Sunday, November 13, 2011

Back on Top

Let's see:  In the span of just one week, from about 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6 to 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, the Steelers went from sitting atop the entire American Football Conference third place in the AFC North, behind Cincinnati and Baltimore ... back to first place in the AFC North, ahead of Baltimore and Cincinnati, in that order.

Thus, the Steelers' roller-coaster season continues apace. Now, the bye week gives the first-place Steelers (7-3; 1-2 in the division) the opportunity to kick back on their recliners and watch the matchup in Baltimore between the second-place Baltimore Ravens (6-3; 2-0 in the division) and third-place Cincinnati Bengals (6-3; 1-1 in the division).

Lawrence Timmons comes up with an interception vs. the Bengals.
For whom shall we root? Probably Cincinnati, since Baltimore beat us twice, we've beaten the Bengals, and we get to play the Bengals again at Heinz Field.

The Ravens somehow lost to Tarvaris Jackson and the Seattle Seahawks, a team the Steelers shut out in Week Two. Go figure. At one point late in yesterday's game with the Ravens, the Seahawks had as many penalties as first downs (12). The Ravens' defense couldn't stop the run when it counted. Ray Rice carried the ball just five times all afternoon. Joe Flacco threw the ball 52 times, misfiring on 23 of those attempts, including one interception. The Ravens' David Reed lost a couple of fumbles on kick returns. Seattle kicked five field goals, and Baltimore's Billy Cundiff missed two field goal attempts. For the second time this season, the Ravens followed up a win over the Steelers with a loss to a struggling team.

In Cincinnati, the Bengals took consolation yesterday from playing tough in their loss to the Steelers. They're acting like they won the game. They believe they've served notice they can play with the Big Boys. So far, though, all they've shown is they can talk the talk. They still have to prove they can walk the walk. They'll get their chance to do that in Baltimore on Sunday. And the Steelers can sit back and enjoy the show.

Whew ... too close for comfort

Antonio Brown was the offensive star of the game..(photo credit: Getty Images)
Thank goodness for William Gay

Bet you didn't think many Steelers fans would be saying that today. Finally, some defensive takeaways, and Gay's interception late in the fourth quarter couldn't have come at a better time. With just 2:27 left in the game and Cincinnati driving at the Pittsburgh 26, Gay jumped the route on a pass intended for Jerome Simpson and grabbed the interception that saved the game.

Gay also broke up four passes, including one deflected to Lawrence Timmons for an interception. Gay's interception at the end may have saved the Steelers' season. Now 1-2 in the division, the Steelers absolutely had to win in Cincinnati. They did. They survived to compete another day and have the bye week coming up to think about how they can improve.

Improve they must. We shouldn't gripe too much about a win on the road over a division rival riding a five-game winning streak. Lots of Steelers played well: With five receptions for 86 yards, Antonio Brown was the offensive star of the game; Troy Polamalu was all over the place; Lawrence Timmons had a diving interception forced by William Gay; Rashard Mendenhall ran hard; Mike Wallace and Heath Miller made clutch catches; Jericho Cotchery did a passable Hines Ward impression; Max Starks was tremendous; Jeremy Kapinos punted five times for a 50.4 yard average; and, although he took too many sacks, Ben Roethlisberger made plays for the most part, as he passed for 18 first downs. There's something to be said for that.

Where's the killer instinct?
Okay, they won, but do the Steelers lack a killer instinct? Seems a fair question. The Steelers blew a 14-point lead in the third quarter. Maybe it's a stretch to say this was a game the Steelers should have won handily. But ... once again, too many miscues, mistakes and sacks allowed. No sacks made on defense. The Steelers let the Bengals hang around, hang around, and then all of a sudden, the Bengals tied the game at 17-17 with their first drive of the third quarter. The Steelers re-took the lead, but there were the Bengals driving at the end.

Injuries have taken a toll, no doubt. Still, "the standard is the standard," and the Bengals lost two key players to injury during the game.

Give credit: Andy Dalton is an impressive young quarterback, with "leader" written all over him. Dalton, however, missed several open receivers and was just 15-30 for 170 yards. He shows promise, though, as he is decisive, poised and appears to be fundamentally sound. He gets rid of the ball quickly. They call him The Red Rifle, and his arm seems plenty strong enough. He seems likable, too, so it might be hard for Steelers' fans to conjure up much of a healthy dislike for him -- unless he starts beating them regularly, heaven forbid.

