So, I was just released from the hospital after suffering a simultaneous heart attack, stroke, and nervous breakdown Sunday afternoon. Okay, not really, but I did put some real thought into getting one of those portable home defibrillators before next season.
- The offense got off to a foreboding start when Randle El dropped Roethlisberger's first perfect pass as the quarterback himself got drilled by Freeney. As game time approached, I had been thinking that the last things the team would be able to survive would be missed opportunities like dropped passes and consistent pressure on the passer. Fortunately, few other drops followed, and Roethlisberger and the line worked together to handle the rush well enough the rest of the way.
- Heath Miller showed off a little more than he normally does after his touchdown. By that, I mean that he actually spun the ball a little as he casually discarded it ... Heath, you maniac, you. I was really, really hoping that Pittsburgh would test that cover-2 with the tight ends, and boy did I not have to wait very long to see that happen.
- Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu ... and now Kendall Simmons is actually looking pretty good, too. Hitting in the first round like that is going to be the biggest key to keeping this team competitive for a long while.
- Simmons (along with the rest of the interior line) blocked his butt off against a team that absolutely wrecked his unit the last time around. He has looked steadily better over the second half of this season, and it's paying off in a big way in the postseason. The best part about his play this part weekend was his hustle, seeking out guys to block when none were obvious. He showed a ton of athleticism and clear-headedness after both turnovers, too, making the tackle on June and chugging upfield after Harper's ill-fated scoop.
- So, Pittsburgh committed no false starts and burned no timeouts because of inability to get the call in. Good adjustments to the noise, I'd say.
- I have to think that Indy's general undersizedness on defense had something to do with the interior line's effectiveness.
- As well as the interior line played, the running game didn't really fare much better this time around than it had the last time these two teams met. The per-rush average, while slightly better at 3.4 yards compared to 2.7 yards, was still rather paltry. Indy's speedy defense, especially the linebackers, was still able to stop a lot of runs in the backfield. The difference, of course, was that this time around the passing game and defense put the running game in position to mean something even when it wasn't producing yards or points. 3.4 YPC won't bring you back from many deficits, but it'll hold a lead just fine most of the time.
- Indy provided the opposite example; James might have been playing even better than he had in the first meeting, running effectively with great power and movement behind mediocre line play. He dragged a desperately clinging Polamalu out of bounds, he ran Townsend over like he wasn't there before pushing both safeties for extra yardage, he broke Farrior off at the ankles, and then later ran him over for a touchdown. I don't know that any running back is worth what someone will probably pay for him this coming off-season, but he's a very good player. He was the best guy on that offense last weekend, at any rate ... the score and Manningmoore just kept him from being as much of a factor as he should have been.
- Speaking of running backs, did I see correctly a graphic during the game indicating that Parker, with 1202 yards, had the sixth-most productive season running the ball in Steelers history? And ... some people still think that he can't be a featured back? Seriously? I mean, if a back falls in the draft, if a LenDale White is sitting there at the end of the first round, take him by all means. But I'd hardly call running back a huge need this off-season.
- Those screens to Parker are still working pretty well. He didn't break any big ones, but he averaged 7 yards on four of them, and they weren't coming on third-and-long.
- I give Indy credit for sticking with that stretch play even after seeing little success with it early.
- Farrior had a very mixed bag of a game. James made him look silly more than once, and he accidentally blocked almost the entire secondary trying to tackle Clark on his 50-yard touchdown scamper, but he also rushed the passer really well, which he hasn't done all season.
- Bob Sanders thought he was a tough guy. Hines Ward seemed unimpressed.
- Manning looked absolutely terrible in the first half. His numbers were bad, but his play was worse. He really just cannot handle being hit at all. Some of his throws were so off the mark, he made his little brother look like a precision passer. The offense didn't seem to all be on the same page a lot of the time, but on some of those throws, I couldn't even tell what he had expected his receiver to do.
