I watched the last seven minutes of the Ravens game on the NFL Network last night: it still stings. But we’re going to look at the positive of the first quarter of the 2010 season here.
Pittsburgh was a first down away from being atop every single NFL rankings list last weekend. Ben R. was suspended for four games. It’s not just that he’s a two time Super Bowl winning, possible Hall of Famer. Bruce Arians has crafted an offense around Ben. The Steelers just can’t plug and play a backup QB as easily as most teams. It appears that early on, Mike Tomlin decided on Byron Leftwich, who got most of the first team snaps in the preseason. Then, with only a few more series’ left to play in the final preseason game, Leftwich messed up his knee and was out of the picture.
So now, barely tested third stringer Dennis Dixon was handed the reins for the opener. Basically, Tomlin was on his third QB game plan before the first regular season game. Dixon struggled in the first game; certainly hamstrung by play calling that made Woody Hayes look like Sid Gillman (most of you probably didn’t get that reference). But they won.
Things opened up a little in game two and on Dixon’s first big run of the year, he dives headfirst and blows out his knee. Maybe the conservative scheming was because Tomlarians knew Dixon wasn’t smart enough to slide! So, in the second quarter of the second game of the year, Pittsburgh was being led by the fourth string quarterback: a guy who seemed likely to be cut before the season started. And Batch does just enough to win! Turns out it’s the same knee Dixon blew out his senior year at Oregon and he’s out for the year.
Pittsburgh now has their second straight road game with a deep on the charts backup QB; against a surprising 2-0 Tampa Bay. They completely open up the playbook, use Mike Wallace deep and blow up the Bucs with Batch putting up big numbers. 3-0!!!
And of course, the Ravens are coming to town, a game behind the Steelers. Batch has a bad game, missing open receivers and taking big sacks, but he leads a fourth quarter TD drive to garner a 14-10 lead before the Ravens snatch a win in the final minute.
The Steelers, using third and fourth string QBs, beat two playoff contenders and barely (and I mean, BARELY) lost to another likely playoff team. They are tied with several teams for the second best record in the AFC (behind the soon to be beaten 3-0 Chiefs). This is an excellent start.
THE RUNNING GAME
Pittsburgh has been unable to run well the last three seasons, though Mendenhall did go over 1,000 yards last season. They’ve been especially inept at short yardage. The Steelers are fourth in the AFC in rushing this year. Mendenhall is SECOND in the AFC and has a hefty 4.6 yards per carry. And he had some key runs late in that go-ahead TD drive last weekend. Plus, both Mendenhall and Isaac Redman have converted several short yardage runs and goal line TD runs. This is the best Steeler running game since Willie Parker (still unemployed) in 2006. With Ben back, hopefully the team will use the run to help make him more effective and not go all gunslinger again.
The Steelers have one kick return for a TD and have given up none in four games. This is a massive improvement over last season. In fact, with four close games, the return and coverage games have been key.
Really, this unit has been fantastic. One of the best I’ve seen as a Steelers fan. Now, they failed to get it done in the Ravens game, but I think that was scheme. When the Ravens drove most of the field before being stuffed at the three, LeBeau had them playing soft coverage, giving up chunks of yardage. And on the game-winning TD pass, I think they were blitzing Anthony Madison and Will Allen from the bench. McFadden was really on an island there. A little safety help while rushing the linebackers might have helped a lot. And while they did fail, the four play stop before that was impressive. William Gay made two TD-saving plays.
The other three games: except for when LeBeau has gone soft/prevent late, they’ve totally suffocated teams. They’ve been almost impossible to score on when they’re playing full bore. The D has given up four TDs in four games, and they almost had it at 3, which would have meant 4-0.
Last season fell apart when Troy as hurt in the opener (it just took a while to show). There have been some minor injuries to Casey Hampton, Trai Essex, Max Starks and Chris Hoke, but only Dennis Dixon has had a major one. Byron is capable of playing, though I’m sure the knee is still balky. They’ve stayed healthy and gotten turnovers. Those are the keys to the defense.
Pittsburgh is on a 2-5 run in the division since last year and HAVE to knock off Cleveland next weekend. I think they will. Then it’s at Miami, at New Orleans and at Cincy. Miami is a mediocre 2-2 but gets my vote for 2010 road clunker, so they need to be focused.
The Madden cover curse has struck Drew Brees: the high flying Saints offense is averaging fewer points per game than the Steelers’. Yes, the conservative, backup QB-driven Steeler offense has been more productive than the Saints.’ I think Pittsburgh can go into NO and get a win, though it’s going to be a tall order.
Then a key division game at Cincy. That team will be imploding soon. Picking up that win would offset the Ravens game. So, home with the Browns and then three road games against teams that think they’re playoff contenders. Pittsburgh could give two of them reality checks. 7-1 is not impossible, though 6-2 is a lot more likely and 5-3 wouldn’t surprise me. But the first quarter of the season featured suffocating D, improved special teams (No ragging on Reed: they were both pretty long and he’s entitled to one bad game a year) and an effective running game. If Ben comes back and gets quickly in sync, this can be a Super Bowl contender.
I’ll be back to my ‘glass half empty’ self next post.