When I watch the Steelers play, I’m an emotional fan, just a member of Steeler Nation. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my couch, at a bar, or in the stands at Heinz Field, as I was this past Sunday. Without the options of reviewing each play myself, I don’t always know if the penalties were legitimate or bogus, how an injury occurred, or what went right on that fantastic splash play…I’m just caught up in the thrill of competition, with no idea how it will end. Sure, I leave the game with a feeling of how it went, but it’s just a first impression.
Thanks to the magic of DirecTV and NFL Game Rewind, I can go through the game in a more objective matter after the joy of victory or the agony of defeat has dulled a bit. Normally, I like to wait until mid-week in the lull between Tomlin Tuesday, when the HC meets with the media, and the critical Friday practice, a predictor of which players will sit because of injury. It’s a short week, as the Steelers play again on Thursday Night Football when they will take on the Titans, so it’s time to mull over what went down in those 60 minutes on Sunday.
In no particular order, here’s what hit me the second time around:
- Maurkice Pouncey may be the most talented center in the league, but he had 2 high snaps. On the Steelers first drive, one resulted in a fumble that the Steelers were lucky to recover. They went 3-and-out on that series. In the second quarter, Roethlisberger was able to scramble for the ball and attempt a long pass which was broken up in the end zone. These errors aren’t uncommon coming off a bye week, but it’s unusual for Pouncey.
- Even with the real refs, there has been a lot of laundry on the field. Although they’ve played one game less than most teams because of the bye week, the Steelers offense is tied for 6th in the league, with 37 penalties for 346 yards. The defense is a respectable 30th. A lot of the calls in this game were suspect, particularly the PI on Ike Taylor which brought the Eagles into the red zone in the first quarter. LG Willie Colon was called for holding 4 times (1 was declined). He is doing strong work pulling in his first season at guard, but dropping his opponent to the ground cost the offense precious yards. Other penalties were deserved and just a sign of sloppy play. This needs to get fixed, and soon.
- WR Mike Wallace arrived in excellent physical shape after missing all of training camp and preseason with his holdout, but he’s making mental mistakes that normally get worked out before the regular season begins. In this game, he was targeted 8 times, catching only 2 passes for 17 yards. Several of those drops were well-thrown passes; to be fair, the 2 he caught were great plays. Also of concern, he earned a penalty for illegal formation which negated a 23-yard rush by Mendenhall. Unacceptable.
- Speaking of Rashard Mendenhall, his return from his ACL injury and surgical repair was a success. The Steelers have struggled to run the ball this season, posting only 219 yards rushing over the first 3 games. The offensive line didn’t open better holes for him, but Mendenhall seems to get to the gap faster, achieving more yards prior to contact, and showed good second effort, totaling 81 yards rushing with a TD. He also caught passes out of the backfield and added 20 yards receiving.
- Isaac Redman also carried the ball well, rushing for a season-high 41 yards. Either he is benefiting from game experience or he was inspired by Mendenhall, improving his yards per carry (3.2) as well.
- I continue to be impressed with QB Ben Roethlisberger this season. The Eagles don’t blitz much, but they get excellent pressure with a 4-man rush. Ben used quick check-downs and screen passes, rarely holding onto the ball too long. He did scramble to extend the play at times but used good judgment in doing so. He has always possessed a terrific awareness of the line of scrimmage as well, getting his downfield pass off just before crossing it when he is flushed out of the pocket. If not for a drop in the endzone by Antonio Brown (who otherwise had a great game) and a stumble by Jericho Cotchery, Roethlisberger would have had 2 TD passes. The Steelers QB continues to lead the league in 3rd down conversions, with a 53% success rate.
- I’m also impressed with OC Todd Haley. His predecessor, Bruce Arians, was painfully predictable. I figured if I knew his tendencies well enough to anticipate what the next play would be, most defensive coordinators could do the same. Haley is a refreshing change. His play-calling is creative and makes good use of the personnel as well as taking advantage of the opposing defense’s weaknesses.
- The defense manged to pressure QB Vick throughout the game, even after losing Polamalu and Woodley in the first half, recording 3 sacks and 8 QB hits. In addition were manyQB hurries; always good to see Keisel speeding after a QB like it’s hunting season. This was a major failing against the Raiders in week 3 (whose second half possessions ended in TD, TD, TD, FG, and game-winning FG). In addition, they defended the stretch play well, a weakness for Pittsburgh last year, which Philly uses often to spring RB LeSean McCoy. They held McCoy to 53 yards rushing, less than half of the 123 yards he gained against the Giants the prior week.
- Why did they play “Renegade” in the second quarter?!!!!
- The Steelers defense produced turnovers in the preseason, but last season’s drought resumed with the regular season games. In this game, they forced 4 fumbles. The Eagles were lucky to recover 2, while Larry Foote, having an outstanding season and picking up where James Farrior left off, secured 2 for turnovers, including one which Vick lost on the Steelers 1-yard line and Foote recovered in the end zone. Still another fumble recovered by the Steelers was overturned when the ruling after review determined that Vick was down by contact…but it was great to see the defense hustle to the ball on every play. If he had been able to stay in bounds, Ryan Clark would have had an INT early in the game. Too bad Vick didn’t throw it better.
- James Harrison played his first game since last January’s playoff loss in Denver. Plagued by a troubling knee injury, he finally practiced 2 days in a row last week. He was expected to alternate with Chris Carter but played virtually every snap. He looked fit and fast, and his only hesitation was seen on a play where he stopped short of hitting Vick as he released the ball. Harrison would later admit he was worried about getting fined. Nonetheless, Deebo is back and seems to be in fine form. I had doubted if he would be able to contribute this season, and I’m happy to be wrong so far.
- The Steelers may have been robbed of a TD at the end of the first half. Antonio Brown caught a pass and raced to the 8-yard line with 26 seconds to go. The Eagles defender pulled Brown’s shoe off and pitched it to the Eagles sideline. Roethlisberger spiked the ball to buy time for Brown to retrieve his shoe. The Steelers were unable to get into the endzone on the next 2 plays and settled for a FG. If the refs had seen the shoe toss, it likely would have resulted in a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, moving the Steelers closer to the endzone…and they wouldn’t have wasted the first down.
- After a rocky start, special teams is getting their groove back. Energized by the return of Stevenson Sylvester from an MCL injury sustained in preseason, they held the Eagles to an average kick and punt return of 21.7 and 13 yards respectively. Chris Rainey had a long kick return for 44 yards. Kicker Shaun Suisham was perfect on 3 FG attempts, including the game-winner as the clock ran out. Punter Drew Butler continues to punt well; equally crucial was the rookie’s ability to stay cool under pressure, as he received the snap and held the ball for the final FG.