After The Black And Gold Rush

During a phone interview the other day, Art Rooney Jr. kept apologizing. He was jumping off the topic of Jack Butler's Hall of Fame credentials and onto other topics like Jimmy Finks, Elbie Nickel, old Steelers stuff that I was lapping up with a spoon.

So he kept apologizing for his "stream of consciousness." But I enjoyed it so much I want to try it out for myself after this loss to the Bengals. I know it's tough eating three-game losing streaks with a spoon, but let's try:

FIRST QUARTER

Ben Roethlisberger did not look good in warm-ups, but he started out on fire and that's saying something behind the Steelers' offensive line. Now 3-11 when Marvel Smith doesn't play at least a half, the young tackles started poorly. On the first series, on 3rd-and-10, against a 3-man rush, the two ends collapsed the pocket and the nose looped to pressure an incompletion and force a punt. The return was fumbled for a Steelers touchdown but a bad call brings it back. Bad calls happen. You figure it'll even up down the road. We'll see. … The crowd has been told it's a big, must-win game by the coach, players and media all week, but the Bengals don't have any trouble easing into their no-huddle. Missing a home playoff game shouldn't be a big loss. Anyway, Rudi Johnson gores the nickel defense, but back-to-back plays by rookie corner Bryant McFadden stop the Bengals. He pressured Carson Palmer into an incompletion on 3rd-and-4 and broke beautifully to break up the 4th-and-4 pass. … On 3rd-and-3 of the Steelers' second series, two of the four rushers pressure Roethlisberger, who dumps to the back. The game plan kicks in on back-to-back big gainers to the tight ends. In the Bengals' previous 8 games, they'd allowed an average of 81 yards in completions to tight ends, and none of their 23 interceptions had occurred on passes to tight ends. Apparently the Steelers know this and it sets up a touchdown run by Jerome Bettis. Barrett Brooks played left tight end, but it was FB Dan Kreider's crushing block that allowed Bettis to walk in. Announcer Dierdorf is raving about the performance of the offensive line. I wasn't impressed. … The Bengals jump into a no-huddle again and heave the ball to T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Ricardo Colclough has fine coverage – it's probably why he impresses the coaches – but fails to make the play. He's in for McFadden, the star of the first series. They rotate at nickel back. The rotation, I believe, is an abject failure. Tie game. … On first down, with a 3-man rush, David Pollack blows past Trai Essex to force an incompletion. On 3rd-and-10, again only three rush and the QB steps up and drills 31 yards to Hines Ward. So far, so good. On third-and-six, Duce Staley picks up a blitz and Roethlisberger drills a TD pass to Quincy Morgan before I can finish "one thousand two." Steelers up, 14-7.

SECOND QUARTER

A big return and a 17-yard pass to Chris Henry on third-and-11 puts the Bengals at the doorstep. Watching Rudi Johnson move the pile to the one on third-and-2 takes me back to draft day 2001. Johnson was taken at the top of the second day. I loved him coming out, as they say, and noted on the radio that his 152-yard game against Kendrell Bell, Marcus Stroud and Richard Seymour of Georgia should make him a first-day pick, but no one listens. Anyway, the game's tied. … The fourth Steelers series is a disaster. A back-up Bengal knocks Willie Parker for a 4-yard loss because Alan Faneca's late with the kick-out block. On 2nd-and-14, Roethlisberger leaves the pocket with four Bengals on his heels. The aforementioned back-up knocks him down and Roethlisberger aggravates his thumb. He's in serious pain. To this point, he's 8 for 13 with four of the incompletions forced directly by the pass rush. On third-and-14, the Bengals rush three against seven and, viola, a linebacker drops back for an interception. There's a long return with penalty and the Bengals score the go-ahead touchdown. On the 6-yard TD pass to Houshmandzadeh, the Bengals picked up a weak-side overload blitz from Ike Taylor, Joey Porter and Larry Foote. … The Steelers aren't getting to the passer either. Should this be addressed on draft day or should the running game? Bill Cowher can't seem to find any playing time for a quality and proven OLB in James Harrison, so a rookie would sit for awhile. In terms of players I like, Georgia OT-OG Max Jean-Gilles might be the first choice. Even though there are young linemen waiting in the wings, the position needs smoke put on it. My other finalists today are USC RB LenDale White and Ohio State OLB Bobby Carpenter. I haven't seen a 3-4 DE yet, and that Vida Blue kid from Georgia would look good at FS, but the high-tackling and high-contract-seeking Chris Hope could instead be replaced with a veteran and a fourth-rounder. I know Cowher won't want two No. 1s at safety, an area he feels is an easy fill … Back to the game, on 3rd-and-5, the Bengals rush four and Staley is duped by a fake outside blitz. It allows Odell Thurman to come free and drill the quarterback just above the knee. The Steelers get a break when the ref adds 15 yards for roughing onto the completion. Ben is taking a beating, but he's playing a great game. Ward fumbles on the next play … The Steelers get the ball back and Ben heaves it with all he's got on this day. The ball travels 47 yards in the air and little Cedrick Wilson goes up between three Bengals to pull in a 41-yard completion. With all of their problems on the line, in the running game and at quarterback, the Steelers are averaging 13 yards per completion this year. Last year, they averaged 13 yards per completion. Anyway, Ward drops a touchdown pass, so on 3rd-and-8, the Bengals rush only four. One end inexplicably doesn't rush and stands around inside, I guess, in pass defense; the other end falls down. Roethlisberger, expecting pressure, panics in the face of none and instead of going into the end zone, dumps to Staley for the field goal; 21-17 at the break.

