Monday Evening Quarterback - January 12, 2009
Abuse Your Illusion
There were conflicting messages circulating last week, and the San Diego Chargers didn't know what to think.
The Steelers' offensive coordinator insisted that the Steelers would run the ball against the Chargers. Meanwhile, the running back complained that he was frustrated, the offensive line rationalized their problems this season and great chunks of Steeler Nation believed that the only thing standing between the Steelers and a Super Bowl was the use of a fullback, even positing that the key to the Steelers' post-season was the unemployed Dan Krieder.
Further complicating the matter was the fact that the Steelers ran the ball successfully against the Chargers in their last meeting, but despite that success they failed to score a touchdown. In that game, Ben Roethlisberger destroyed the Chargers' secondary with short, ball control passes that moved the ball all game.
So, what would the Steelers do?Mike Tomlin would surely put the game in the hands of his quarterback. It's the playoffs, and despite the recent concussion, Ben would have to be the one to save the offense and rescue the defense, or it would be one and out again. The Chargers freely admitted they didn't know what was coming, whether all the talk of the run game was purely a smokescreen.
In the confusion, the Chargers fell for all the illusions and forgot how to simply play football. How to defeat blocks and make tackles. How to string plays out and rally to the ball. The Steelers simply lined up and took it to San Diego physically, and what a treat it was to see. Not only that, but the ability to simply play better fundamental football than the opposing defense allowed Bruce Arians to do all those things we've been waiting for him to do - mix up the run formations, mix up inside and outside runs and use play action to stretch the defense. Run strong, throw long was back, and not a moment too soon.
It only took three offensive snaps for me to realize that the San Diego Chargers were done. Willie Parker carried the ball three times right up the gut and tallied 22 yards and two first downs. It was going to be a battle of will, and it was a battle the Steelers were determined to win.
Everything was set up by the run, and once the Chargers adjusted it was bombs away. No play was more satisfying than the first down play early in the fourth quarter where the Chargers finally conceded and walked the safety up into the box, and Ben went deep to Nate Washington. Nate didn't come up with the catch, but the play still served a purpose. Attack all areas of the field. Dictate box count to the defense. Shrink the opponents' defensive playbook down to the size of Terrell Suggs' vocabulary.
But yesterday's performance was not only great for the results, it's great for what it sets up.
The Steelers jammed the ball down the Chargers' throats, and the Ravens watched every minute of it. The Titans had a good bit of success running the ball with speedy Chris Johnson on Saturday afternoon. The Steelers actually ran the ball with a bit of success the last time they played the Ravens (3.3 YPC), relatively speaking considering the history.
Everything points to the Steelers trying to keep this next one close, seeing if the resurgent offensive line can achieve similar results against a far better Ravens' front seven. Surely the Steelers play it close to the vest against a Baltimore offense that doesn't take many chances.
The illusion is in place. Time to abuse it.
The Steelers' biggest victory yesterday was to demand that other teams respect their run game, because it will open so much up, ala 2005.
Don't get me wrong, the Steelers' opponents have played run first all year long, but more out of habit than by necessity. The Ravens will enter this game knowing that they stand no chance of winning unless they stop Willie Parker.
If I'm the Steelers, I run play action on the first play of the game, going deep. The Ravens are going to expect run first, yet their top pieces against the pass (Fabian Washington, Samari Rolle, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed) are all banged up, making the passing game so inviting.
Now, I still want to establish the run and I think they can have success against Baltimore if they're patient and if the OL is allowed to come off the ball and drop the hammer. But I expect the pass to be available early and often if Ben gets protection, and I believe that you never back away from an opportunity to hang points quickly.
While the receivers played great yesterday, they can all play better. They need to make those difficult catches that change games. Against the Ravens and their middling offense, a 14 point lead is like gold. The last thing the Ravens want is for Joe Flacco to throw the ball 40 times. Ben stepped up against the Chargers, as did the line. If the receivers come up big, the offense can be downright explosive in so many ways.
All season long, fans have bemoaned the fact that the Steelers haven't established an offensive identity.
At this point, I say that's a great thing.
The Steelers have come out pounding away with the run in some games. In some they've spread the other team out and used the short passing game. In still others they've come out with a lot of play action down the field. They've used man blocking and zone blocking, the I formation and the 2 TE set. And they've won games with all of those elements being featured.
Maybe there's a point and a purpose to the "grab bag" offense after all - everyone (including the defense) ends up surprised by what comes out.
In my mind, the offense has been less grab bag and far more reactive - the have consistently attempted to take what's given. Then, in the playoffs, they came out and did what was most unexpected. They dictated physically to a playoff defense, while still taking what was given.
While the Steelers have won by generating offense in a variety of ways, the Ravens have won only by following a single blueprint. Ride the defense, force turnovers and hide Joe Flacco with the running game. By playing off their newfound running prowess, the Steelers have a chance to throw the ball around and score points, forcing John Harbaugh to throw his comfy little game plan into the garbage can.
It's the AFC Championship Game. It's at Heinz Field. It's against the Ravens. It's Steeler football at its finest. Sounds like the perfect stage, setting and cast for #7 and some playoff heroics.
Season long offensive ineptitude has created the biggest illusion of all, that you can write off the Pittsburgh offense in these playoffs.
