Monday, January 19, 2009

Recapping the AFC Conference Steel(er) Cage Match

As promised, some thoughts and links from what was essentially a no-holds-barred, steel cage match last night on the frozen tundra of Heinz Field.

Some Links:
-ESPN is doing an all-day chat thing over at their site. Not worth reading up on all the different parts of the chat, as it would take all day, but it's worth it if you have a few interesting questions you'd like the "experts" at the WWL to answer.

-The Professor, John Clayton, puts together the big questions of this Super Bowl for right now. As always, its good stuff by Clayton.

-James Walker tells the critics of Ben Roethlisberger to shut their collective yaps. And yes, that includes the many yinzers who spent large portions of this season screaming at him to get rid of the ball. Does he drive people (including myself) crazy at times? Absolutely. But this is who he is, and the best one-word description of him as a football player is: Winner. And that's fine by me. Peyton and Tom can have their records, I'll take Roethlisberger any day of the week.

-Peter King's MMQB, a must-read no matter what football team you like, spends a good deal of the column discussing the Steelers-Ravens game.

-As always, Mondesi's House does a great job breaking down the game.

-Gene Collier writes about Heinz Field no longer be an AFC Championship curse. This had definitely gone through my mind more than once before the game, but it's a different situation with our new coach, Mike Tomlin, I suppose. Ron Cook says that, despite the stats that claim otherwise, the title of best defense in football was on the line last night, and the Steelers proved once and for all they are the best D in the league.

Random Thoughts
-I don't think I have ever seen a more physical game with players who just no regard whatsoever for their own personal well-being. Just ridiculous. Thank god they give the teams a bye week before the Super Bowl, because there is no way this Steeler team would be ready if they had to play again in six days. I mean, Ryan Clark's entire body probably feels like he was in a severe traffic accident yesterday, Hines Ward probably can't do much more than jog, Mewelde Moore is iffy and anything that hurts his quickness pretty much negates any value he has, the offensive and defensive lines were hitting all day long, and of course, Ben Roethlisberger took his usual lumps, including what I thought was a definite late hit from Haruki Nakamura that I couldn't believe wasn't flagged.

-I liked that Bruce Arians tried very hard to establish the run early on, but I thought that he stuck to it a little too long. Parker was unable to get anything going against that stout Baltimore defense, and I think we would have been better served giving Mewelde a few more snaps early in the game and sending a few short passes his way. Worst case they are equally as effective, getting 2 or 3 yards a pop, and best case Mewelde catches one in some space and is able to make a play or two.

-Ben Roethlisberger just does it. That's all there is too it. He wins games, he plays smart when he has to, and he's going to his second Super Bowl with a 7-2 playoff record at the age of 26. Just an amazing job yet again by our franchise QB. Right now, I'd take him ahead of any QB in football, and I really mean that. Think about it: Who knows what is going to happen with Tom Brady's knee? He may never be the same. Peyton Manning came on real strong at the end of the season, but Ben has already had much more postseason success than Manning and doesn't require 30+ passes per game to get in a rhythm at the end of a game like Peyton. Phillip Rivers put together a great season, but has leadership and character issues and his game record pales in comparison. Eli looked a little too much like the old Eli down the stretch, and I'm still not sold on him. Kurt Warner, in my opinion, has been the beneficiary of having two of the best receiving corps in recent NFL history at his disposal with the current Zona group and the Greatest Show on Turf group with the Rams. Plus, he's old. Drew Brees can sling it as well as anyone, but I can't take him seriously until he picks up a few January W's. He can keep his 5000 yard, video-game offense season, thanks but no thanks.

-Troy Polamalu vs. Ed Reed just got a whole lot more interesting. I know I said yesterday that I thought Reed was ahead of Polamalu as a safety and was one of the best in league history, but I found myself now thinking I may have underestimated our spectacular number 43. Polamalu was the best player on the field yesterday, while Reed pretty much disappeared for large chunks of the game. I guess that might have something to do with the play of the respective QB's, but I think this debate is very much alive and well.

