Steelers in playoff chase at start of season's third quarter

SCI.net publisher Jim Wexell with his wide-ranging notes column following the Steelers' 38-35 win over the Raiders.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who left Heinz Field with more concern about the Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff chances than he should have:


* The injury to Ben Roethlisberger and the way the defense squandered a 14-point lead to the Oakland Raiders in the fourth quarter will do that to a person. But it's possible the mid-foot sprain to Roethlisberger won't cost him as many games as initially feared, and the AFC wildcard race isn't nearly the challenge it's been in recent years.


* The Steelers are 5-4 and hold a half-game lead over the Raiders and Buffalo Bills at 4-4. The only other legitimate wildcard contender today is the 5-3 New York Jets.


* So the Steelers are in the thick of it. And replacement quarterback Landry Jones can beat a visiting Cleveland Browns team this Sunday (with possibly Johnny Manziel at QB) before the bye gives Roethlisberger another week to rest.


* And the defense really wasn't all that shaky Sunday against the Raiders. The secondary was jolting people. Now, if they can stop preening long enough to recover fumbles at their feet, we may have something here.


* At the start of the game I was thinking about a conversation I had a week earlier with David DeCastro about how his Stanford boys had recovered from losing their opener at Northwestern. "Yeah, a lotta people were down on them," DeCastro said. "People don't realize how hard that noon game on the East Coast is for them."


* This wasn't a noon start for the Raiders. Their body clocks said 10 a.m. instead of Stanford's 9 a.m. on that opening day.


* Yet it was the Steelers opening up as if they were still half asleep, with first-possession drops by Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey.


* And the defense allowed Latavius Murray to get loose for a 44-yard run. Murray didn't do much the rest of the game. He finished with 96 yards, but after that first carry he gained only 52 on 16 carries.


* Marcus Gilbert was wide awake. I had heard so much about second-year Raiders OLB Khalil Mack but wasn't sure he had even played. Gilbert, Heath Miller and even Heyward-Bey had key moments with Mack, who didn't even make the Raiders' defensive tally sheet.


* The officials must've been sleeping early, too, because they missed Will Allen's forced fumble and subsequent booting of the ball out of bounds by Raiders tight end Lee Smith with Ross Cockrell in position to pounce.


* Allen broke up the next play anyway to force a punt. The veteran strong safety was off to a strong start in what would become a subtle-but-sure performance.


* Another veteran made his return to Heinz Field, but Jacoby Jones just looked like any other old punt returner out there. Or were we just fooled by his number (13) and the same old poor blocking on returns?


* Jones didn't look anything like the guy Mike Tomlin has admired and feared so much over the years. Jones averaged 20.8 yards per four kickoff returns yesterday. The previous No. 13, Dri Archer, averaged 25.3 before he was cut.


* Jones did return two punts for a total of two yards to bring his season PR total to minus two yards for the year.


* And that was still better than Brown's lone fumbled punt return in the fourth quarter, but Brown gets a pass with the win and the record-setting performance.


* Of all the majesty of Brown's 17-catch, 284-yard receiving day, his best was probably the 13-yard toe tap in the first quarter which led to a field goal.


* Bill Cowher called that catch "a picturesque piece of art," and that took me back to the day Cowher once said of an ugly win, "That was no Mozart."


* Or Rembrandt. We understood. And still giggled.


* Roethlisberger passed Johnny Unitas and then Joe Montana in career passing yardage before leaving the game in the middle of the fourth quarter. Who could possibly be next on the list beyond those two all-time greats? Well, of course, it's Kerry Collins, currently 13th.


* Roethlisberger's better than Collins with a knee brace and sprained foot.


* In wondering whether Brown could've topped 300 yards receiving, I asked him if he left any yards on the field. He said he always does, and I counted 24 lost yards on the underthrown 59-yard bomb from Roethlisberger late in the first quarter. Ben threw it 52 in the air and Brown had to wait for it. Perhaps Roethlisberger was compensating for just missing the wide-open Brown two series earlier. That one could've gone for 53.


