Monday Evening Quarterback - November 27, 2007
Still Too Soon To Know
Talk about "attrition football."
Steelers Nation was put to the test last night, suffering through one of the ugliest victories in the history of the franchise. Thankfully, we all made it through in one piece.
The Pittsburgh Steelers should actually be commended for coming out of the game in the Chuck E. Cheese Ball Room with their pride intact and their record unblemished. "Weather" games are always difficult, as the playing field is leveled figuratively but certainly not literally - the field was in worse shape than Route 51 during a PennDOT strike. Game plans go out the window. Tendencies become a thing of the past. Attacking offenses are forced to turtle for fear of game-changing turnovers. It's a recipe for close, conservative games, even against a winless opponent like the Dolphins.
Through it all, I was struck by the fact that the Steelers utterly dominated a 3-0 game. The Dolphins never had a chance. They had no hope of sustained offense, and their defense was a few Steeler mistakes away from being gutted. That said, the Steelers were also one play away from a fluke loss, and that's not a good thing for a team that started out the season by putting teams away.
As with any loss, it's important to quickly identify a scapegoat. When in doubt, blame Bruce Arians.
It's becoming apparent that only massive, Patriots-scale offensive success is going to clear the name of Bruce Arians. Unfortunately, Arians doesn't have the Patriots' offensive line, receivers or quarterback executing the plays that he calls.
Instead, he's got a porous line, a receiving corps that struggles to get separation (especially with Santonio Holmes injured), and a quarterback that increasingly refuses to run passing plays the way they're called.
It was close to impossible to judge Arians' abilities in games against the Browns and Jets. The line didn't give much protection or push, the receivers didn't get open and the quarterback held the ball too long.
It can certainly be argued that he didn't set up those units to perform. He has been hesitant to incorporate the short passing game. He has used too many bunch formations that allow the other team to crowd the line of scrimmage. He's done a poor job as far as using screens and draws to thwart the pass rush. All of that is true.
At the same time, when he has done those things, the execution has failed. Quick passes have been dropped. Bunch formations that are supposed to create matchup problems aren't as effective when those formations can't be run out of because of OL and TE blocking problems. Screens have been blown up. Draws have been snuffed out in the backfield. The list is endless.
Now, Arians' head is once again on the block because of the Dolphins game, which I just don't understand. Even if you ignore the field conditions, each seemingly promising drive was thwarted because of the players, not because of the play calling.
The most discussed play was the final pass into the end zone on 3rd down when Ben Roethlisberger was sacked. I didn't have a problem with that one. I was calling for it, actually. They couldn't count on a FG given the conditions, and gaining a few yards on a run play wasn't going to help the field goal unit, and could actually have made the angle more difficult. For a man who has taken a lot of heat in the last two weeks because of conservative play calls at the end of games, Arians showed some confidence in his quarterback and attempted to seal the game without resorting to trying a field goal in terrible conditions.
Really, the only call that really got to me was the reverse to Nate Washington. Miami had just tried a reverse with Ted Ginn, and it went nowhere because of the poor footing. This might have been Arians' quiet arrogance creeping in.
Overall, I thought Arians showed great patience with the running game and a willingness to take some risks in the passing game - simply throwing the ball in those conditions was a risk in itself, and Arians leaned on the pass to salt the game away.
I might appear to be Arians' biggest fan. I'm not. I think he's a talented offensive mind that needs to be complemented by another talented offensive mind. I admire his play design, his rapport with the quarterback and his vision for what an offense can become.
I'm not a fan of his ability to react quickly, to abandon his pre-game opinions in a fashion quick enough for the offense not to be hamstrung by his calls.
That said, I'm also of the opinion that the position of offensive coordinator is the most difficult, thankless job in the NFL. Steeler fans especially have had nothing but disdain for OC's through the years, fickle to a fault.
This year, against Denver, the Steelers didn't run enough. Against the Jets, the Steelers ran too much. Against the Dolphins, well, Arians was on the sideline and didn't miss the game.
The Steelers under Bill Cowher staffed 3 offensive coordinators who were hired away to be head coaches with other teams, Chan Gailey, Mike Mulareky and Ken Whisenhunt.
All three started out in Pittsburgh like gangbusters, being treated like saviors who were going to revolutionize the Steelers' offense. Soon Pittsburgh fans exposed them for what they were: guys who couldn't put up 47 points a game with guys like Tommy Maddox, Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham and Mike Tomczak at quarterback. Fans soured on them quickly. And then they all got promotions with other teams.
See, I think calling plays is about getting hot and riding it. It's a gamble. You take your best information, your best possible analysis of the given situation and you make a call. The better your personnel, the better your chance to have success. I'm not saying that all coordinators are the same, simply that they're a lot closer in talent and preparation than we're led to believe or freely admit.
Arians is in his first year at the helm, and he's aided by 5 assistants in their first year with the team. He's guided Roethlisberger to his best season as a pro, has produced the #2 ranked running team and has put plenty of points on the board until the last two weeks.
Has he experienced growing pains as the season has worn on? Yes.
Does he have a lot of room for improvement? Yes.
Will he be retained? Sorry to disappoint anyone, but yes.
The Fine Five
1. New England
Yes, Virginia, there is a blueprint. But it's not as simple as throwing the ball down the middle of the field against the Pats' secondary. You play sound, physical football and don't turn the ball over. Basically, the same formula for any team. It's just against New England, mistakes are magnified. Right, A.J. Feeley?
