Monday Evening Quarterback - November 17, 2008
Room for the Best to Get Better?
The Steelers's defense is currently leading the NFL in rushing defense (68.9 ypg), passing defense (168.7 ypg), and total defense (237.6 ypg). They are tied for the league in sacks (36). They are second in the league in scoring defense (15.0 ppg).
Beyond the numbers, this defense simply isn't allowing long scoring drives, and it routinely holds other teams to field goals when the offense leaves them a short field to defend. Forget comparing them with their peers around the league - this defense compares favorably to some of the greatest defenses in Steelers history.
But do you want to know something sick? They have room to get better. Much better. Here's how.
Keisel and Hampton Step Up
Don't get me wrong - Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton have been playing at a high level since they returned from injury. But can they both take it up a notch? Absolutely.
Keisel has turned in a solid season, and he appears to be getting healthier. His explosion has returned over the last couple of weeks. If he gets back to being a persistent pest in the opponent's backfield, watch out. Keisel registered his first sack of the season yesterday in 7 starts. As defenses shade things more and more towards Woodley and Harrison on the outside, Keisel and Aaron Smith are going to have to make more plays on the quarterback from the inside. The erstwhile Smith has made plays (4 sacks) while Keisel continues to simply get close.
Don't get me wrong - Keisel isn't a problem by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he made Dr. Z's midseason All Pro team, for what that's worth. But if Keisel truly gets right and starts finishing, the pass rush is going to be impossible to contain. The Steelers are succeeding in a big way mainly because of their sudden and enviable ability to get pressure with 4 pass rushers. The key to continuing this success will be to sustain that rush against strong teams, which will take all four guys.
As far as Hampton goes, once again it's hard to complain because he's been very solid. But I don't think any of us would say that he has been dominant.
I can't image the strain a 350 pound man puts on an already balky groin, and I fully believe that Hampton is playing at less than 100%. If that's the case and he can improve both in health and in conditioning, Hampton's best football might be yet to come this season. That's a scary proposition that would actually be of great benefit against quick passing teams (New England and Dallas) who try like to pass out of base sets and run out of passing sets. Nothing disrupts a quarterback trying to make quick throws (hello, Ben Watson and Jason Witten) more than having a center deposited in their lap, and nothing makes the big nickel more stout than having a full-bore Hampton in the middle of it.
Timmons Learns and Grows
Lawrence Timmons has already impacted this team. He has 4 timely sacks and has added a new dimension in coverage that the team missed without Joey Porter. He's explosive, instinctive and capable of making game changing plays.
However, he's still feeling his way and thinking too much. Savvy route runners can set him up with little moves. He doesn't always engage at the line of scrimmage when rushing, sometimes coming in out of control to the point where he's easily shown the floor. He doesn't take on blockers that well and he doesn't fill the hole as hard as Larry Foote (who showed Timmons a thing or two about breaking down, selling out and stuffing the run yesterday).
Timmons is only 21 years old. It's basically his rookie season. And he makes strides every single week. If he continues to progress, it will become harder and harder to keep him off the field as an every down player in big games, just as Lamarr Woodley was too good to keep off the field against Jacksonville in the playoffs last year. I think we can all expect him to keep getting better, maybe with spectacular, game-changing results come playoff time.
In the playoffs, teams are quicker to go one-dimensional. Teams like the Patriots, Jets, Colts and Broncos will have no problem abandoning the run. If Timmons eliminates mistakes by that time, the Steelers will have a great deterrent to those types of schemes.
Welcome Back, McFadden and Deshea
If I had to guess (and I'm being conservative), McFadden will be back for the New England game in 2 weeks and Townsend will be back for the Dallas game in 3.
With McFadden and Townsend out, the pass defense has been fine. Not great, but fine.
William Gay has been very solid, though he and Anthony Madison had a mix up that resulted in a first down early, and Gay was beat due to a huge cushion on San Diego's final drive. Despite the ups and downs, we can take comfort in the fact that he's the only corner besides Ike Taylor who figures to see time once McFadden and Townsend return.
Beyond Gay, Anthony Madison and Fernando Bryant were hidden in the scheme when they got playing time yesterday, and giving them so much help leaves Taylor by himself. He's acquitted himself well on the island, but Randy Moss and Terrell Owens are coming soon.