THE SPURIOUS FIVE
1. Baltimore Ravens
They beat the Titans in Tennessee, and Jim Nantz told me they've got the best defense ever.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Did Donovan McNabb just pick up a phone on an opponents' sideline? When he pukes in Glendale next week, maybe he'll blame it on the sesos burrito he ate the night before. Arizona's got that crazy authentic Mexican food.
3. Carolina Panthers
Believe it or not, Jake Delhomme was 5-2 in the playoffs entering the game against the Cardinals. His performance was so bad, he earned three losses in one night and is now sitting at .500.
4. Tennessee Titans
When Chris Johnson went down, it was over. Lendale White can be effective against some teams (Wellesley, Smith College, Mount Holyoke), but not against NFL defenses in the playoffs.
5. New York Giants
There are times when Eli Manning's arm makes Chad Pennington look like Jeff George. Yesterday was one of those days.
How's that confidence now, Willie? The blocking was great and the quickness is the whole way back. How about a long TD run against the Ravens to lighten things up for the rest of the O?
FC and I named him the X-factor separately last week, and it turned out we were both right. Keisel was strong against the run and made the two biggest defensive plays of the game, a key sack on Rivers and a batted ball that Larry Foote intercepted, saving points.
He's been close a couple times this season. He and his blockers saved it for the right time. When the ball came off of Scifres' foot, I screamed "he outkicked his coverage!" and I was right. We all focused on what the field and conditions would do to Scifres at Heinz. None of us considered what they might do to his coverage team.
One pass interference call that set up a TD, and one punt that slammed into his helmet that changed field position and resulted in another touchdown. While neither play was particularly egregious on his part and he finished with 11 tackles and a sack, he'll go down as the SportsCenter-style scapegoat for San Diego's loss.
"There's a big, black, ugly bird standing between us and Tampa."
- Max Starks
In 5 career playoff games, Willie Parker has rushed for 371 yards on 84 carries with three touchdowns, a healthy 4.41 yards per carry.
MAKING THE ROUNDS
1. What a wonderful game from Ben Roethlisberger. The best part? He overthrew his deep passes. Deep throws are supposed to be low risk, high reward play calls where if the ball is properly thrown, only the receiver has a shot at the ball. Ben's arm strength has returned, and I expect the Baltimore defense to get stretched next week.
2. Speaking of deep balls, I believe there was a very focused purpose behind allowing Byron Leftwich to target Limas Sweed deep. Baltimore had suspect corner depth to begin with, and they've got their two current starters ailing. Sweed has struggled this season, but perhaps like Nate Washington he's saving his first big play for the AFC Championship Game. That throw was supposed to build confidence. It didn't work, but I wouldn't shy away from calling his number again.
3. If I see one more illegal formation penalty against Willie Colon because he lined up too far off, I'll fly to Pittsburgh, walk onto the field mid-game and drag him by the facemask 6 inches closer to the line of scrimmage.
4. The defense didn't play its best game, but they made plenty of plays despite allowing a few. The Chargers had success while following their script and then fell apart for a long stretch before hitting some big plays at the end once the game was out of reach. Word that Troy Polamalu had flu-like symptoms made sense post-game, as Troy was uncharacteristically slow to react and pursue.
5. 15 years. 9 Division Championships. 7 AFC Championship Games. 2 Super Bowl appearances. It's great to be a Steeler fan, but it's time to add to the most important trophy case.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
6. Josh McDaniels is a smart guy who has shown he knows how to play a stacked offensive deck. But he's about the least likely guy in the world to turn around the Denver defense, even if he brings in a co-head coach type like Mike Nolan or Dom Capers. I have never liked offensive minded head coaches, because they almost always fail to relate to their defenses. Steve Mariucci leaps immediately to mind, a guy who would barely even talk to his players on the other side of the locker room. I don't know, I look at McDaniels and see Marc Trestman, who went from a 33 year old boy genius as offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns in the 80's to San Francisco scapegoat in the 90's. He's currently head coach of the Montreal Allouettes.
7. Jeff Davidson was hailed as an up and coming offensive coordinator all season, guiding the Panthers' offense to one of the best rushing seasons in the league. In the playoffs, he abandoned the run at the first sign of trouble, and he paid dearly. The loss of Keydrick Vincent a few weeks back cannot be overlooked, but the Panthers shut themselves down by panicking early.
8. If there's a blueprint emerging this post-season, it's two fold. First, you better be able to stretch a defense vertically if you want to have offensive success. Larry Fitzgerald almost single-handedly beat the Panthers by making plays downfield, while the New York Giants could do nothing without Plaxico Burress and the threat he presented. The other key is to manufacture rushing yards by having a quick guy who can make something out of nothing while putting pressure on the defense both north/south and east/west. Chris Johnson, Darren Sproles and Willie Parker have all had success this post-season.
9. Can the rest of the NFL's teams officially retire these pathetic attempts to disrespect and/or ape the Terrible Towel? If you strike down the towel, Myron Cope shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
10. They've lost their offensive coordinator, and their team of the decade title is officially being threatened. I really hope that the Pats haven't received the last of their karmic punishment. More, please!
IN THE CROSSHAIRS
Two playoff games. 44% passer. 73.9 quarterback rating. No sacks, no picks, no fumbles. Two wins. Yippee. The guy's still a rookie, and the Ravens won't be able to hide him this week. Flacco is due, and I'm counting on the Steelers' defense to collect.