Sunday, December 21, 2008

Steelers have a long way to go to be Super

In case you weren't reading all week long, I was incredibly nervous about the coronation of our Steelers coming into this game. Way, way, way too many people were claiming the Titans had peaked, that the Steelers D was the best since the Steel Curtain was falling on unsuspecting players league wide back in the '70s, that Big Ben was the best fourth quarter QB since John Elway hung 'em up, and that the Steelers were going to lay down the law against Tennessee earlier today. Whenver you hear things like that coming from just about every analyst, it usually spells D-O-O-M for the favored team. (Don't believe me? See: Giants over Pats in Super Bowl XLIII, Pitt over WVU in the '07 Brawl, Steelers over Colts in the '06 AFC Playoffs, among hundreds of other examples)

Of course, I'm not hear to say that all of those things are false. Hell, they might all end up being true before the curtain closes on this season, just not right now. The Titans, quite obviously, have not peaked. Granted, if they fall behind in a game against the Colts or something like that in the playoffs, you might as well throw dirt on that coffin, because they are dead, but with that power rushing game, a spectacular defensive scheme, and old Kerry Collins steadily running the show, this team is going to have a major say in what happens in January, and certainly appear to have gotten their groove back as the AFC favorites.

Maybe, just maybe this is what the Steelers really needed right now. I think they had become a bit too reliant on the comforting notion that, as long as they could stay close, they would pull it out in the end. Now they know that, against a legitimately good club, that can't be the case or things will turn out like they did today, with a relatively close game getting blown wide open at the end because of the Steelers' desperation.

First and foremost, Big Ben can't turn into the turnover machine we all know he can be at times. Roethlisberger has been unbelievably streaky in his career, and when things go bad for him, they typically go really, really bad, like they did today when he turned the ball over a terrifying 4 times. Obviously, we shouldn't expect to see much more from him next week than him turning around and handing off for 1 or 2 quarters, but here's hoping Roethlisberger realizes that, if this team is going to go anywhere in the postseason, it's going to fall on him to take care of the ball. Even if it means settling for a field goal instead of a TD, or taking a 4 yard swing pass in the flat instead of a 20 yard completion into coverage downfield, these are the things Ben needs to do for this team to beat teams like Tennessee, Indy, and the Giants.

But hey, let's take solace in this much. This was a very winnable game against a very beatable team, and the Steelers, I am quite certain, know this, and will remember it if they meet again in late January. Look at what could have been today, Steeler Fans. Just let me put on my rose-colored glasses first... okay here we go:
-On the play where Ben fumbled inside the Titans 5 trying to scramble into the end zone, if he had just thrown it away, the Steelers come away with 3 points.
-If Aaron Smith doesn't take one of the dumbest penalties in NFL history by barking out a snap count trying to draw a Titans lineman to a false start on their Field Goal attempt even though succeeding would have only pushed the Titans back to about a 25 yard field goal with the strongest legged kicker in the NFL, the Steelers only give up 3 points instead of the 7 they gave up two plays later. So we now have a 7 point swing...
-If Ike Taylor's able to make that tackle on Chris Johnson on 4th down, or if the Steelers are able to hold the Titans a little better on third down, that's either a 4 point or 7 point swing, I'll go 4 just to be conservative, which gives us a 11 point swing...
-Jeff Reed, normally wildly reliable, misses what for a him is a pretty darn easy Field Goal that would have given the Steelers a tie at the half. That's 3 more points, so we're up to 14 points.
-If Ben wasn't so desperate at the end, there's no way he tosses that pick to Michael Griffin, who promptly housed it on a seriously slacking Steelers squad.

That's a 21 point swing total, and there were some other possibilities there as well (specifically the opening drive which resulted in a punt but with a productive O should have gotten at least 3 because of the great field position), but it was only a 17 point Tennessee win, so you can now believe me when I say that the Steelers had a legit shot at winning this game if it weren't for the fact that they were unbelievably sloppy.

However, it's not all so easy and perky (as I take off said Rose-colored glasses), as the Titans didn't play their top two linemen and yet it was still open season on Big Ben, thanks to an abysmal day from the O-Line, especially Willie Colon and Darnell Stapleton. That line really needs to step up, and right after the play of Ben, is probably the second most important thing to Steeler success in the postseason. I mean, who would have thought that the Steelers best O-Lineman going into the season finale has probably been Max Starks? And if you thought that, how bad did you think the Steelers were going be this season?
And I can't believe I got this far without chastising the effort (or lack thereof by our D) in today's game. It's the end of the <300 yard run for the unit, and for whatever reason, the Titans were the arsenic to this squad's collective body. Let's hope, just as Jim Nantz and Phil Simms said, this is just due to the exhausting stretch of games they have been forced to play. They essentially get two weeks off, as I don't expect to see much of the first unit against the Brownies no matter what Mike Tomlin says, and then of course they have a bye following that.

Anyway, something tells me we'll be seeing these guys again in about a month's time at that same field, and if that's the case, I won't be nearly as terrified of this Titans squad as so many of the "experts" will claim I should be as a Steeler fan. The Steelers, despite a stink bomb loss, know they had a shot today, and should draw a weird kind of confidence from it. And, because I wanted to touch on the one thing that I'm sure will galvanize the maniacal Steeler nation in the coming days, I don't think anyone on the Steelers roster is going to need LenDale White's stomping of a Terrible Towel to get fired up for a rematch, but if it makes you feel better, go ahead and think that. Me, I'll take solace in the fact that I know the Steelers can beat this Titan team.

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