There's a fine line between a comfortable win and a loss. That certainly was the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers Monday night.
The start to the game reminded me of slow starts to inferior teams such as the Bucs and Jets in 2014. Come out chucking it around early, turn the ball over once or twice and you're down double digits before you know it.
It was the seventh pass attempt on just two run attempts when Ben Roethlisberger's sack-fumble was saved by Maurkice Pouncey. Instead of being down 13-0 and losing the turnover battle 2-0, the Steelers recovered to convert the first down and right the ship the old fashion way ... running the football.
The Steelers got under center, ran a couple of play-actions, and you could just feel the tempo setting in.
The Steelers got back to what they should always do, a nice mix of run and pass, a mix of under-center and shotgun plays that lead to short down-and-distances and big play-action opportunities.
The run game does so much for an offense beside set up big plays in the passing game and protect the football. It establishes control of the line of scrimmage. Control of the rhythm/tempo of the game. It establishes control over your opponent. That control often leads to impatience by the opponent. I had this discussion with a friend of mine at halftime with the Steelers up 14-6 and owning the ball for the better part of the second quarter: By the time the Redskins got the ball back closer toward the middle of the third quarter, the impatience had set in. You could see it in Jamison Crowder's fumble and in Kirk Cousins forced interception on the very next play.
Look, I've been saying it for years now, it's why the Steelers can score a a boatload of points one week and lose to a doormat the next: There was no reason to start the game throwing it around on the road on a Monday night against a team that can't stop the run with two receivers as inexperienced as Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates; there's no reason to run an empty-set pass play at the three on first-and-goal and force the ball into a tight window, not when you have three All-Pro caliber offensive linemen and one of the best running backs in the league with which to at least threaten the run. That tipped ball can go either way.
Luckily for the Steelers, it went into the hands of Rogers and not a Redskin. But, against poor teams in the past, such as the Ravens last year, it doesn't always bounce that way.
When this team remains committed to being balanced, they're nearly unbeatable. I think it was Deangelo Hall who said the Steelers had them off balance defensively. With too many weapons at the skill positions,studs along the offensive line, and a top-three quarterback, an opponent's defense can't afford to be unbalanced and still be successful.
I say nearly unbeatable because if they can develop Artie Burns to his full potential and perhaps somehow get Justin Gilbert to reach his, this team would be unbeatable.
The Achilles' heel for the Steelers defensively is that they don't have the corners to play man coverage. Matt Hasselback talked about it during the pre-game. He said the Steelers defense is very underrated, very fast. He had to prepare for a lot when he faced the Steelers last season, and then Keith Butler threw a game plan completely different from what he had prepared for in Hasselbeck's film study. But he said very rarely do the Steelers play man. And we saw that again last night. Most of the damage the Redskins created in the passing game occurred on underneath passes in zone coverage.
If they can get these young corners ready over the next few weeks, a nice mix of zone and man would go a long way toward returning this defense to an elite level again. I have to give credit to Butler for the bend-but-don't-break strategy Monday night. It was the right call against a quarterback who likes to sit in the pocket and get rid of the ball quickly. Yards are deceiving in today's football. Holding the Redskins to 16 points on the road in the season opener was a solid night.
1. DeAngelo Williams -- No question Williams gets a star. This dude is a genius in terms if running with patience yet hitting the hole fast and at the right moment for, it seems like, every time. The guy is special. The first touchdown run when hit split the two Washington defenders and left them in the dust was ridiculous. To make that cut at 33 is special. The cut he made to get outside on Bashaud Breland to get to the sideline on the scoring drive when the Steelers were up 24-16 was special as well. The guy is a freak.
2. Ben Roethlisberger -- The guy does so many special things, like picking up the low snap and hoisting a dart 43 yards down the field to Coates, and also the ball placement on the two touchdowns to Antonio Brown (their chemistry is unreal). Ben's ability to climb the pocket to buy extra time and make throws on the run is something Cousins should study. I loved the quick passes he made to Jesse James and Williams to move the sticks. His recognition skills on what to do with the ball pre-snap are better than ever. Still, he would be the first to say he needs to complete those passes to James and AB in their only two stalled drives of the second half.
3. Antonio Brown -- His is the Houdini of getting away with subtle offensive pass interference. The push-offs are so quick they seem to not be picked up by the officials. His hand/eye coordination must rank in the 99th percentile of the 99th percentile. Still, if he wants to be a championship player, he can't be selfish and put his team at risk for the sake of some attention-grabbing dance. It shows a lack of emotional control that is necessary for ultimate success.
