Oh, boy, I've got all kinds of notes from this one, fellas. Ye of feeble attention spans, turn back now ...
- So, Pittsburgh did nearly everything possible to shoot themselves in the foot early, short of simply turning the ball over. False starts sputtered promising drives, and Polamalu's terrible penalty was one of many gaffes that gave Cincy three sets of downs with which to crack the goal line on their third drive. If they'd held them to a field goal there, and then put up seven of their own, it might never have even been a game. They'd better not pull this stuff next week, because Indy's defense is not the kind on which you can score at will.
- Pittsburgh did a nice job laying good hits on guys after they caught, didn't catch, threw, or scrambled with the ball. That was important against an offense like this, and will be even more important against the Colts next weekend. That Kitna sandwich that Porter and Polamalu made couldn't have felt good. He can stand up to some hits like that without getting any crappier than he already is, but Manning can't. Polamalu and Taylor smacked guys every chance they had, and Hope, bless his heart, gave it his best. Carter of all people did a nice job late of keeping their guys thinking about not getting killed instead of how to pull out a miracle victory.
- Pittsburgh's pass protection was pretty decent throughout. Not stellar, but solid. Not that Cincy is any great pass-rushing team, unlike Indy will be ...
- If Pittsburgh's pass protection was adequate, Cincy's was stellar. The more I see of that line, the more I'm convinced that it's the best in football. They have the best pair of tackles anywhere, and maybe the second-best left side with Jones and Steinbach. Braham didn't look great, but he doesn't have to face Hampton every game. They're not quite the run-blockers that KC has, or the pass-protectors in Indy, but they're close in both areas.
- That line is a big reason that a mediocre quarterback like Kitna can look really good at times. He had all day to throw, even in the second half when the coverage tightened up and he took some sacks. I have no explanation, however, for why he looked like Donovan McNabb at times scrambling around back there. He laid out Foote on one such scramble, who was undoubtedly caught off guard that Jon Kitna wasn't sliding into the turf.
- Among the reasons that Cincy's line is so effective is that they get away with a ton of holding. More than most lines, or even most good lines. Porter was plainly held by Jeremi Johnson on one Kitna scramble, and if Haggans wasn't held by Anderson just before he managed to get to Kitna in the third, then I just don't know what a hold is.
- The secondary didn't have one of their better games, Taylor included. At least, not in the first half. Cincy isn't easy to defend, but they should have been a lot easier with Kitna instead of Palmer and Who-On-Earth-Is-Kevin Walter instead of Henry or even Washington.
- That said, Taylor is to be commended for being the principal reason that, in three games against the Steelers, Chad Johnson caught just 13 balls for 209 yards and no scores, with a long of 47 that occurred in garbage time in the first game. He's very good at that strip move to dislodge the ball after an apparent catch, too, ain't he? He's done that to Johnson twice, now.
- That brings us to the real problem with the pass defense: they've been just stellar at defending the best receiver on the opposing team, but they get absolutely killed at times by the second and third guys. Is Taylor that much better than the other corners? Is that just how the defense is designed ... to take away the run and the biggest receiving threat, and see if the other guys can beat you? I really don't know. It means that teams with deep receiving corps, though, can successfully pass on what really is a pretty good secondary.
- As evidence of the improved secondary play in the second half, I give you the Purest Coverage Sack Ever ... when Kitna ran in circles for a full eleven seconds with five guys blocking two rushers before he became so apparently impressed with the tight coverage that he just threw the ball to the ground.
- If Pittsburgh's secondary wasn't great, Cincy's plainly blew. Those corners can't cover ... I don't care how many picks they have. And the safeties ... well, it's just a good thing that those guys are the backups.
- So, Roethlisberger had one of the quietest great playoff games you'll likely ever see. He threw downfield, he threw across his body, he made every throw he needed to make. He was nearly perfect. After the wildcard round, he leads all playoff quarterbacks in passing yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating. And yet, on Monday, you could read stuff about him like this, from one of my favorite idiots, Jeffri Chadiha: Roethlisberger did just enough to keep the Steelers' offense going. Yeah, he did "just enough," Jeff. Really "managed the game" well. I'm not saying that Roethlisberger doesn't get the credit he deserves, but ... no, wait, that's exactly what I'm saying. That, and that if Eli Manning had put up exactly the same numbers over the weekend, it would be all we'd hear about for the next six days.
- Farrior's interception was exactly the kind of thing that's been missing from his game most of the season.
- The play calling started off depressingly predictable. That's fine when the line is clicking and blowing open holes for the running backs, but when it isn't working it needs to be adjusted. Fortunately, it was, and in a big way. They started throwing some on early downs, and throwing downfield. That screen pass to Parker, a play out of which they've been getting a lot of mileage this year, was an absolute beauty of a call.
- Anyone else think that, if any games this postseason come down to Bettis pulling out a play, he's not going to be denied? He looks like he's on a mission. What did he do, stumble onto a localized wormhole on that second 3rd-and-1? He was stopped behind the line, and then just popped out on the other side. I swear he must have used a boom tube, or something (big-time nerd references abound). And the move he put on Ohalate on his touchdown run was absolutely sweet. Big men shouldn't be able to move like that ... oh, except future Hall of Famers. And then he didn't even bother putting a move on Tory James, who probably couldn't tackle Tommy Maddox with a head of steam. Priceless.
- Of course, Bettis did throw a rare incompletion on his halfback option pass. I suspect that that might not be the last we've seen of that this postseason. I'd hate to see such a great play retire on such a down note.