A.J. Green's touchdown (photo credit: Reuters)
Speaking of impressive, how about A.J. Green? ... and just what was Troy Polamalu doing on Green's first-quarter touchdown catch? Polamalu didn't play the ball. Perhaps he lost the ball in flight, but he appeared to be looking right at it, tracking it, yet pulled back at the last second before Green snatched it. Ryan Clark got turned around and was falling as the ball arrived. Troy's got to get a hand in there, at least, and break it up, if not intercept that pass ... but who are we to criticize Troy. Other than that glaring miscue, Polamalu played well, especially on run defense.

Clearly, the second-quarter interception that clanked off Heath Miller's hands was not Ben Roethlisberger's fault. The pass was on the money, and Miller is usually reliable. It happens. The Bengals converted the turnover into three points (a 43-yard field goal by Mike Nugent) after a 15-yard drive on seven plays.

Ben dodged a bullet, however, with about 7:30 left in the second quarter, when a sure interception on first down deep in negative territory was bungled in a collision between Leon Hall and Reggie Nelson. It should have been intercepted.The Steelers then drove downfield and kicked the field goal that made the halftime score 17-10.

And how good was Antonio Brown during that field goal drive? Spectacular. Brown was the go-to guy with four catches for 74 yards, including one on 3rd and 19, and several acrobatic catches. No doubt about it, Brown is a rising star.

Rashard Mendenhall's touchdown (photo: Getty Images)
The Bengals have a lot of talent. One guy Joey Porter's Pit Bulls have always watched with interest is nose tackle Domata Peko. Another guy who gets your attention is OLB Manny Lawson. At 6'5", 240, Lawson supposedly has a 72" wingspan and does a 42" vertical jump. Selected by the 49ers as the 22nd pick in the first round of the 2006 draft, Lawson washed out in San Francisco, where he was miscast as a defensive end. He's found new life in Cincinnati. He reminds us a little of former Titans linebacker Jevon Kearse, "The Freak," who had a freakish 86" wingspan.

Just as the Steelers have their share of injuries, the Bengals entered the game without their best pass rusher, Carlo Dunlap, inactive with a hamstring injury (just like the Steelers' best pass rusher, Lamarr Woodley). Two more of the Bengals' best players on either side of the ball, A.J. Green and Leon Hall, left the game with injuries, and their absence was felt by the Bengals. Marvin Lewis said as much after the game -- and that's just one difference between him and Mike Tomlin ("No excuses! No complaints!").

Next Up: The bye week, then a game in Kansas City on Nov. 27. More interesting than the week off is next week's game between Cincinnati and Baltimore.

Game Day: Bengals Edition -- Who Dey?

Is it too much to ask for a defensive takeaway?
First and foremost, a simple request of the Steelers' defense: Would it be too much to ask you to make some interceptions and recover some fumbles today?!

The Steelers have forced only nine takeaways this season -- the lowest total through nine games in NFL history!

Now, put yourself in the position of Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.Your rookie quarterback faces the Pittsburgh Steelers and Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense today. Rookie quarterbacks are 1-11 vs. the Steelers since 2004. This year, Cincinnati is 6-2 but has just one win over a team with a winning record (Buffalo).

If you were Marvin Lewis, what sort of game plan would you and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden devise for Andy Dalton and your offense?

A safe game plan? ... or risk-taking? NFL coaches are like actuaries. They assess all the risks. They take calculated gambles. What's the job of an NFL coach? Put  your players in position to win. To do that, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls surmise, Marvin Lewis will rely largely on his running game. Cincinnati has three fine running backs, Cedric Benson, Bernard Scott and Brian Leonard, all of whom have hurt the Steelers in past games.Ergo, for the Steelers to win today, just like every Sunday, the Steelers must STOP THE RUN.

Simple as that. More so today than any game this year except perhaps for the one against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who also started a rookie quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, and relied largely on running back Maurice Jones-Drew.

Granted, Dalton has been very good this season, and he is getting better as the season proceeds. Dalton is poised, accurate, mobile, and he has shown excellent anticipation in his throws, as well as astute ability to read defenses.

Mean Joe Greene will be watching today.
Still, he has not faced a defense like Pittsburgh's ... although, it must be said, this year's edition of the Steelers' defense is not the Steel Curtain. At various times this season, it has been exposed as vulnerable, leaky and porous -- especially in the season opener at Baltimore; also in Houston; during several games the Steelers won; and most recently and glaringly in the national spotlight, last Sunday night's lamentable last-minute collapse during Joe Flacco's 92-yard game-winning drive at Heinz Field.

The Steelers lead the all-time regular season series with the Bengals, 49 wins to 32 for Cincinnati.That has little to do with today's game, however, and as Coach Tomlin said earlier this year, "There's a fine line between drinking wine and squashing grapes."

Go, Steelers!
Feel free to leave a comment, below left.