What a difference a week makes. Last Tuesday morning Steelers fans everywhere woke up to (a) a Steelers’ team that struggled on both sides of the ball in Denver, (b) an impending visit by a Jets team that had rolled the Buffalo Bills in Week One, and (c) looking up at the Ravens fresh off a dominant performance against Cincinnati. Six days later, the Steelers are tied for first in the AFC North with a trip to the apparently hapless Raiders coming up on Sunday. Seven things to take away from the Steelers’ 27-10 win over the J-E-T-S on Sunday in Heinz Field:
1. The running game is a work in progress. Playing a team that the Buffalo Bills ran all over last weekend, the Steelers managed only 66 yards rushing on 28 attempts on Sunday. The struggled were mitigated somewhat by the 14-play, 75-yard, 10:13 drive that ate up most of the 4th quarter that featured several solid runs by Isaac Redman, but the Steelers will need to run the ball more efficiently as the season moves forward. With a bye looming in Week 4, it is anticipated that Rashard Mendenhall will be held out of the trip to Oakland next week but should be ready to go by Week 5 when the Eagles come to town. Mendenhall isn’t an elite back, but he provides the home run threat that is currently lacking in the Steelers’ backfield.
2. Reports of the demise of the Steelers’ defense may have been premature. After being gashed in the second half by Peyton Manning in Denver, the Steelers’ defense proceeded to allow the Jets to accumulate 151 yards on their first two drives on Sunday, deepening the concern about the viability of the defense for a contending team. Well, the Jets’ next 7 drives netted a total of 71 yards, many of which came on iffy and/or completely phantom defensive penalties. LaMarr Woodley applied excellent pressure all afternoon, Ike Taylor shook off a slow start to shut down Santonio Holmes the last 3 quarters, and Mark Sanchez played like Mark Sanchez. While the defense was obviously aided by facing a Jets’ offense that lacks playmakers, it was a fine bounceback performance, especially without James Harrison and Troy Polamalu.
3. Ryan Clark is even more valuable than we thought. By chance, the Steelers closed the 2011 season and opened the 2012 season in Denver, games that Clark missed after nearly dying following a game in Denver in 2007. The Steelers’ defense was largely lit up by Peyton Manning (somewhat understandable) and Tim Tebow (not even a little understandable) with Clark out, allowing numerous long pass plays and an inability to get off the field. Clark returned on Sunday and, despite the absence of SS Troy Polamalu, greatly impacted the defense. Clark led the team with 8 tackles, including 1 for a loss, broke up a pass, and stabilized a secondary that looked shaky in Denver. Polamalu gets the headlines, but in many ways Clark is just as important to the defense.
4. The replacement referees have got to go. I was actually ok with the way they called things in Week 1, but Week 2 was an unmitigated disaster all over the NFL. Even setting aside the blown calls, the fact that it takes them a b s o l u t e l y f o r e v e r to decide on a call and get back to action ruins the pace of the games. Not setting aside the blown calls, THIS was called pass interference on Ike Taylor:
We’ll still bitch and moan when the regular guys return, but seriously Roger, enough.
5. The passing offense is going to be a nightmare for opposing defenses. Ten different receivers caught balls on Sunday, led by Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, and Ben’s QB rating of 125.1 against a Revis-less secondary speaks for itself. Brown remains Ben’s go-to guy, receiving 10 targets in 31 pass attempts, but with Heath Miller appearing more integrated into the offense and with 4 different running backs catching passes on Sunday, the offense has a versatility that it lacked for many seasons under Bruce Arians.
6. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms suck. Nothing more needs to be said.
7. Is Oakland a trap game? The Steelers head to Oakland on Sunday to play the hapless Raiders, a team that has been blown out in its first two games by a combined 57-27 score and was just gouged for 452 yards by a pretty bad Miami Dolphins offense. Darren McFadden hasn’t gotten untracked at all for the Raiders, and Carson Palmer continues to be what Carson Palmer always was – Vinny Testerverde v.2.0. This will, however, be the Steelers’ second trip west in three weeks, it comes without several key starters, and is in a place the Steelers have historically struggled. You certainly recall the Steelers’ last trip to Oakland in 2006 when the defending Super Bowl Champion Steelers lost to a 1-5 Oakland team despite outgaining them 360-98 and holding Andrew Walter (!) to a 5-for-14 for 51 yards passing day. We’ll look at this in more detail later this week, but this is a road game the Steelers should win – if they are careful.