Like Forgettin' Willie Parker syndrome, it's easy to forget how well McFadden was playing at the time of his injury. Bring him back with a now on-fire Ike, and it's shutdown city behind that pass rush. And then you bring out a dime package with Ike/Fad/Shea/Gay/Clark/Troy? That's dangerously good, especially now that Gay has gained valuable experience.
It's not fair to expect improvement for this defense, but it's certainly possible. Especially in the realm of big plays, and that's what Keisel, Hampton, Timmons, McFadden and Townsend all have a history of making. As it stands, the Steelers are 8th in the league in interceptions and 22nd in the league in fumbles recovered. This defense is great, but it can make more big plays, and it will.
I'm satisfied by what this defense is. I'm intrigued as to what this defense can be.
What if the Keisel of the 2005 playoff push shows up? What if the Casey Hampton of late-2007 (especially the playoff game) shows up? What if the Timmons that we all know is due to arrive sooner or later speeds up the learning curve shows up? What if Bryant McFadden and Deshea Townsend get healthy show up?
I can't wait to find out.
THE SPURIOUS FIVE
1. Tennessee Titans
Jacksonville had some first half success (especially on the ground), but Tennessee pulled ahead due to some Kerry Collins downfield heroics. The guy can still throw the deep ball. However, the Titans running game was held in check for the second straight week. Whom should a Steelers fan root for next week? Titans or Jets? Tough call there.
2. New York Giants
They ran all over the supposedly juggernaut-filled Ravens defense. They sure didn't run on the Steelers. The Giants are the class of the NFC, and it's not close.
3. Carolina Panthers
Another ugly win for the Panthers, with Jake Delhomme failing to pass for 100 yards. However, the Panthers had two backs over 120 yards, and that was thanks in no small part to the fact that RT Jeff Otah was completely healthy. He was dominant in the run game all day, providing the final four yards of push to help Deangelo Williams get into the end zone for the go-ahead points.
4. New York Jets
Surely you Jets. The Jets have a few things going for them. Brett Favre can win any game. The defense has some stars in Kris Jenkins and Darrelle Revis. But I don't know if they're playoff bound. They have to play Tennessee and Denver. They have two games against division rivals Buffalo and Miami. And they have two west coast trips, which are tough in and of themselves (San Francisco and Seattle). In my mind, New York isn't consistent enough to survive that schedule. I look at what Calvin Pace got paid (6 years, $42 million) for his 4 sacks and shudder to think what Woodley (RFA after 2009) and Harrison (UFA after 2009) will get when their deals come due.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have the defense to keep themselves in games, and are getting just enough out of their offense to win. It's kind of like the Steelers this year, but the Steelers have far more offensive potential.
Parker makes this offense go. Nothing helps Ben Roethlisberger more than to get into favorable downs and distances on 2nd and 3rd down, and that's a dimension that Willie Parker brings. Parker had 115 yards on 25 carries, with nothing longer than 13 yards. Willie took what was there and helped his team. His health is the key to this team's success down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Troy didn't have to do much in the running game, but he was a playmaker in the passing game. I wrote that Polamalu had one of the best interceptions I'd ever seen in this space earlier this season. Well, he topped it yesterday.
It's a shame that he missed that 51 yarder with a frozen ball on a frozen field, because it had plenty of leg. He was otherwise solid as usual, including the game-winner into the open end of the stadium.
I don't care if he was engaged and didn't see the fair catch signal. I don't care if Chargers return man Darren Sproles made a quick upfield move after the fair catch. That was a huge mistake that changed field position in a game where field position was paramount.
"We should have let the play go through in the end, yes."
- Referee Scott Green
The Steelers are one for nine on 4th down conversions this year. The crowd (and you fans at home) should keep that in mind when decisions not to go for it are booed.
MAKING THE ROUNDS
1. Speaking of going for it, 4th and 5 from the San Diego 33 was a really tough call to have to make. In the end, I wouldn't have faulted Tomlin for any of the available options. Going for it would have been fine with me. Punting would have been fine with me. As it stood, Reed is one of the best kickers in the game. Why not give him a chance to put three on the board, adverse conditions and all?