BEST OF THE REST
Ryan Shazier -- If there are four stars to be handed out, Shazier gets the fourth. His play in the end zone against Jordan Reed on the Redskins' third possession might have saved the game. A forced fumble and interception, Shazier is a playmaker. Maybe I'd put him in the top three if he could have finished the game. Concerns remain about him staying healthy and prevents me form getting over excited about this player.
Marcus Gilbert -- Anyone else see him pull block from his right tackle position? He buried his targets when he did. It would be a crime and someone should get arrested if he doesn't make the Pro Bowl this year.
David DeCastro -- He gets the most attention on pull blocks from the media. He's damn good at it along with everything else he does out there. I was happy to see the Steelers find a lot of success pulling only one player compared to last year when one or two tight ends along with Decastro were pulling. These faster developing runs should make for more consistent success.
Maurkice Pouncey -- A welcomed sight. Williams didn't have a single carry that went for negative yards Monday night. This guy is a huge reason why. He might have saved the game with his hustle on Ben's fumble.
Alejandro Villanueva -- Not-so-weak weakest link. Struggled at times in pass protection against a good pass rusher but I expect him to get better and better.
Sammie Coates -- Sometimes I fear the stage is too big, but then he makes two big catches at crucial times in the game. This home-run hitter will at times frustrate, but the big plays he makes and his ability to stretch the field will outweigh the bad.
Eli Rogers -- He always looks like he knows he belongs. He's even learned to walk out there during the game like A.B. does. He was fine with it last night, but I'll be looking to see how good he can be at getting YAC.
Jesse James and David Johnson -- Filled their roles extremely well. With all the talent on offense, the contributions they made last night are all this team needs.
Lawrence Timmons -- I didn't think he was as bad as some fans are making his performance out to be. He definitely doesn't have that first-step explosion he had in the past. Maybe he should drop another 10 pounds. James Farrior was playing in 2008 at 218 pounds.
James Harrison -- You have to appreciate where he came from to chase down Pierre Garcon after Crowder's fumble. Great hustle from a guy I think should one day go to Canton. If I have a 3-4 defense, it's hard for me to think of another player I'd rather have out there to intimidate, set the edge and get after the QB. I understand the freakiness of Derrick Thomas, but I wouldn't mind taking my chances out there with Lawrence Taylor and James.
Robert Golden -- Mr. Solid and Dependable. I feel like he could be this generation's Larry Foote.
Mike Mitchell -- like his game, but as with A.B., his lack of emotional control at times kills me. His illegal block in the back on Shazier's interception was unnecessary and something he could have pulled up from once Shazier made the pick. It cost the Steelers around 50-60 yards of field position. Maybe he should take a page from ...
Arthur Moats -- ... who was smart enough to think the game while playing with reckless abandon. Very smart play on his part to push Cousins out of bounds on a late fourth-quarter fourth-down run rather than to deliver a kill shot that might receive a penalty.
Stephon Tuitt -- He was my biggest disappointment individually on defense last night. I have expectations of him being a star player. That was just an average performance Monday night. He was on the ground too often and other than one hit on the quarterback he didn't seem to apply too much pressure.
Jarvis Jones -- You can see through the uniform that his body looks different this year. He flashed a lot last night. On DeSean Jackson's 31-yard first-quarter catch, he ran over Trent Williams and put him on his back. Jones is going to get home against some lesser left tackles and QBs who hold the ball a little longer this season. I like when they had both Jones and Harrison on the field at the same time. I think we could start seeing more of that over the next several weeks.
Ross Cockrell -- He seemed to be the target if there was one. Doesn't seem to provide the Steelers with the option to play man, so maybe he's best suited to be a fourth or fifth corner.
Sean Davis -- Missed a couple tackles but I love the physicality with which he plays. A solid first game. He's going to be a good one.
Todd Haley -- I harp on the over-reliance on the pass, but, man, he's got some beautifully designed plays and ideas. One example was when they lined up A.B. in the backfield behind Williams and they handed the ball to Williams on third and short. Brown motioned to the flat which drew the safety out of the box to make the short-yardage conversion easier to attain. There are many subtle ways he manipulates personal to create advantages that if you're dialed in, you can pick up on during the course of the game.