- Yeah, way to throw your line under the bus like that, Peyton. You know, Roethlisberger didn't get appreciably better protection than Manning did, especially not on a per-dropback basis, but he can somehow manage to not completely blow with guys coming after him. Maybe Big Ben should have said after the game that "we had some protection problems, but fortunately I am a stud and pulled the game out anyway. Imagine what I could do on a real team." That would have been about on par with Manning griping about his "protection."
The sad part is that Indy will probably make some moves to bring in some line upgrades this off-season for Golden Boy, since they're completely married to him for the foreseeable future and it's apparent that he will never, ever play well against a successful pass rush. They're really painted into a corner on that front. I hope that Manning likes throwing to Brandon Stokley and handing off to Dominic Rhodes, because they're not going to be able to afford any skill players after they put together the kind of line that will keep the pass rush of playoff teams away from their $100 million Choking Pocket Statue game after game.
- So, we've all heard that defense wins championships, but how about individual defenders? I find it interesting to compare the top offensive players in the postseason to the top defensive players. Shaun Alexander, Tiki Barber, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson, Marvin Harrison, Tom Brady ... none of them did much of anything to help their teams along. Steve Smith is probably the only big-time offensive guy still doing it in January. Now, on the other hand, Champ Bailey, Troy Polamalu, Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers ... those guys all made big plays for their teams, win or lose. I don't know that it really means anything in particular, but it struck me as being a little funny.
- So, the list of Indy players who were absolutely abused by Pittsburgh needs to start with Mike Doss and Tarik Glenn. Doss was picked on consistently, and his best hit came against his own man Harper. Glenn got beat into the backfield by von Oelhoffen and Porter, and made false starts at terrible times.
- I didn't think that Dallas Clark was athletic enough to actually run away from Pittsburgh's secondary. I was wrong.
- How good was Ike Taylor in coverage? I can't exactly know for sure, since we rarely see coverage downfield and most of Manning's passes were so far off the mark that we never even got to see the players for more than an instant as the camera whizzed by, but the evidence suggests that he was quite good. There were exactly two passes completed against him all game... Harrison's first catch (and Manning's first completion) on a great one-handed grab coming across the middle, and a quick slant by Harrison on Indy's final drive. He was barely even tested, apart from that. Despite that, he was second on the team in tackles because he was consistently coming up to tackle other guys' receivers and on screens and runs. He did make a weird jam-and-release to apparently no one on Harrison's big-gainer after the interception overturn, though I have no idea if that was his fault, someone else's blown coverage, or just a giant hole in the zone.
- So, these playoff officials are supposed to be the best of the bunch. Okay. I'm not even going to address the somewhat generous spotting of potential safeties, the clock blunders, the bizarre 4th-down do-over, or the fact that Randle El, for once, was absolutely right to throw a tantrum after every play... those things pale in comparison to the WORST. CALL. EVER. I mean, how in the ... what... what? I am not prone to overreaction, but to actually overturn a good call with the WORST CALL EVER ... in a playoff game ... on a play that would have essentially ended the game ... might actually merit a firing. I have nothing against Pete Morelli, and I don't believe in any conspiracy theories or home-crowd pressure, but that call was the referee equivalent of the Exxon Valdez. There is simply no excuse. Indy's own radio announcer said it as well as it can be said: "I could not believe that. That was not a good call."
- There is not a team in this league that is not extremely covetous of Troy Polamalu, and that list probably starts with Indianapolis, if only because he completely terrorizes and confounds their offense. Manning doesn't know what to do about him, and looks plainly afraid of him. He flies around like no other player I can recall, and most of the plays that he misses are those that most players wouldn't have even been close to in the first place. He was more effective blitzing in this game than in any since Houston.
- So, anyone think that Polamalu might have been thinking about his lateral the week prior when he dove onto his own fumble and curled up into a fetal position? No one but his own teammate touched him for whole seconds, but he made no effort to get up again whatsoever. It would have been funnier if I hadn't been sent into a homicidal rage minutes later.