* Maybe 400 is possible if all goes well for Brown and Ben some day.


* How about "the classic stiff arm" Brown put on Raiders CB David Amerson to convert a big third down that led to the Steelers' first touchdown?


* Cameron Heyward quietly had an outstanding game. Not only did he make an open-field tackle while in coverage on a back, and make a tackle-for-loss on Taiwan Jones, Heyward -- the new proud papa -- was second on his team with eight tackles. That's a big number for a defensive tackle.


* I remember being impressed during the build-up to the game about the Raiders' free-agent class of Nate Allen, Michael Crabtree, Rodney Hudson, Curtis Lofton, Lee Smith, Malcolm Smith and Dan Williams. But the Steelers' lone signing, DeAngelo Williams, was the best free-agent signing on the field yesterday.


* "A home run signing," as Dan Fouts put it.


* Second week in a row I've enjoyed (and quoted) Fouts in watching the replay the next morning.


* Great play call on the Williams fourth-down touchdown run. Sending Brown in motion at the goal line sure caused me to think about last week's touchdown pass. I have no doubt the Raiders thought about it, too. Made the handoff to Williams that much easier to convert.


* It's unfashionable, and probably just plain uncool, to point out a smart time-management decision by Tomlin, but his timeout at 1:10, with the Raiders looking at third-and-8 from their own 24, led to a field goal and a 21-14 Steelers lead at the half.


* There's nothing mathematical about it. The gut feeling is more important, in my opinion.


* I really like the way Antwon Blake comes up and hits, but I'm still amazed at how much ground he loses to wide receivers making sharp cuts. If Amari Cooper wasn't playing at 10 in the morning, he might've had an A.B. kind of day himself.


* The Steelers' special teams were mostly awful with Jones' poor returns, Brown's fumble, Chris Boswell's first miss and Jordan Berry's ordinary gross average of 41.6. But Bud Dupree's blocked punt made up for much of it. Dupree continues to salvage the Steelers' rookie class while he's at it.


* But the Steelers have a new contender to keep the draft class afloat. Tight end Jesse James, in his first career game, made like Matt Spaeth with quality blocking and a touchdown catch.


* Spaeth's first career catch was a 5-yard touchdown at Cleveland. In fact, he had three touchdowns in his first four games. James' second catch of his debut was a four-yard touchdown.


* But it was James' blocking, even if on only one play, that defined his pro debut. When he lined up as a screen blocker in front of Bryant early in the fourth quarter, the entire stadium had to know the ball was going to Bryant. Even the Raiders were ready. But James took out two men while Bryant juked one Raider and jumped over another on his way to a brilliant 14-yard touchdown.


* It kind of made up for his Limas Sweed-like drop of a sure deep touchdown pass three series earlier by Bryant.


* Someone in the press box let out a "give the kid his drugs back" after the drop.


* Oh, that was me. Sorry about that, Martavis. Just a joke.


* Mike Mitchell played such a good game that we can forget about his back-to-back safety blitzes that left Lawrence Timmons running with Crabtree on the tying touchdown pass with 1:15 left in the game. But can we forget about Mitchell celebrating one of his knockout blows while a loose ball lay at his feet?


* I really don't think so. At least not for now. A play like that tends to become a signature play.


* Does it ever fail that after Roethlisberger is carted off the field a Steelers defender is called for a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty? Not that Aldon Smith deserved a flag when he fell on Roethlisberger's foot, but I don't think Ryan Shazier deserved one for his hit to Derek Carr's low thigh. That call gave the Raiders a first down on a third-down incompletion. Of course, Cockrell made it moot with his interception in the end zone.


* Or, since I've already poked a little fun at him earlier in the column, "a mute point," as Cowher used to say.


* But the game, or more precisely the result, is far from mute. If Landry Jones can muster enough big plays to beat the floundering Browns at Heinz Field next Sunday, the bye could be more than just a needed rest for Roethlisberger. It could see the Steelers in the playoff race for real.


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