Cardinals vs. Steelers: 10 Observations from Pittsburgh's Week 7 Win
The Pittsburgh Steelers finally played a complete game on the road against the Arizona Cardinals. While cynics will pick apart elements of the game, ranging from unnecessary penalties to Troy Polamalu's slip on Arizona's second touchdown, optimistic fans realize that the team is on the right track.
With towels waving in abundance and Black and Gold blanketing the red venue, University of Phoenix Stadium served as Heinz Field West on Sunday evening, and the Steelers didn't disappoint a largely home crowd. From the atmosphere to former players across the line of scrimmage, it was almost as though the confluence of the three rivers transplanted itself.
After deflating the scattered fans in red who arrived for a true home game via a 95-yard touchdown bomb to Mike Wallace (a Steelers passing record), Ben Roethlisberger and the offense watched Kevin Kolb and company close the gap to 17-14 quickly.
Undaunted, Pittsburgh finally responded like champions in 2011, quickly reestablishing their lead before the defense forced a safety and allowed the offense to slowly bleed away the competitive phase of the game.
With the defense, offense and special teams all playing well, this week's observations have a glow that fans of the defending AFC Champions have awaited. Here are 10 notes from Sunday's 32-20 Steelers victory in the desert.
The Disenchantment Steelers Fans Avoid!
In Pittsburgh, the key phrase isn't just "Here we go!" It's also "where we go," and it's often whichever NFL city is next on the list, no matter the distance!
Yesterday's game was a stark reminder of how great Steelers fans have it in their football lives. There are many elements of the game that we take for granted!
For example, everyone credits Steelers Country for traveling well, evidenced by the sheer takeover of University of Phoenix Stadium.
Conversely, imagine how hardcore Cardinals fans (yes, they exist!) must have felt. Could you even stomach the idea of Heinz Field covered in purple for the upcoming Ravens contest?
Any true Steelers fan shudders at the thought. Thankfully, unlike other franchises (who struggle to sell out their home games and often get blacked out of television coverage), these are worries that Steelers fans don't share!
Lamar Woodley Found His Smelling Salts
The big boot has returned! When Woodley is hitting his drop kick with regularity, things tend to be going well for the Steelers defense.
With two sacks in yesterday's game, Lamar had his finest effort of 2011. In addition to his statistics, he forced Kevin Kolb into an intention grounding penalty in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
The key play gave Pittsburgh's offense the ball, and the Steelers led by two touchdowns and a two-point conversion shortly thereafter.
When key players are making the one or two plays per game that is expected, the cumulative result is something that is simply missing when their contributions are absent.
Like Woodley, other members of the team are now establishing their roles. Ryan Clark contributed with a turnover. Troy Polamalu is inches away from leading the league in forced fumbles, and his disrupting nature has been on display all season. Ike Taylor is dominating receivers from the cornerback position, and his effort against Larry Fitzgerald was beyond respectable.
The defense's stars are finally registering in big moments, and Woodley's play in Arizona is a prime example of the huge lift this brings the squad!
Antonio Brown Is Developing....and Blossoming into a Fine Second Receiver
For weeks, Mike Wallace has been the post-game toast of the receiving corp, and his legendary and record breaking catch could earn him a spot again this week. In Week 7, another receiver equaled his talented peer!
In the first half against the Texans, Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown missed each other with frequency. Arms were thrown in the air, questioning throws and routes. Exasperation clearly led to adjustments, as the young receiver made key catches in the second half at Reliant Stadium.
Since that set of quarters, Antonio Brown has been a consistent go-to receiver in the Steelers offense. In fact, beyond a contributor, the young pass catcher who blossomed in the preseason is becoming a force!
With all of the potential showcased in exhibition and a lot of hard work becoming apparent, Brown has kept the Steelers offense on the field on multiple occasions, showing up for the big catch like a certain predecessor with similar attributes: speed, concentration, dependable hands.
It's certainly too early to be sure, but an intuitive writer once foretold of Brown's potential, foreseeing this type of development in 2011!
With another great game in Arizona, Antonio is quickly becoming a solid second option. How about seven catches for over 100 yards and a touchdown?
Hey! Take off the "S" in Santonio, and you get....
Okay, I digress!
A Few Special Teams Concerns...including Sean Suisham
In a week of optimism and success, fans are naturally wondering, "what concerns does he have about special teams? Suisham made all three of his kicks, each was critical and the coverage unit was great."
