and far too common) reaction in Steelers Country—the verbal crucifixion of the secondary.
With man coverage against Boldin, McFadden got burned twice by the physical Ravens receivers, a luxury that Pittsburgh cannot allow for Seahawks receivers, namely Sidney Rice.
If the prime target of the Seahawks plays, the secondary cannot allow Rice to produce the momentous plays that set the tone against Baltimore.
On a fantastic touchdown catch early in the game, a thought entered fans' minds almost simultaneously, "Should Bryant be isolated against Boldin?"
Taylor was far more effective against both receivers, begging another question, is McFadden a liability?
Many in Steelers Nation suspect this is the case, and a rebound game from the secondary could go a long way in silencing the critics of the unit and McFadden individually—at least for this week!
Yet, for Boldin's huge plays in that game, Pittsburgh's secondary did a great job of preventing Baltimore's receivers from having substantial impact. Defensive assignments seemed to be mistimed or off altogether.
Much like against the Patriots in 2010, the Ravens utilized their backs and ends in the offense, and the Steelers' secondary obliged, allowing Baltimore's intermediate passing game to work underneath with surgical precision.
Obviously, adjustments will be necessary to avoid a long 2011 season. There is no reason Seattle’s offensive attack shouldn’t be a tonic for what ailed the Steelers in Maryland.
Marcus Gilbert and the Offensive Line
Tackle Marcus Gilbert and the whole offensive line need to have a solid outing against Seattle. Entering the starting lineup after a season-ending injury to Willie Colon, Gilbert will put the hype to the test.
Can he pass protect? Can he pick up on adjustments, and is he mature enough to avoid critical penalties? Against the helmet in front of him, can he create a lane for the runner?
The first critical test comes Sunday.
He may not be protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side, but maybe a solid season will tempt movie makers to cast for Gilbert in a sequel called "The Throwing Arm Side."
Okay, so maybe movie producers aren’t jumping on the newest sports hit.
Still, Gilbert needs to perform well in order to potentially solidify a long-term starting spot along the offensive line. A "need" area for the Steelers for multiple seasons, any improvement along the offensive front is welcomed.
After a "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" against Baltimore, keen eyes will be focused on this unit, whose health and improvement were among reasons for optimism this preseason.
The Defensive Front
When Washington's Tim Hightower ran seemingly at will against the Steelers' defensive front in the first exhibition, it was rightfully categorized as a fluke.
After all, Pittsburgh's front seven was the NFL's best against the run, a veritable brick wall standing in the way of even the game's most physical runners.
"Surely, the game against the Redskins was an aberration," many said. "They simply didn't want to show Baltimore what they've got!"
A healthy Aaron Smith returned to the lineup, along with nose tackle Casey Hampton, and football's most dominant run-stuffing crew....
Got hit with a sledge hammer!
Ray Rice decimated the Steelers, rushing for more than 100 yards and greater than five yards per carry.
Seattle's leading rusher, Marshawn Lynch, carried 13 times; the result was only 33 yards.
Against a ground attack that was offensive for all the wrong reasons in San Francisco, the Steelers will have to get back on track to secure the swagger and pride that have largely come to be taken for granted in the Steel City.
In retrospect, Sunday's blowout loss may be the catalyst the team needed to understand the journey ahead. Being the best isn't a matter of being—it is a matter of doing.
After Ray Rice's clinic, today's "Steel Curtain" has a lot to be doing better!
The Return of Bill Leavy
Steelers fans largely view Seattle fans as excuse-makers, unable to accept their loss in Super Bowl XL as the cumulative result of the team's inability to make plays in the clutch. Seahawks fans contend that this deficiency would not have even been necessary to overcome if not for the sordid officiating of Bill Leavy and his crew.
Replays will always show that Ben Roethlisberger broke the plane of the goal line during the team’s first-half touchdown or that Darrell Jackson committed offensive pass interference.
More importantly, however, they will also highlight the immediate turnovers and breakdowns showcased by Seattle after every controversial moment.
As a Steelers fan, this is my prerogative.
And, so long as that game is fresh in everybody's mind, it will be a major marketing point and focus story heading into the inter-conference tilt.
Years after the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl, Bill Leavy actually apologized to Seattle fans, almost as if to denigrate Pittsburgh’s accomplishments in Bill Cowher's most important game as a coach.
Naturally, Steelers fans had adamantly sided with Leavy’s performance, so the subsequent apology did not set well with Steelers Country.
With his apparently guilty conscience, fans have to wonder if Leavy’s assignment this Sunday isn’t misplaced. In a perfect world, officials would do their jobs accurately without any level of bias.
In fact, Leavy’s intention is surely to officiate Sunday’s game devoid of any favoritism.
Nevertheless, it is simply human nature—even at the most subconscious levels—to have bias and the desire to right wrongs.
After all, what’s an apology without a little validation? Given their awareness of the situation, circumstances are ideal for a cynical crowd at Heinz Field.
Seattle's Road Woes
In the state of Washington, the 12th man at Seahawks' home games is revered as the most boisterous in all of football.
Sadly, outside of the comforts of home, Seattle is realizing that other teams also boast raucous home crowds and winning on the road in the NFL is tough.
