Monday, December 15, 2014

Two to Go

Key play: William Gay's pick-six TD early in the second quarter.
It's a big step in the right direction: For the first time since 2011, the Steelers have nine wins in a season.

The Steelers' solid win in Atlanta on Sunday whittles their magic number to two. The competition, however, gets stiffer than the 5-9 Falcons, who were playing without star wide receiver Julio Jones.

The Steelers will host the 8-6 Kansas City Chiefs next Sunday and the 9-4-1 Cincinnati Bengals the Sunday after that. If the Steelers win both games, they win the AFC North.

Antonio Brown, hauling it in at the one
For now, Steeler Nation can enjoy the win over Atlanta.

Antonio Brown was his usual, dazzling self; Le'Veon Bell continued his great, breakout season; and William Gay returned his third pick-six INT return of the season, a franchise record.

Ben Roethlisberger was accurate (77.1% on 27-35 passing for 360 yards passing; no interceptions) with more than half his total passing yards going to two targets (Brown for 123 yards, and Bell for 72 yards receiving).

Roethlisberger also connected for 138 yards on nine of 10 targets to Heath Miller and Marcus Wheaton.

Jason Worilds, nailing Matt Ryan
The offensive line did a decent job protecting Ben, and the Steelers kept a lid on their penalties, committing just three, one of which was a bogus call on Jason Worilds*.

Without Julio Jones, Atlanta's diminutive Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards. That amount of yardage from the six-year veteran who was a college teammate of William Gay at Louisville, indicates the Steelers' thin secondary remains vulnerable to a decent passing attack.

Antwon Blake, sticking Harry Douglas
But it was an errant Matt Ryan pass intended for Douglas on the first play of the second quarter that was arguably the pivotal play of the game. Gay's interception return gave the Steelers a 13-0 lead, coming as it did on the heels of two stalled drives that ended in the red zone and produced field goals for the Steelers instead of touchdowns, another season-long trend.

Yet the defense stepped up when it needed to, limiting the Falcons to field goals on two long drives that produced just six points.

“We fought in a big way, defensively," Mike Tomlin said after the game. "I thought we did a good job of keeping a lid on it that prevented some of the big plays that have hurt us in the past. Obviously, they created some big plays with some shorter passes but that is life. We are who we are and we are not a perfect group by any stretch but we will fight the fight until the end together.”

They'll have to. The depth in an already-thin secondary may be tested yet again. It remains to be seen whether Mike Mitchell's groin injury late in the game will keep him out of action next week. Mitchell hasn't been good this year, but if he can't suit up, it will mean very limited options behind Will Allen. Robert Golden would be the next man up. We might even see a Shamarko Thomas sighting, although his role is as backup to Troy Polamalu.

Steeler Nation and William Gay, after a TD
  • *Jason Worilds got jobbed on a roughing-the-quarterback penalty. Worilds did everything by the NFL's impossible book, nailing Ryan with his shoulder pads square in the sternum.  Anybody who saw the play knows Worilds shouldn't have been flagged. The NFL needs to look at how officials are calling these hits, or it need to adjust the rules. 
  • When the Steelers' offense took possession of the ball with 4:34 remaining in the game, Steelers' radio broadcaster Tunch Ilkin said, "Now we get to see if the Steelers can run their four-minute offense and end the game here." They did, converting two critical third downs. The second conversion came on a well-designed formation that left Heath Miller wide open for a crucial 25-yard pass on third-and-one.
  • Ben Roethlisberger has 29 touchdowns against just eight interceptions this year. On Sunday, in the 14th game of the season, he once again set the franchise record for passing yards (now 4,415 yards) in a season.
Le'Veon Bell, into the end zone
  • Le'Veon Bell went over 2,000 total yards for the season, surpassing Barry Foster's record. Bell finished with 47 yards rushing, 72 yards receiving, no fumbles and no injuries. He's been great this year.
  • Antonio Brown just continues to dazzle. With 10 receptions for 123 yards, his 115 catches this year also set a franchise record (115, passing Hines Ward's 112 in 2002). Brown leads the NFL with 1,498 yards receiving. A terrific season.
  • Second-year inside linebacker Vince Williams played a strong game, and he's looked mostly solid during the past several games, which is a very encouraging sign.

Good stuff, and congrats all around. 

Next up: The Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field, 1 p.m., next Sunday, Dec. 21st.