After The Black And Gold Rush

John Madden issued his standard gibberish at the end of Monday night's classic in San Diego. The ABC analyst said "everyone's going nuts and you don't know what they're going nuts for."

He was talking about the mixed cheering of Chargers and Steelers fans at the game, but more true words weren't spoken that night, a nutty night to be certain.

You knew one thing: The Steelers won the game. But you did not know the other thing: The status of Ben Roethlisberger's knee. Was he going to be out the rest of the season? The rest of the month? What was up? And should anyone feel good about the win?

Going nuts, but what for? It was a theme for the night, particularly for these people: 1. Roethlisberger, 2. Jerome Bettis, 3. the offensive line, 4. the defensive line, 5. the coaches, 6. the officials, and 7. Larry Foote.

1. Roethlisberger went down in a heap, and this didn't look like a Terry Bradshaw moment. He had already wrapped up his work for the game, sure, so the rest of the night didn't matter. It was the rest of the season that was in doubt. The hit from rookie Luis Castillo was ferocious, and just low enough, apparently, to avoid serious damage. Castillo looped from left end and was met squarely by Alan Faneca. But Castillo blew right through Faneca and into Roethlisberger. The news at noon the next day was good, that Roethlisberger has no ligament damage. He may even play this week. So, for the first time since Jeff Reed's kick went through the uprights, Steelers fans could celebrate a classic.

2. Jerome Bettis looked better than Duce Staley last week in their first head-to-head competition of the season, so Bill Cowher made the right call. But Bettis played so well he's pushing for Willie Parker's starting job. Are you nutty for that move? It'll be another tough call, but Cowher indicated he'll use Monday night's game as the model for upcoming games and try to start Parker and finish with Bettis.

Bettis was a bit nutty himself after the game. He criticized fans who thought he should've been cut after training camp. Bettis should know better. If you listen to enough talk shows you'll hear whatever you don't want to hear, so take it easy. You're making us all a little nutty with that stuff.

3. Expert analyst Craig Wolfley said the Steelers' offensive line was outstanding. Others are excoriating it. How can the critiques differ so radically? Well, it's the nature of the position.

Max Starks had the toughest night of the linemen, but does anyone remember a guy named Fred Miller? He went to Tennessee one fine day and couldn't hear a thing. He was called for six false-start penalties, two holds and took a beating from Jevon Kearse. Three months later, Miller was wearing a Super Bowl ring. It happens to good tackles on the road, particularly on a Monday night.

Starks's neighbor, the struggling Kendall Simmons, played better than he did last game. He helped spring Bettis' screen play and was in front of the third-down screen pass to Heath Miller, although Miller was tackled from behind. Also, Simmons's worst series didn't hurt the Steelers, who scored on the drive. He was tossed aside by nose tackle Jamal Williams on a QB knockdown. On the next play, a pass right, Simmons pulled left and fell down behind Alan Faneca. Simmons is struggling physically, but he has heart, quick feet and intelligence; he just needs some confidence.

Jeff Hartings will also be under the gun Sunday opposite the monstrous inside tandem from Jacksonville. The Steelers' center was called for a phantom holding penalty Monday that led to a Roethlisberger fumble in the first quarter. On that play, Jerame Tuman took the wrong blitzing linebacker, who forced the fumble. Tuman and Miller also allowed Shawn Merriman to come clean and tackle Parker for a loss later in the game.

Overall, the line improved in a difficult environment. They'll use it as a springboard.

4. Although the Steelers haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in over a year, the defensive line was under the microscope entering the game. Previous runners this season had made small dents, but none of those runners was LaDainian Tomlinson, so he was a test, and the Steelers passed. Tomlinson gained 62 yards on 18 carries. In the first half, he was held to 22 yards on 6 carries. Tomlinson had one strong drive late in the game, but allowances can be made for superstars with big hearts. Actually, Tomlinson was more effective in the passing game, so Kimo von Oelhoffen, Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith can take a bow. Fred Taylor, whom the three linemen respect as a cutback threat, shouldn't be a problem.

5. The coaches could've swapped teams and no one would've known. Marty Schottenheimer actually used Bill Cowher's last-loss tactics in pulling out Monday night's loss. Like his protégé against New England, Schottenheimer opted to kick a field goal (40 yards) on fourth-and-1 to go up 16-14 with 11:41 left in the game. Against the Patriots, Cowher kicked a 33-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 to go up 13-7 in the third quarter.

Schottenheimer used another Cowher trick by calling a timeout as the FG-seeking opponent crossed the 35, giving the FG-seeking opponent even more time to improve its chances. Cowher called his timeout the previous game with 50 seconds left; Schottenheimer called his Monday night with 57 seconds left. And like Cowher, Schottenheimer did not use his last timeout after the next snap. Cowher saved his to "play mind games" with Adam Vinatieri, but Schottenheimer used his to ice Jeff Reed. Neither ploy worked.

Of course, we enjoy poking fun at Cowher for his late-game decisions and clock management woes – particularly after a win -- but he made the call of the game in NOT going for two points following Heath Miller's touchdown, which gave the Steelers a four-point lead with 10:34 left.

I believed it was better to have a 6-point lead rather than a worthless 5-point lead in a battle of coaches who enjoy kicking field goals. However, Cowher's decision to take the 5-point lead paid off when Schottenheimer was forced to go for a 2-point conversion late in the game. The 2-pointer failed, whereas an extra-point attempt would've given the Chargers a 3-point had the Steelers tried and failed with my plan. That eventually would've forced me into overtime with Charlie Batch at quarterback, so I was wrong and Cowher was right.

6. Helicopters buzzed the stadium before the game while blaring Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries", as in the film "Apocalypse Now." So it's not difficult to imagine THE HORROR when Jeff Triplette appeared on my TV screen. "No! Not tonight! Not Monday Night Football!" But, oh yes, the world's worst officiating crew took the field and threw a flag on the opening kickoff, and a flag on the first play, and a flag with no time left in the first half. They marched off 137 penalty yards in the first half and were mocked by announcers Madden and Al Michaels. The second half started with a fumbled muff that flew into the arms of Chidi Iwuoma for an apparent Steelers recovery. But Triplette ruled the receiver should've had full opportunity to re-catch the muff. And Triplette was right! He then went on to call a pretty decent second half. I was going nuts but I didn't know what I was going nuts for.

7. Larry Foote. I always go nuts for Larry Foote. I blame him for whatever happens to the front seven. Five-yard gain? Where's Foote? Why's Foote's helmet off? Why's Foote yapping so much? When's Foote going to make a play? Well, he made one of the big plays of the game when he tackled Tomlinson on the two-point conversion attempt. It set up the win. Nutty, man.

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