While Suisham's success indoors does help relieve anxieties about his ability to kick in ideal conditions, Heinz Field is a different animal. With winds whipping and the game's best kickers constantly falling victim to the horse shoe, I'm not convinced the Suisham will see the success needed in the postseason, assuming he is attempting a kick at home in January.
Don't get me wrong. Like any man of Black and Gold blood, I root for our kicker's success. Yet, with that success, I feel inadequate leg strength is being hidden.
Even if the Steelers don't play at home in the playoffs, many of the conference's best teams are from the northeast, such as Baltimore and New England. In other contests, Suisham has been wholly inaccurate (leading the league in misses heading into yesterday's action). With a successful performance, concerns will be rightfully allayed, but this is my actual concern: Should they be allayed?
While all of Steelers Country should be stoked for his success in yesterday's game, I still don't feel he has the leg to be a long-term answer for the team.
I'm a firm believer that Suisham is a huge liability in the clutch, and I was pleasantly surprised that he made his attempts yesterday.
Despite my apparent pessimism, the coverage units have been solid throughout the season, barring any minor gaffes. Opponents selecting to return kickoffs that are deep into the end zone are certainly assisting in this effort.
While I can understand the Cardinals taking the risk late in the game (as a quick score was worth the compromise of bad field position), the birds attempted to fly from the coop all day! When the coop is reserved for an automatic trip to the 20-yard line, seeing red jerseys falling at the 11-yard line certainly calls into question the decision making of many return specialists.
Arizona suffered on numerous drives with bad starting field position as a result of illogical kick returns. Is anyone else noticing this questionable trend?
The Running Game Is a Concern That Won't Get Fully Fixed
While it seems the running game is also a guessing game, it should be said that Rashard Mendenhall really needs to step up his game. His anemic average has shades of Willie Parker 2009 written all over it, which is wholly unacceptable. Improvement is necessary, but will the problem be fixed in full?
The Steelers rushing attack is simply inconsistent. While the offense ran for tough first downs late in the game, multiple drops for losses and stretches without substantial gains continued to mark a season that has seen predominant issues for the running game.
In Arizona, occasional running lanes were forgettable, and stuffs were far too common.
While the offensive line has improved dramatically in pass protection, run blocking is clearly an iffy proposition. Moreover, it's becoming wildly unpredictable against whom the running game will be effective.
It seems that with the defense finding its form and the passing getting into a groove that fans will simply have to deal with the inconsistent rushing attack. They have to settle for being grateful when it happens while accepting that it sometimes won't!
Naturally, this is frustrating considering the talent and raw ability of the Steelers running backs. Against Arizona, the team ran 28 times for 91 yards, certainly not matching expectations. While Mendenhall struggled to find daylight, Isaac Redman did average nearly 5 yards per carry, including a number of positive gains late.
Kevin Kolb Is.....Well, Just Kevin Kolb
Kevin Kolb is....well, just Kevin Kolb.
An x-factor heading into the season, considering his limited experience and unproven track record, Kolb's play in the first two weeks was great.
In the last five games, his two touchdowns and eight interceptions culminate in one of the league's worst passer ratings, and he looked unsteady against Pittsburgh....at best.
When pressured, he could not hit his checkdowns. When the pocket wasn't collapsing, he seemed to maneuver into pressure. His pocket awareness was sub-par, along with his accuracy.
While his offensive line didn't help early, he had some time in the pocket on most downs, but footsteps clearly affected his delivery. His passes simply suffered, which is saying something when targeting the outrageously effective Larry Fitzgerald.
It's not that he's horrible. He's not.
He's also not great. Certainly not now.
He's just....Kevin Kolb, the same guy who entered the season with more interceptions than touchdowns. If an arm or hype could do it alone, Jay Cutler would actually be as good as John Elway.
Not living up to the preseason hype, Kolb could eventually cost Ken Whisenhunt his job.
The Cardinals Miss Having a Proper Deterrant Across from Larry Fitzgerald
Ike Taylor did a fine job of containing one of the game's best receivers in yesterday's contest. I'd dedicate an observation to the fact that Ike Taylor has played phenomenally this season, but it would be a mere encore to slides already devoted to the great cover corner.
Still, Larry Fitzgerald did not go without making a couple amazing (one gravity defying) plays.
For example, his back shoulder catch over Taylor along the left sideline early in the contest was a physical act of prowess that fans are left to marvel over! On a scoring drive, the Cardinals hit "Fitz" on a third and short play, and the receiver became a football player, bobbing and weaving his way through defenders for hard earned yardage.