- Speaking of running backs, Rudi Johnson is a really good one. He gets inexplicably ignored in these games, even though he's nearly the only back who runs consistently well against Pittsburgh's defense. He embarrassed Hope, who stunningly went for a low tackle, and then showed good speed in running away from Polamalu (who typically looks like a normal human running toward a stationary object when chasing down backs) just enough to cross the goal line.
- Oh ... and Bettis's mom has much better hair than Charlie Batch's mom. Just sayin' ...
- What a chippy game. When the Dalai Po-Lama-lu is chucking balls at faces, it's on. I don't know what might have happened before the game, but on the field Polamalu seemed to get incensed when Matt Schobel "blocked" him late after the shovel pass to Perry on Cincy's third drive. After the Dumbest Penalty Ever, he went on to play like a man possessed, even more so than he usually does. He was all over the field tackling ballcarriers, and that late interception was just insane. Kitna threw the ball from right at midfield to the thirty yard line, where it was intercepted, at a not terribly significant angle--a distance of a little over twenty yards. Polamalu broke on the pass (a little before it actually happened) from the far hash mark, and snagged the ball just about exactly on the 30-yard number on the field -- a distance of a little over twenty yards. So, from the point at which he read the pass, he traveled as far on the ground as the ball traveled through the air. That's just ... nucking futs. No wonder Kitna didn't see him ... he wasn't there when the throw was made. The kid can fly.
- Although the lateral after the insane interception was dumb, it was fun to see Hope lay out whoever it was who tried to tackle him first on the return ... Perry, maybe? He should hit more guys like that as a defender ...
- Lots of injuries, too. Obviously, Cincy took the brunt just by virtue of who it was getting injured, but Harrison and Morgan are both productive players, too. The Harrison injury worries me most, because that kick coverage unit has been tenuous even with him in there, and plainly bad without.
- I thought the refs did about as well as they could to halt the chippiness without totally derailing the flow of the game for the viewing audience. That a game with so many early stoppages for injuries and whatnot ended after barely three hours attests to that. I wasn't so sure about that PI call on the Randle El non-TD, though ... at least, I couldn't see it. And I'm pretty sure that Hampton did in fact jump offside on the play in which Cincy was called for holding him just before their second touchdown.
- Cincy fans can complain about the late hit call after Randle El's end around, but that same call has gone against the Steelers more than once this season. And they certainly can't complain about the reversal of Johnson's catch, since the same ruling cost Randle El a touchdown later. I don't like those call myself, but least it's been pretty consistent this year. I didn't hear them crying foul when Taylor was called for, uh, tackling Johnson inbounds in the first regular season game.
- Jim Nance is okay, but it was funny as hell when he mentioned that von Oelhoffen "suffered six seasons" in Cincy. Not only was that some good alliteration, but talk about rubbing salt in the wound ...
- I thought that Phil Simms announced a pretty good game. The highlight, for me, was when he called "touchdown" before Roethlisberger even cocked his arm to throw to Wilson.
- So, you couldn't make a demonstrational tape of that delayed flea-flicker that showed how to execute it any better than the Steelers did it live yesterday. Roethlisberger could have picked his nose and ordered a pizza and still had time to throw the ball. I'm pretty sure he really did pick his nose first, actually ...
- Among the reasons that that trick play worked so well, and a factor that the Steelers will miss if he leaves in free agency, is the threat of Randle El's versatility. It actually worked in their favor to tip off that they were up to something fishy by lining him up right next to Roethlisberger, because when he took the direct snap, every guy in a Bengal jersey followed him to the right. If you look at Pittsburgh's big plays on offense this season -- and there were many -- Randle El was involved in an awful lot of them.
- I certainly feel sorry for Palmer. I felt sorry for Lewis, just in that he had to lose, because I have a lot of respect for him. His cheap shot at Roethlisberger after the game did a lot to temper that feeling, though, although I understand that he was certainly still just pissed about the outcome. I don't feel sorry for sulky Houshmandzadeh. Shine your shoes now, jerk.
- Would Cincy have won if they'd had Palmer for the whole game? His one throw was a thing of absolute beauty. That's one thing that he definitely does better than Roethlisberger... hit a deep target in stride. I don't know, though. I doubt that, had Palmer been injured the week prior, the line would have jumped to PIT -14. And he doesn't play defense. Could his presence have given them enough of a lead that Pittsburgh's offense would have been pressured into forcing throws? Could his secondary have more aggressively gone after balls and generated some turnovers? Maybe. Who knows. But a good playoff team, in any case, wouldn't have surrendered a ten-point lead ... I don't care if they had Mike McMahon under center. Pittsburgh wouldn't have blown such a lead ... I'm quite sure of that.
- With that offensive line, and those receivers, and that backfield, Cincy could contend for at least the playoffs next year with an even halfway decent quarterback. I don't think Kitna is one, though. Kerry Collins might be available.
- Miller was quiet as a receiver. I do hope they'll use him to test the middle of Indy's cover-2 next weekend.
- So, I can't feel too good about next week's game. I wish I did, but I just don't like the line's chances against such a great speed rush on turf. There are a few things that could happen to tilt things in Pittsburgh's favor: the offensive linemen could just play out of their minds; Manning could serve up one of his big-game choke jobs; the defense could frustrate Manning early and generate some turnovers. I just ... aww, hell. I'll be rooting for our guys, at any rate. One for the thumb. One for Bettis. One for all, and all for one ... just get it done.
My thoughts, for what they're worth ...
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