Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Circumstances of the Game

“Circumstances of the game dictated …” blah, blah, blah.

Well, what else would you expect the coaches to say?

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls like Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians well enough, but we gotta call bullshit on this one. The fact is, you, the coaches – specifically, your play-calling – dictated the circumstances of the game.

When it works, great. When it doesn’t work, guess what? You’re going to get second-guessed. So, let’s continue the second-guessing that began among Steelers faithful, media, pundits and impartial observers immediately after, if not during, the game.

Granted, the first series worked just fine, thank you very much.
After the first series, the rest of the first half, eh, not so great.

Who Dey?!!
What the Steelers brass perpetrated Sunday night is especially unfortunate, given the juxtaposition with the commitment to the run exhibited just this past Sunday by their very next opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals.

Yes, the Bungles.

Let that sink in for a second.

The Bengals – the Bengals! – demonstrated more of a commitment to the run on Sunday than did the Steelers, who were on the road (crowd noise) against the worst-ranked run defense in the NFL – a Broncos defense, by the way, that was shaping up as an historically bad run defense (the worst in the 47-year history of the franchise).
That’s just wrong.

Entering Sunday’s game against the Jets in disarray with a 1-4 record (6-12 since Oct. 1, 2006) and amid continuing turmoil in the locker room, the sputtering Bungles – never known as a running team – apparently finally recognized that for all their glorious aerial fireworks, hey! they weren’t winning games. They finally recognized that what they’d been doing all this time simply wasn’t working.

So, with backup running back Kenny Watkins Watson starting in placed of injured starter Rudi Johnson, the Bengals took this opportunity, against the struggling Jets, to run the ball. In a game the Bengals trailed for much of the afternoon (23-10 in the third quarter), offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski kept calling Watkins' Watson's number.

"We were committed to running the ball; and we chose not to be denied," said Bengals guard Bobbie Williams.

What a concept! At the end of the day, the backup journeyman Watkins Watson had rushed 31 times for 130 yards and three touchdowns (which, in one day, matched his total of three touchdowns in his six-year career). The Bengals team: 41 carries, 177 yards.

By comparison, the Steelers’ Willie Parker had 21 carries for 93 yards, and Najeh Davenport had two carries for six yards. Together, the Steelers two running backs had a total of 23 carries ... vs. a total of 41 carries for the Bengals.

While we’re at it, let’s compare the Bengals/Steelers yards per carry (ypc) averages:

  • Watkins Watson: 4.2 ypc with a longest gain of 12 yards.
  • Parker: 4.4 ypc with a longest gain of 27 yards.

Yet the Bengals kept giving Watkins Watson, a career backup, the ball in a game the team absolutely had to win. The Steelers showed no such commitment to Parker, an established star and one of the league’s leading rushers.

Keep in mind the Bengals were down by a 23-10 score in the third quarter, yet somehow, despite these “circumstances,” managed to run the ball 41 times.

How it Unraveled
In the first quarter of the Steelers’ game against the Broncos, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians called only three running plays against 10 passes. Ben Roethlisberger threw on the first three plays and six of the first eight.

  • It started to unravel with the Steelers’ second possession: On first down, a Willie Parker run gained seven yards. On second-and-three, Roethlisberger was nearly intercepted on a deep throw down the middle. On third and three, an apparently rusty Hines Ward dropped a pass.
  • Next series: Roethlisberger completed a four-yard pass to Holmes. On second down, Roethlisberger threw an interception.
  • Next series: After gashing the Broncos for 37 yards on four consecutive runs by Parker and Davenport, Roethlisberger, lining up in the shotgun on third-and-four, misfired deep downfield to Ward.
  • Next series: Roethlisberger threw another interception. The Broncos scored on the ensuing possession to make it 14-7.
  • Next series: Roethlisberger, lining up in the shotgun, takes the bad snap, fumbles as he gets sacked, and the Broncos return the fumbled ball for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead.

All in All
Pass-play calls in the first half resulted in three sacks, two drops, two interceptions, one holding penalty and the crucial fumble return for a touchdown that gave the Broncos life and put the Steelers in a hole too deep.

The Steelers’ coaches would argue publicly that “poor execution” – a botched snap – led to Ben Roethlisberger’s game-turning fumble and the subsequent return for a touchdown.

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls would counter that the botched snap and fumble would never have occurred if the Steelers had simply called a running play there instead of:

Lining up in the shotgun, on the road, in a noisy stadium full of drunken, rowdy fans, on primetime Sunday night television, against a well-coached Broncocs team coming off a bye week, against a team that was emotionally charged after a pregame flyover and ceremony commemorating two of their players who died in the offseason.

Anyway. The way to quiet a road crowd early in a game is to get the lead, hold it, and establish the run. Pound the ball. Take the crowd out of the game, and keep your foot on the throat of the defense.