The Seahawks have been a "Sea Crock" as visitors. Seattle is 3-15 against the spread in their last 18 road games, including last week's 33-17 shellacking to the seemingly pedestrian San Francisco 49ers.
This certainly implies psychological fragility for a team looking to prevent an 0-2 start. Against a premiere opponent like the Steelers, Seattle will be motivated to shock the football landscape with an upset victory.
For their dedication, if Pittsburgh can take an early lead and open the flood gates, they will turn that inspiration into hesitation. The Steelers need to open the flood gates and establish to Seattle that this trip is no different than any of the others.
Apparently, the "12th man" of the former Qwest Field doesn't like to travel any further than the team's home games.
Unfortunately, the team doesn't seemingly like to make the trip, either!
Coach and Player: The Limelight Will Be on Troy Polamalu and Pete Carroll
"Reunited...and it feels so good!"
If the game goes as expected, it'll feel a lot better for Troy Polamalu.
Pete Carroll, the star safety's coach during his college career with the USC Trojans, has offered glowing praise regarding Troy this week.
Naturally, Polamalu has returned the favor.
For the first time since his collegiate days, the two men will roam the same field. Carroll will stand point on the sideline, looking to pull the biggest upset of the NFL weekend.
In his return to the NFL, the former coach of an arguable Trojans dynasty is 8-11 with Seattle.
Polamalu will be watching the eyes of Tarvaris Jackson, looking to force his first turnover of the season and have an impact on defense that nobody on the unit could conjure against the Ravens. With Jackson—an unproven quarterback—still familiarizing and building chemistry with his offense, the little things can often go overlooked, such as physical and verbal cues that tip the opposition to your plays and intentions.
On a new offense and with an ailing receiver (Rice), the circumstances are perfect for Polamalu—one of the most deadly defenders in the league—to make a game-changing play, a knack he has demonstrated so often in his career.
Steelers fans will agree that it has been far too long since the brutalizing banshee, No. 43, has made a standout impact play on defense—dating back to last year's season finale against the Cleveland Browns.
With confidence that the defensive line will return to form, I expect Tarvaris Jackson to be forced into the offensive spotlight early in the second half. A one-dimensional Seattle offense (in fact, even a two-dimensional Seahawks offense) should be prime prey for "Polly," who certainly wants far more than just a cracker at this reunion party.
Ben Roethlisberger's Rebound
After an abysmal afternoon last Sunday, Ben Roethlisberger will look to respond with a fine effort in the team's home-opener.
On the other side of the field is a Seattle secondary that stands tall, but certainly is not exceptional. If the Steelers get back in rhythm, especially early, it will be a long day for Kam Chancellor (the 6'3" defensive back taking over for veteran Lawyer Milloy) and the Seattle secondary.
While his passing yards were limited, Alex Smith played a mistake-free game against Seattle's defense, completing 75 percent of his throws. His management was enough for a 49ers win. His yards per attempt were putrid, but Ben represents one of the most elite modern passers regarding average gain.
If Smith was able to manage the Seahawks' defense, Ben Roethlisberger and his arsenal should be expected to exploit it. The caliber of skill players seen last week pales in comparison to the receiving corps that will be launched at the young Seahawks this coming week.
While Mike Wallace had fine numbers in Baltimore, the entire offensive unit—from the running backs to the receivers and the line to the quarterback—knows it has to play much more crisply...and wisely!
Fans in Pittsburgh realize that living with Ben sometimes means dying with Ben, but seven turnovers is never acceptable, sinner five from the quarterback himself. His gunslinger mentality rears its ugly head on occasion, and Sunday's game against Baltimore saw his rifle needing a sight adjustment.
By the same token, that gunslinger motif has a gorgeous head to counteract the ugly version, and when it does its "rearing" the results speak for themselves!
In his career, Roethlisberger has bounced back well from bad performances. He has a plethora of 100-plus quarterback ratings against various opponents, and every season sees a handful of these monumental efforts that Steelers fans have come to take for granted.
(Raise your hand if you'd swap Ben for Kordell!)
Roethlisberger's 59.2 rating against the Ravens was one of the lowest of his career, and the franchise quarterback will look to reinvigorate the fans with a fine home performance.
Anyone who is familiar with Ben expects a big game against Seattle.
Antonio Brown vs. Seahawks Special Teams
After watching Seattle's special teams get decimated by the 49ers, it's natural for Steelers fans to be overzealous. Watching Ted Ginn, Jr. almost single-handedly destroy the hopes of a kickoff victory for the defending NFC West champions should be a catalyst for salivation amongst Steelers fans, and Antonio Brown is surely dreaming of a sensational Sunday.
Brown had a huge impact in Week 2 last season, taking a reverse kickoff for a touchdown in a 19-11 win over the Tennessee Titans.
Can the dangerous special teams threat have another Week 2 to remember?
Last week, Ginn demonstrated the Seahawks' special teams as a potential liability. This means two things:
1. Seattle will focus on the play of this unit during preparations for their upcoming game.
2. If Brown (or the Steelers) can come up with a big play on special teams early in the game, it would send a backbreaking message to Seattle: "Here we go again!"