2. Green Bay
I think Green Bay will lose at Dallas, but I think Green Bay is the better team and is better suited to win games in the playoffs, especially at Lambeau.
They did to the Jets what the Steelers believed they could do - run all over them. That said, there's a significant difference between playing a team on 3 days rest and playing a team coming off a bye.
Nothing like a game against the Falcons to right a flailing ship. The Jaguars come to town this weekend, and will be looking to leave a mark - literally - against a banged up Colts team whose "soft" label is fitting.
David Garrard hasn't thrown an interception in 209 passes, and he's being given a little more latitude to get the ball down the field. A healthy Mike Peterson would be a big plus against the Colts.
Quotes of the Week
"As the game wore on we had to consider what spots of the field were touchy points and so forth. It was definitely a factor in terms of some of the decisions we had to make along the way."
- Mike Tomlin
The Awards Section
Offensive Player of the Week
Willie Parker. He tried his best to single-handedly take over the game in difficult conditions. He ran hard and ran smart. Most importantly, he displayed great ball security under difficult circumstances.
Defensive Player(s) of the Week
James Farrior. 11 total tackles, half a sack and a forced fumble. The ageless wonder was all over the field, making sure tackles and combining with Foote to provide the best inside linebacker play the Steelers have seen thus far in 2007.
Special Teams Player of the Week This award has been canceled.
Goat of the Week
Najeh Davenport. He was supposed to be the "mudder," but he ran tentatively on his three carries and disappeared from the game. His holding penalty on a 19 yard gain to Ward on 3rd and 7 killed a promising drive and was a pathetic attempt at blitz pickup, as he stood flat-footed and waited for the blitzer to come to him.
Stat of the Week
Under Bill Cowher, the Steelers held a record of 8-3 or better in their first 11 games four times. 8-3 in 1994, 8-3 in 1997, 9-2 in 2001 and 10-1 in 2004. Each of those seasons ended with an AFC Championship Game loss.
Factoid of the Week That I Hope Interests Someone Besides Me
With the Hubble Space Telescope aging and due for one final upgrade/repair visit in August of 2008, NASA is currently working to launch HST's replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, formerly known as the Next Generation Space Telescope.
Operating in the infrared spectrum, JWST is poised to offer a quantum leap in celestial imaging, probing deep space in an effort to answer the big questions. How do galaxies evolve? How do planetary systems form? How did all this get here?
Launch is currently planned for 2013, and more information can be found at jwsa.nasa.gov.
Ten Things I Know I Think
1. The Steelers might have regained their swagger simply by being physical. From Larry Foote to James Farrior to Anthony Smith to Tyrone Carter, the Steelers defense upped their intensity from the week before, something that will need to be sustained against soft but powerful offenses the next two weeks.
2. Willie Reid and Lawrence Timmons both made big plays in limited playing time. Hopefully they've earned more opportunities. Reid could be the Steelers' answer to Wes Welker, a sure handed speedster with the ability to get up the field quickly. Timmons has an incredible knack for making football plays. Sending him up the middle to block a 4th quarter punt was the type of aggressive move that will pay big dividends sooner than later.
3. If they played every game in bad conditions, the special teams might be passable. Daniel Sepulveda's directional kicks are a weapon in weather, and Jeff Reed is used to kicking with poor footing.
4. It's shocking to believe that Heath Miller was compared to Mark Bavaro during his rookie season because it's shocking how far his blocking has fallen off. He was abused again yesterday.
5. Casey Hampton made a play in the backfield! Hampton's weight is a problem right now. He's not the player he used to be, and he's a dozen donuts aways from Gilbert Brown/Grady Jackson territory, a 20 play a game space eater that can be used to stop the run and not much else. It's up to Hampton this offseason. He can continue to balloon and fade away into mediocrity, or he can drop the pounds and go back to being the disruptive force he once was.
(Around the League)
6. It was Brandon McDonald to the rescue for the Cleveland Browns this weekend. The rookie 5th rounder from Memphis looked like a steal as a nickel back, and had 2 passes defensed and an interception in the 4th quarter alone as Cleveland survived a scare from the Texans.
7. The Minnesota Vikings put up 41 points against the New York Giants with only 251 net yards of offense. Sidney Rice is the real deal, and he's only going to get better once the Vikings address their quarterback situation.
8. Marc Bulger is a walking advertisement for why the term "injury prone" usually ends up being prescient.
9. It only took Frank Gore most of the year, but he appears to be healthy and once again explosive (speaking of injury prone), and he gives the 49ers a chance to keep Mike Nolan off the hot seat, starting with a big win against the Cardinals. I wonder what Ken Whisenhunt would be doing with his quarterback situation if Matt Leinart was still healthy. Kurt Warner's 484 yards are nice on paper, but he's not playing winning football and is prone to make mistakes at the worst times.
10. I wonder if Ray Lewis still believes that he's got the rest of the NFL right where he wants them.
What I Liked Last Night, and I Don't Mean ESPN
I didn't like much of the broadcast. Rachel Nichols was vapid, Tony Kornheiser was bored, Ron Jaworski did his best Dan Brown impersonation, and Mike Tirico tried too hard to prop up an unwatchable game.
Luckily, that's the last we'll be seeing of the ESPN crew this year.