But no-o-o-o …
Instead, by lining up in the shotgun in that situation, the Steelers created a set of elements primed for a colossal breakdown.

The crowd noise necessitated a silent count which made it tough for the linemen to hear … which led to the guards and tackles appearing slow to get off their marks when center Sean Mahan abruptly bounced the ball at Roethlisberger’s feet as he was looking downfield to read how the linebackers and secondary were setting up ... which, in turn, forced Ben to scramble for the ball at his feet, as Marvel Smith missed a block while Elvis Dumervil speed-rushed inside Smith and seized Ben as he was struggling unsuccessfully to control the ball.

Fumble. Touchdown. Game momentum changed.

And that’s when the “circumstances of the game” changed for good or, rather, ill. Ironically, in the second half, the Steelers ran the ball as many times as they passed – and almost pulled off the comeback win (except for the defense breaking down on the last drive, but that’s another story).

Our point? None of this would have happened, if the coaches had simply called a running play on the play where Roethlisberger fumbled. In a noisy stadium, etc, etc., etc.

Back to our original post-game comments by the coaches (“Circumstances dictated, etc. … “). “Just not enough opportunities when you turn the ball over and get down 14 points,” coach Mike Tomlin said.

Tru-dat, but they would never have been down by 14 points, if they had committed to the run early and often.

As Tunch Ilkin observed on Stan Savran’s SportsBeat last night, “Since when do the Steelers let the opposing defense dictate what they do on offense?”

Since when, indeed.

Hey! Guess what?

The Steelers go on the road again on Sunday. Against a still-desperate Bengals team that seems to have been suddenly invigorated by a newfound commitment to the running game.

We wonder if the Steelers will show a similar commitment – and whether they have learned their lesson, or will outsmart themselves once again.


Post-Script Addendum: After writing the above post, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls got curious and wondered what others are saying about the Bengals’ Newfound Running Game. This should be interesting, considering the Steelers’ pride and longtime success in preventing opposing running backs from gaining 100 yards. Here's a quick round-up:


Dave said...

It's Kenny WATSON!!!!!

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls said...

Dave: Thanks for the correction. Duly noted and corrected. Like I said, a journeyman backup ...

Dave said...

One other thing, and bear with me because I'm on the outside looking in, but didn't the team open up the offense this year to allow Ben to make more decisions at the line of scrimmage? I wonder how many running plays Ben checked out of and into passes. Others seem to fancy him as a bit of a gunslinger, and Ben himself said the Broncos threw a lot of 8-9-10 man fronts at him. So maybe he changed some run plays to take advantage of the defense. Again, I'm on the outside looking in - and
didn't get to see the whole game....

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls said...

Dave: Interstesing point, and you're right. It's entirely possible Ben changed play calls at the line of scrimmage.

A couple things bother me here:
1) The team had two weeks to prepare for this game, so it seems likely the game plan was set firmly before the team plane ever touched down in Denver.
2) While Ben and the coaches said the Broncos stacked 8-9-10 players to stop the run, Ben also said the Broncos showed a lot of Cover Two in pass portection, which he "didn't expect." Now, just why he couldn't ADJUST to a Cover Two defense is another story ...
It's not as if he never saw a Cover Two. Nor is it as if the Steelers have never seen eight or nine or 10 in the box. In fact, I'd bet they see it every week. That's why I suspect the game plan all along was to open up passing ... just like they did in the 2005 playoff game in Denver. Which worked, and which may be why they thought they'd try it again. Again, outsmarting themselves. Mike Shanahan, of course, was going to have none of THAT. "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Based on post-game comments, my gut tells me the coaches had a pass-first game plan.

Your observations are right on the money, though, and one wonders just when Ben makes adjustments or changes play calls. In the huddle? At the line of scrimmage? I suspect that when he lines up in the shotgun, that's a formation that was called from the sideline. There's probably not much he can do to change a shotgun-formation play once they actually line up. He may have some more leeway when he lines up over center to change a run play to a pass play. Just guessing here, but it's fun to speculate.

It's something worth watching as the season progresses.

Christmas Ape said...

The playcalling smacked of trying to overstrategize. Being dogged about having the stastically worst run D, the Steelers knew Denver was going to stack the line and be fired up about tamping down on the running game. So they wanted to act like it was the '05 Indy playoff game and go pass happy. On the opening drive, it worked - but only because Nate Washington made a surprisingly good catch deep down the middle.

Had Denver not responded with a score on their opening drive, the Steelers probably would have gone staight to the running game. But it seems like they sometimes panic into trying to jump to a lead through passing, THEN get serious about running the ball.

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls said...

Aye, Ape, aye, well said, well said.

Cotter said...

RE: Bungles rush success --
Guess they figured they were gettin' so much practice running from the cops that they might as well try it on the field...

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls said...

Chris Henry is supposed to return to practice tomorrow -- a role model if there ever was one!