My second viewing of Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans was filled with so much optimism that I assumed I was being mindless with euphoria. After all, how well could the team have played to beat a two-win team by three points?
Watching it for a third time, I really found very little real room for improvement to be found in Monday night's game. The defense was vulnerable, but with several players injured and former Steelers coaches on the opposite sideline, it's hard to see how they could do better. There's a talent issue, but that's secondary to a familiarity issue. A game like this presents a need to play against your preferences. But how many new wrinkles are you going to throw into the game plan when three of your top five DBs, three of your five linemen, and two linebackers are essentially all in the first year with the defense?
Two fluky, uncharacteristic plays by Ben Roethlisberger and William Gay just before halftime represented a 10- or 14-point swing. Nothing meaningful to be said about those plays, other than the fact that they turned a solid game by the Steelers into an exciting and hopefully galvanizing comeback win.
And a pair of contested -- but catchable -- throws to Martavis Bryant could've been 11 more points. But he's so young, and he and Roethlisberger have had so little time together that it's irrational to expect more.
Bottom line, the Steelers didn't really leave all that much on the table. Apart from being able to open a seam in the return game, there's not much this team hasn't proved it can do when things are running smoothly.
One small quibble is the horizontal short passing game everybody hates. The Titans put Roethlisberger off his game for stretches by dialing up heavy blitzes with their linebackers. The strong running game beat that strategy handily. But most teams are less vulnerable to the run than the Titans.
When Dri Archer bobbled a catch for a five-yard loss on a flat route, he got an earful from Roethlisberger. And given that he's a raw rookie and Roethlisberger is one of the best to play the position, it's an easy assumption that the missed connection was Archer's fault. And he definitely took his eyes off the ball before it hit his hands.
So I can't argue at this point with the hordes of fans who loathe him. I know people who defend the Ziggy Hood pick who hate Archer, and who defend the Daniel Sepulveda pick who hate Archer, and who defend the Landry Jones pick who hate Archer. And I'm not trying to pick that fight.
Two plays earlier, tight end Heath Miller ran a similar route lined up on the opposite hash. Titans safety Michael Griffin snuffed it out before Miller could even turn his shoulders upfield. The play gained a yard and a half.
If it had been Jimmy Graham, it might have gained two yards.
The pair of missed opportunities in the flat represent a small but valuable area in which the team can improve.
Of nine winning teams in the AFC besides the Steelers, only three -- the Broncos, Ravens and Dolphins -- have allowed less than the league average in terms of yards per carry. Of the remaining regular-season games, only the Falcons possess a statistically above-average run defense. Which is to say, leaning on Le'Veon Bell and the offensive line could be a viable offensive strategy for the rest of the season and through the playoffs.
But in the event of a game against an opponent who can shut down the run game, plenty of teams are going to look to bring the blitz, and swing passes in the flats will be frequently uncovered. The Steelers can punish any blitzing OLBs with the swing pass.
But they'll have to do a bit better than two catches for -3 yards.
The first thing to note about both plays is that the ball was off target on both passes. Not egregiously, but Miller had to jump to catch his, and Archer's pass was on his backside hip. Both players had to break stride to catch their passes.
The second issue was how long each play took to develop. I broke out the stopwatch, and Miller's catch was 1.75 seconds from snap to throw and 2.55 seconds from snap to catch. That's quick enough to beat most pass rushers, but it wasn't quick enough for Miller to have a chance to beat the tackle.
For his part, Miller had his head turned back to Roethlisberger for four strides before the throw arrive, waiting for the throw. He was never a tremendously dynamic player, so it's not as though he was likely to take it in for the score. But an earlier throw would've allowed him to at least get his shoulders square and head upfield before contact. Instead, he throttled down and waited for the ball.
On the other side, I clocked 1.88 seconds from snap to throw and 2.77 seconds from Maurkice Pouncey's hand to Archer's hand. Roethlisberger took longer to release the ball and threw a powder-puff lob. Both of which are understandable. Archer has done nothing to earn his trust.
That said, even a casual observer recognizes the value of leading a receiver upfield so that he catches the ball with a head of steam and presents a moving target for the safety heading in for the kill shot. Instead, Archer, like Miller on the other side, had to throttle down and wait for the ball, negating the opportunity to make a play in the open field. Even if he had caught the ball cleanly.
It's entirely possible that Archer is the bust his critics think he is. But even if his future is bright, the present leaves something to be desired. Expecting him to make a better play might be inviting disappointment.
But Roethlisberger is clearly capable of more. The quarterback who has been lambasted by critics for holding the ball too long still does, from time to time. But he also very frequently makes great pre-snap reads with quick releases.
In the third quarter, Roethlisberger identified a quick throw to Antonio Brown that took less than 1.25 seconds from snap to catch. A similar quick-hitter to Lance Moore on the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter occurred in the same time frame. Later that drive, he faked right, reset to the left, and completed a pass to Bell in 2.45 seconds. On the final drive, the critical third-and-4 play went from Pouncey's hand to Markus Wheaton's in 1.7 seconds. Those were just some of the quick, blitz-stalling throws he made on a mostly terrific night that was overshadowed by Bell.
I'm not sure anybody really wants to use these short routes that run parallel to the line of scrimmage; Roethlisberger least of all. But the offense surrendered five sacks and plenty of pressure to a mercurial, blitz-heavy scheme that tested the limits of a young offensive line. The horizontal routes are going to be left open frequently in such situations. Improving efficiency by allowing receivers to get the ball in stride and head upfield more quickly is likely the easiest way to dissuade teams from ringing numbers on the blitz.
Perhaps this is all very nitpicky, but 20 points on nine drives is functionally a top-10 scoring offense. If Bryant catches two balls that were within his grasp, the offensive output outstrips the Ravens game in terms of points per drive. They really weren't very far off on offense.
Meanwhile, the defense should get reinforcements for the stretch run. I'm optimistic.
At least as long as the season doesn't hinge on making a play in the return game.