It’s easy to lament the fact that the Steelers added another chapter in their epic 2011 novel “How to Let a 4-9 Team Hang Around.” It’s easy to worry about the injuries that mounted last night, and it’s easy to complain about how many mistakes the team made all night on both sides of the ball. The fact is, however, that unlike in 2009, the Steelers found a way to win. Moreover, the fact that we’re not sitting here discussing whether they should sign Donovan McNabb or call Brett Favre to finish out the season is the best news of all. A look back at last night’s 14-3 win over Cleveland:
1. Ben. Love him or hate him (or love him AND hate him), Ben Roethlisberger proved again last night that he’s an elite NFL QB. He’s not as graceful or efficient as Rodgers or Brady, he doesn’t get the hypse of Tebow, and he always has about 3 moments in a game that lead to things being thrown at the TV and his name said immediately after 2 or 3 expletives. Ben, however, generally finds a way to get it done. Playing the second half on an ugly high ankle sprain and facing the #1 pass defense in the NFL, Roethlisberger finished the night 16-for-21 for 280 yards and 2 TD’s, and 2 of the incompletions were drops. Most importantly, however, he was able to finish the game when it appeared for all the world that his season had been ended. For as much of a douchebag as he has been at times and for as much of a drama queen he can also be, Roethlisberger proved last night that he is also the toughest QB in the NFL.
2. Clean it up already. To take nothing away from a spirited effort by Cleveland, the Steelers spent most of the night appearing determined to hand the game to the Browns. Hines Ward and Heath Miller both fumbled inside the Cleveland red zone, Ben threw one of his “GGGGUUUUHHHH” interceptions, the team racked up 12 penalties, and several blown assignments let the Browns convert way too many 3rd and longs. You can get away with this stuff once in awhile against bad teams, but these kinds of mistakes will end your season if they happen in January.
3. 19 points in 13 quarters. I’ll preface this by noting that there is a lot of good fortune involved in this figure. The Bengals had a TD called back on a penalty last week, the Browns had one overturned by replay last night, and the QB’s faced during the stretch were Andy Dalton, Colt McCoy, and Tyler Palko. All of that said, however, the Steelers’ defense has allowed 19 points in the last 13 quarters, an impressive run in the NFL no matter who you’re playing. In addition to shutting the opposing offenses down, the defense has finally flipped the switch and begun turning the over team over, racking up 9 takeaways in those 13 quarters. For a defense that manythink isn’t as dominant as normal, it’s getting the job done as well or better than anyone else in the NFL right now.
4. Mike Wallace + Antonio Brown = Best WR Duo in the NFL. For the second consecutive year, the Steelers have had a 2nd year WR emerge and become a star in the league. Last year it was Mike Wallace that broke through, and in 2011 Antonio Brown is becoming an elite WR before our eyes. Brown’s success actually dates back to the end of the 2010 season. Through the first 11 games in 2010, Brown had 2 catches for 27 yards. Total. Since that time, however, Brown has taken off. In the last 21 games (including playoffs), Brown has 77 catches for 1182 yards, and he has also posted 3 100-yard games in the last 7. Brown had 5-151 last night, including the back-breaking 79-yard catch-and-run TD in the final minutes that sealed the win. For the season, Brown and Wallace have combined for a 117 catches, 1959 yards, and 10 TD’s. Not bad for a 3rd round pick in 2009 and a 6th round pick in 2010.
5. The injury report. Lost amid the hubbub over Ben’s ankle, the Steelers also suffered other significant injuries last night. Pro Bowl C Maurkice Pouncey went down with a high ankle sprain, DE Ziggy Hood left with a groin problem, and S Troy Polamalu sat out much of the 4th quarter with a hamstring “tweak” (and presumably a shoulder that popped out of place as demonstrated by Ryan Clark visibly trying to pull it back into place on the sidelines in a “too much information” moment captured by NFL Network). The Steelers have 11 days until they play in San Francisco, and they’ll need every bit of it to get these guys, along with LaMarr Woodley and Emmanuel Sanders, back on the field for that game.
6. Nessler & Mayock FTW. I’d like to petition the NFL to allow Nessler and Mayock to do every Steelers game for the rest of the season. Mayock is simply the best in the business at what he does – he breaks the game down on a level that is understandable without being bogged down by minutae, he picks up on things that other analysts miss amid telling jokes and gushing over players, and he avoids the tired cliches that make me insane when listening to Phil Simms or Dan Dierdorf. Now if NFL Network would just get rid of Deion and Marshall Faulk, we’d REALLY be on to something.
7. Will James Harrison be suspended? Late in the 4th quarter last night, James Harrison laid this hit on Colt McCoy:
I’ll dispense with debating the issue of the new emphasis on helmet-to-helmet, defenseless player, etc., and just note that Harrison has already been fined at least 4 times for hits by the NFL and has had several public dust-ups with Roger Goodell. While I don’t think the hit was suspension-worthy, given Harrison’s history, the recent precedent set by the suspension of Suh, and the fact this occurred in a primetime game with high media visibility, a suspension wouldn’t surprise me. In fact, I’ll be more surprised if he isn’t suspensed…and Harrison missing the San Francisco game would be a brutal blow to the Steelers’ chances of winning the AFC North.
8. Up next = San Francisco. Assuming the 49ers take care of business in Arizona on Sunday, next Monday night will feature the 10-3 Steelers at the 11-2 49ers (apparently ESPN couldn’t get another Seahawks-Rams matchup). The Steelers will have to win this game to have any realistic shot of winning the division and getting a bye, and the 49ers are trying to stay ahead of the Saints for the #2 seed and a bye in the NFC. These two teams currently sit 1-2 in points allowed in the NFL for the season, so a 38-35 shootout is inevitable. Rest hard, Steelers.