Yet, the defense was able to take Fitzgerald out of the offense for most of the game, with many attempts to the receiver forced into coverage or simply off the mark.
With a concentration on the former Pitt Panther afforded to defenses, the Cardinals clearly need a proper deterrent across from him, taking coverage assignments and forcing them off of the all-pro. Clearly, Fitzgerald garners most of a secondary's attention. Without a great player across the field, his opportunities are further limited.
Remember in the 2008-09 playoffs when Fitzgerald was catching touchdowns, three in the NFC Championship Game's first half and two in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII? Who wants to now bet that didn't have a lot to do with Anquan Boldin?
Ben Roethlisberger (and the Receivers) Are Finding a Groove
When Ben Roethlisberger looks sharp in the offense, the passing game is systematic and deadly!
When playing at his finest, Ben is able to deliver quickly when appropriate, mixes his deep reads and checkdowns, surveys the field, uses misdirection to evade rushers and set up receivers, and has apparent eyes in the back of his head evading the rush. Simple, right?
Furthermore....he avoids turnovers!
Since starting the season with three touchdowns and five interceptions, the real Big Ben has finally stood up! In his last three games, the Pittsburgh quarterback has nine touchdowns, and his lone interceptions came on a strange play at the end of the first half against Tennessee. The pick belonged to Cortland Finnegan.
By delivering to a wide range of targets, from his halfbacks to the tight ends and receivers, teams are forced to honor the entire field. This is easier types (or read) than done, as Ben's targets are a spoil of riches!
Emmanuel Sanders is making key catches, Heath Miller is ever reliable, Hines Ward always delivers a fine game at random, Antonio Brown is becoming a clutch possession receiver with big play capability.....
Oh, and Mike Wallace! Yeah, he's okay, too.
With the offense finding a groove (or, more specifically, the passing offense), the timing couldn't be more perfect. Can they keep up the great work? They'll have to next week as Tom Brady and the NFL's pinnacle aerial attack come to Heinz Field.
An encore of Ben's three-touchdown performance against his old coordinator would be timely!
Steelers Replacements Have Come Through Valiantly!
McClendon at nose tackle, alongside Hood and Kiesel?
Raise your hand if you saw that as the Week 7 lineup a month ago!
Despite a rash of injuries along the defensive front, most recently to standard nose tackle fill-in Chris Hoke, the Steelers defensive front manned up against the Cardinals. Stuffing a rushing attack that had found recent success, the "Steel Curtain" was truly dominant on Sunday. More impressively, the effort was the sum result of (in essence) the second team down linemen.
Steelers replacements have made Pittsburgh proud all season! From Max Starks' revitalization (both at left tackle and through his influence on line mates) of the offensive line to hard-nosed warriors filling in on a formerly struggling defensive front, those predicting the Steelers' fall from glory in the future are off base!
Players have swapped positions and filled in for their mentors, and the Steelers defense is top-ranked in the NFL. Still, we're in trouble....riiiight?
Hey, every franchise fanbase has its cynical cells!
With young talent already taking the reigns and depth at many positions, the Steelers are ideally equipped to continue their track record of success for years to come. Their ability to consistently overcome injuries and play well down the depth chart demonstrates this strength!
Validation: The Real Test Begins!
Can the Steelers prove their mettle (or, is it metal in the Steel City)?
The real test begins!
After falling to 2-2, the Steelers into an early season scenario that was as close to must-win as possible. With home games against two typically pesky AFC South rivals and a trip to Arizona, the Steelers could ill-afford to lose once, sinner twice.
Responding like champions, Pittsburgh beat all three opponents in sequence. While fans can be proud of their progress and response to early season struggles, the reality is that the Steelers should beat the Jaguars, Titans, and Cardinals.
Perception is reality, and the Steelers haven't beaten a true contender in 2011.
The next two weeks is an opportunity to change those perceptions. While the opinions of fans aren't as important as the wins themselves, champion squads need signature victories as a means of vindication.
Against Tom Brady, the Steelers are 1-6 lifetime, struggling to contain the NFL's most potent (or strategic, depending on the season) passing attack. The Patriots have deployed a number of strategies in beating Pittsburgh.
Every game unveils a new wrinkle. From misdirection in the 2004-05 AFC Championship Game to a gameplan focused on playmaking tight ends last season, Brady has been a bane to the 'Burgh!
As such, a win over the Patriots would not only serve as a quality indicator. It would be sweet redemption for many struggles against Boston in recent seasons.