Sunday, December 14, 2014

Game Day 14: Steelers at Atlanta Falcons

Can Todd Haley resist the temptation to show how smart he is today in Atlanta?

The Steelers are coming off a win when they ran the ball impressively. Atlanta's woeful pass defense, however, is ranked 32nd in the NFL. It may be tempting for Haley and Ben Roethlisberger to go after that secondary, even though such a plan almost certainly would lead to a shootout with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White.

So, the question is: Will the Steelers forget about what worked so well for them in Cincinnati last week? ... when Le'Veon Bell ran for 185 yards and 7.1 yards per carry? ... when Ben Roethlisberger, hampered by some sort of hand or wrist injury, often lined up in the short shotgun (pistol) formation with Bell behind him. And the Steelers repeatedly ran the counter sweep with David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey pulling behind Heath Miller and/or Matt Spaeth to clear lanes for Bell to find open lanes or simply trample Bengals defenders.

As Ralph Paulk reported in his fine article on DeCastro in Friday's edition of the Tribune-Review, “It's something teams are going to have a hard time stopping,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “We run it so well. We can run it 10 or so times a game. We're confident (in) Dave pulling, so we don't see it slowing down any time soon. We got to get a body on a body, and Dave is the best guard in the league. Once you pull him, he's going to open up holes.”

The Steelers can run the counter-sweep 10 times or so a game, but will they run it that often?

David DeCastro
Paulk reported that DeCastro is finally feeling healthy and confident in the knee he injured in his 2012 rookie season, so the Steelers are starting to feel confident in the kind of pulling, trapping and counter running schemes that suit the talents of Bell, DeCastro and Pouncey.

DeCastro's mobility is one reason the team drafted him, even giving him Alan Faneca's old uniform number (#66).

The ability of the blockers to move laterally plays to their strengths, as opposed to straight-ahead push-blocking against massive nose tackles like Baltimore's Haloti Ngata and and others throughout the NFL, including Kansas City's Dontari Poe, whom the Steelers will see next week.

While Steeler running backs Le'Veon Bell and Josh Harris combined for 30 carries last week, Bengals running backs Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard combined for only 14 carries. This, despite Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson adamantly insisting all during training camp that the Bengals were "committed to the run." Fourteen carries is not "committed to the run." The Steelers won by 21 points.

Will Haley make the same mistake today that Hue Jackson made last Sunday?

The Bungles vs. the Clowns
Speaking of the Bengals, there is perhaps no more interesting game on the NFL's Sunday schedule than Cincinnati at Cleveland.

In the first meeting between the teams on Nov. 6th, Cleveland's defense coerced Andy Dalton into a miserable QB rating of 2.0 for the night. Two! Dalton completed only 10 of 33 attempts for a mere 86 yards but also threw three interceptions. Dalton had more yards per attempt running (2.67) than he had yards per attempt passing (2.61). It was an historically miserable performance, but one from which he had rebounded reasonably well -- until he fumbled early in the fourth quarter last Sunday vs. the Steelers, who went on to score 22 unanswered points. Dalton's fumble was the turning point in the game and fueled more talk in Cincinnati and elsewhere that he doesn't have what it takes to win big games.

Johnny Manziel, starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns
For both Cincinnati and Cleveland, today's matchup is a big game. They both need to win, but especially Cleveland. If they lose, they're post-season aspirations are done.

Yet the Browns, being the Browns, chose this day to start rookie Johnny Manziel against a Cincinnati defense that can be pretty good, or at least has a lot of talent (on paper), despite the 42 points they surrendered to the Steelers last week.

Cleveland's defense can be fierce, too. In fact, last week, the Browns produced four takeaways and two defensive touchdowns -- and still lost, 25-24, to the Indianapolis Colts.

That was with Brian Hoyer at quarterback for most of the game. Today, with Dalton and Johnny Football tossing the pigskin around, it may be that both defenses will outscore both offenses.

Should be interesting. 

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