2. Is Matt Spaeth making it tough on the front office? They've got a decision to make with Heath Miller this offseason, as he becomes a free agent after 2009. For perspective, the top paid tight ends range from $4 million a year (Antonio Gates, contract signed in 2005) to over $5 million a year (Jeremy Shockey and Jason Witten, both signed in 2006). Is Heath Miller that type of player, and is he worth that kind of money? I will admit that Miller is better than Spaeth. But I don't think it's by a margin large enough to justify that type of salary.
3. Supposedly Dan Rooney sought out the NFL's game observer after the McHugh call. I would hope that it was because of what wasn't called against us and not because of the penalties that the Steelers were actually guilty of, by and large. The only call against the Steelers that I had a huge problem with was the pass interference call against Ike. Oh, I would have swallowed the whistle a couple of times, like the McHugh call. But overall, the biggest issue was that nothing got called on the Chargers.
It's common knowledge that Woodley and Harrison get held on every play, and that was certainly the case yesterday. However, it's important to understand when and how loud to complain. The important thing is that the Steelers overcame a 13-1 penalty differential (whether it was the ref's fault or their own) and won the game, something teams like Seattle didn't even consider trying to do when it mattered most.
4. Ben had seven completions to tight ends and six completions to running backs. We need to remember to be thankful when we get what we asked for, whether it's what we had in mind of not. The Steelers finally have a short passing game, but short passing offenses typically don't score a ton of points, and the entire enterprise is prone to breaking down due to small mistakes (penalties, run for a loss, sacks).
5. Rivers only completed four passes to his wide receivers, for 54 yards. San Diego does not have an intermediate passing game, and they're the closest thing to the Titans' offense that the Steelers have seen so far. Heavy run game. Two tight end sets. Lots of passes to the backs and tight ends, with occasional deep balls off play action. That's why I have no fear of the looming game with the Titans - I don't know if they can score on the Steelers' defense. The Patriots and Cowboys present much tougher matchups.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
6. I really like the Gary Kubiak/Mike Shanahan passing game as a suitable system for Ben, with all the rollouts and waggles and play action. I do not like the Kubiak/Shanahan running game, which in both cases is failing miserably this season. I question whether Ben has the footwork required to run that system long term, but it fits in with his skill set well. One more thing - we all need to differentiate between the cut block system that Houston and Denver run and the zone blocking plays that the Steelers are running this season, because the two are different. That cut scheme requires a line that takes a long time to put together - you can't just throw some guys together and expect it to work, which is what you saw when Atlanta tried to bring in Alex Gibbs a few years ago, handed him 5 guys and told him to put it together. It takes time, which is only one of the reasons you won't be seeing a true zone blocking "system" in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.
7. I have a funny feeling that the Steelers will be playing the Dolphins in the first round of the playoffs. Just a hunch. The Dolphins manufacture points in a way that I haven't seen since Whitey Herzog's St. Louis Cardinals of the 1980's, with Vince Coleman and Willie McGee getting into scoring position and Jack Clark driving them home. You can't stop Joey Porter, you can only hope to contain him. Another sack and a half yesterday.
8. Tyler Thigpen is the best quarterback the Chiefs have had since Trent Green was healthy and throwing for 4,000 yards in 2004 and 2005. That's not saying much, but he's far better than Brody Croyle or Damon Huard, and the guy has plenty of fight in him.
9. A tie is like kissing your sister. Cincinnatians like kissing their sisters. Perfect match.
10. Baltimore got exposed, and it wasn't about scheme, it was about being bullied. They couldn't run the ball and they couldn't stop the run. With Joe Flacco still a fledgling (lower rating than Ben, believe it or not) and with their secondary in shambles, the Ravens can't afford to stop doing what they do best like that. As I've said, I expect Baltimore to lose four more games.
IN THE CROSSHAIRS
Scott Kooistra and Anthony Collins
Levi Jones and Andrew Whitworth both left the game against the Eagles yesterday and probably won't play on Thursday night, leaving the journeyman guard (Kooistra) and the rookie tackle (Collins) to start on the left side. I liked Collins coming out of Kansas, but James Harrison will embarrass him. And Brett Keisel can have his coming out party against the far from mobile Kooistra.
I will be disappointed if the Steelers fail to register at least seven sacks (what Philadelphia put up yesterday), and I could see them reaching double digits.