-I don't know that I've ever seen a game quite like the one Limas Sweed had yesterday. Sweed, of course, was headed for infamy after dropping a sure-fire TD that Roethlisberger delivered precisely into his hands. He did end up hauling in a pair of passes by the end, and didn't make anymore awful mistakes. He also leveled a Hines Ward-esque block on unsuspecting Corey Ivy, knocking him clear into next week. Just a weird game for him, and I pray that Hines Ward is 100% healthy and that Limas doesn't have to set foot on the field against Arizona.

-Dick LeBeau continues to prove he's the best defensive coordinator in all of football. All we heard in the first two rounds and all through the regular season was that Joe Flacco was Joe Cool, that he was unflappable, and made plays in the biggest moments because you couldn't get into his head. Yeaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh so much for that thought process, eh? Flacco was definitely flappable yesterday and LeBeau flapped him again and again. Big sacks, two bad interceptions, the last one pretty much sealing the game for the Steelers. Don't get me wrong, I like Flacco a lot and think he could definitely develop into Roethlisberger Lite and be a very good QB in the NFL, but somehow everyone forgot that he didn't do anything against the Steelers in the regular season and is still a rookie QB in the playoffs. And LeBeau knew just how to rattle his cage.

-That said, I will be VERY interested to see LeBeau's game plan against the Cardinals and Kurt Warner. Warner is notoriously great at taking advantage of blitzing teams and getting the ball out in a hurry. That's not to say that I think LeBeau will abandon the blitz, as that would never happen in a billion years, but I do think some of the more exotic schemes, like bringing Polamalu and Timmons may be put on hold.

-I'm happy for the Cards and for Ken Whiz, Russ Grimm, Larry Fitz, and Gerry Hayes, but for the next 13 days, they are public enemy number 1 in my book. My old Larry Fitzgerald Pitt jersey? It's been removed from my closet where it sat next to the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Sidney Crosby, and Willie Stargell and shoved underneath my bed where it won't see the light of day again until February 2nd.
-Too many Super Bowls lately have come down to last minute scoring drives, and after watching Jeff Reed yesterday at the Heinz Field tundra, I have the fullest confidence in him to have a big game if necessary in Super Bowl XLIII.

-I was pleased, shocked, elated, and surprised to see the refs call a holding call yesterday in favor of James Harrison. Of course, he was held a minimum 15-20 times yesterday and only one was called, but at least its a start.

-Another nice day for the Steelers' secondary yesterday. Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, Deshea Townsend, and William Gay played extremely well from their cornerback spots, and I think it mostly goes without saying that Polamalu, Clark, and Ty Carter did a super job at safety. Just a great performance all around. And that is huge for the Steelers because the Cardinals offense will revolve around Larry Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner. If the Steelers can contain Fitz (there is no stopping the guy) the Cards offense is not going to be able to hang in the game.

-People have been talking a lot about the Whisenhunt connection and how it gives him an advantage because of how well he knows the Steelers personnel and all... but do you really think that doesn't go the other way, too? Mike Tomlin may not know Whiz, but Dick LeBeau worked against Whisenhunt's offense in practice countless times and, as Whisenhunt openly admits, LeBeau more than once helped him adjust to defensive schemes. Do we really think LeBeau doesn't know every wrinkle of Whiz's offense. And do we really think the Steelers aren't fully aware of countless Whisenhunt gadget plays. I see this intimate knowledge being a wash in the end.

-The Steelers O-Line had some issues with Baltimore pass rush and did take some penalties (looking squarely at Chris Kemoeautu and his incredibly stupid personal foul), but they handled that Ravens rush pretty darn well I thought. Sure they couldn't open up holes for an ant to even run through, but no one can do that against the Ravens. You can't blame them too much for that, and they managed to buy Ben at least some time. And the Cardinals D, however well they may be playing right now, is no Ravens squad.

-I expect to see another crowd heavy in Steelers support down in Tampa Bay. Florida has so many transplants or retirees from Pittsburgh it's downright absurd. This might be even more Steeler heavy than the Detroit Super Bowl XL crowd of 3 years ago. And considering the game is against the Cardinals, who probably have one of the least-established fan bases in the sport, and we could be looking at like a 85/15 or 90/10 split for this puppy. Tampa Bay will be turned into Terrible Towel city. Should be exciting.

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