THIRD QUARTER

Where are the Bengals going with that front four? Nowhere. The Steelers have better personnel all the way across, although Bengals rookie David Pollack is still learning. Next week, the Bears will offer a Colts-like rush, so expect a very low-scoring game coming out of what must be a conservative Steelers game plan. Let Bears rookie QB Kyle Orton lose that game. … Into the second half, the Bengals are chipping away and Rudi Johnson is running over Hope and I'm wondering whatever happened to James Farrior. He IS 30 years old now and he ISN'T making plays. This year he has a sack and two forced fumbles, so inside linebacker moves into the draft picture as well. Brett Keisel's deflection on third down holds the Bengals to three, 24-17. … Quincy Morgan, the guy the front office should sign first after the season, returns the kickoff to the 42 (apparently Colclough got the message to stay away). Parker runs off right tackle and gains 17. According to The Football Outsiders, the Steelers rank second in the NFL running around right end, sixth running off right tackle, 18th running up the middle and 30th running off left tackle. Anyway, Ward catches a 20-yard TD pass and does the Ickey Shuffle. The crowd is out of its mind. In spite of the problems, the game is tied and a win is in the air. And then Tab Perry returns the kickoff 94 yards. Ike Taylor is dragged exactly 28 yards and two short runs later the Bengals lead, 31-24. Play of the game. …Colclough legs out a decent return, Ward hauls in a big pass on first down and Parker runs behind Faneca for 12 yards. Here we go. But it breaks down: The back-up Simmons has been blocking all day breaks free and forces an incompletion on a screen. And there's another screen. Boy, the Steelers are playing like its 2003 behind Ollie Ross. A Faneca penalty forces 2nd-and-20, then a 3rd-and-20 screen to Staley. They're screen happy at this point. … The lone sack of Palmer, by Clark Haggans, forces a punt on the Bengals' next series, but Parker, just when he's beginning to look like a consistent threat, begins fumbling. Under pressure on third-and-10, Roethlisberger throws his second interception.

FOURTH QUARTER

The Steelers fumble their way out of good field position to start the fourth quarter. It's followed on the next series by another interception of Roethlisberger. The Bengals finally move in for the kill thanks to Hope's poor angle on Rudi Johnson, who also runs past Foote and through Troy Polamalu for a 38-21 lead. … It's a long way back, but Roethlisberger's game. Eight passes against a 3-man rush are interrupted by a pair of 3rd-and-1 runs, and the ninth pass is a touchdown by Ward. With 2:59 left the Steelers have a shot. … The Bengals are trying to be the Bungles and give the game to Polamalu, but he can't come down with the pick. Still, the Bengals take only 33 seconds and one Steelers timeout off the scoreboard and the home team has the ball at its own 24. They could've started at the 47, but a hold of the gunner by Tyrone Carter foreshadows a doomed final possession. Once again, special teams kill the Steelers. … On the final possession, Max Starks jumps on the second play and bookend Essex holds on the third play. At least Roethlisberger is still standing, but, boom, now he's not. A sack, a coverage sack for you O-line fans, brings up 3rd-and-24. On 4th-and-13, Roethlisberger is sacked by a three-man rush with Essex blatantly holding the one guy who didn't get to the QB. … So here it comes: The mass hysteria of being one game out of playoff contention with four left. Oh, how are they ever going to do it? Well, the return of Marvel Smith would help. Roethlisberger showed plenty, and the defense shouldn't have a problem stopping the Bears and Orton next Sunday. That win could send the Steelers rolling, and who knows? They don't play well at home in playoff games anyway, so this team could still end up OK. They're so far down at the moment that they'll search deep and finally get honest with themselves. With a healthy OT, a healthy Farrior and a little luck, they could go on a run. One thing's for certain: They have a quarterback, and his newfound humility can only help.

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