- The blitz called on second down on what should have been Indy's last stand backed up in their own territory was ... absolutely brilliant. Not just that a blitz was called, but the specific blitz used. Manning had his line so obsessed with Polamalu that both of the free guys slid to pick him up coming up the middle, leaving Porter completely untouched on the delayed blitz from the outside. That blitz, like so much of what Pittsburgh does on defense, worked because of how often they use Polamalu rushing the passer and Porter dropping into coverage. That the exact same blitz worked the exact same way two plays later is ... almost unbelievable.
- Sing it, Joey Porter. You can say whatever you want, so long as you and your team come out and play like you did. I love how willing Porter seems to be to spend money to speak his mind ... I trust a guy who doesn't hoard his millions. Give 'em hell, Joey.
- By the way, Indy may not have taken Porter up on his offer to just line up and play football ... no tricks, no funny stuff ... but the Steelers went ahead and played that kind of game, anyway. After last week, I think I heard from about twelve different talking heads that the only chance Pittsburgh might have to move the ball would be on some trick plays like they busted out against Cincy. Well, so much for that idea ...
- Not only did Pittsburgh just line up and beat Indy, they did so without the benefit of turnovers (at least not that the refs saw fit to not overturn via the WORST CALL EVER). If you'd have told me beforehand that Pittsburgh would dominate on both sides of the ball despite losing the turnover battle two to none, I'd have laughed in your face.
- Hampton performed his job to perfection. When Indy put two guys on him, he held is ground. When they tried one guy, he drove him backwards. No pocket for Manning equals less time to throw equals more sacks equals Spastic Manning equals bad passes. Keeping him on the field more was one of about a million improvements to the defensive game plan made since last these two teams met. Oh, and watching him chase after Manning from behind was highly amusing, because A) Manning is not faster that a 320-pound nose tackle, and B) Manning looked literally afraid for his life.
- Lots of guys played a solid game that will go mostly unnoticed. Reed kicked the ball off consistently deep (to the 1, deep into the end zone, to the 4, and to the 7). Gardocki never let Indy start closer than its own 20, and that came on a touchback that was nearly downable at the 1. Together they gave Indy a long field all game ... a bigger part of the successful defensive effort than was probably immediately apparent, and another huge change from the last time these teams faced each other.
Apart from the kickers, Hope played a decent game, too, holding onto the ball carrier instead of getting run over, and making a great play on the ball to make Indy go three-and-out right out of the gates. Foote had a huge stop against James, who had been running everyone over all day, keeping him out of the end zone on a screen pass.
- Indy's kickoff coverage was also very good. Roethlisberger was simply better able to handle the long field than Manning was.
- Randle El did solid work returning punts. He didn't break any big ones, but he averaged 10 yards per return. That's one first down closer on every drive.
- Have I mentioned Polamalu? Like, how he appeared to try to actually wrench James's head off after running him out of bounds near the goal line?
- I have never really thought too much of Reggie Wayne, but he's a pretty good receiver. That toe drag was almost comically perfect, with the black pellets flying and drawing that perfect temporary line. Is that why they put those pellets there in the first place?
- This defense needs to do something about defending crossing patterns and other short-to-intermediate middle zone routes. They've been getting killed after the catch on those all season.
- Bettis's fumble ... wow. Once in a blue moon, indeed. Great play by Brackett ... better play by Roethlisberger. Someone needs to come up with a real historical name for that play ... not a knockoff like "The Immaculate Tackle" or anything like that, something all its own. If this should really turn out to be the year for this team, and I'm really starting to feel like it could be, that play needs to be properly immortalized.
- It's a shame that, in such a great game, the pace of the second half slowed to a final-two-minutes-of-an-NCAA-basketball-game-like crawl. Between reviews, measurements, timeouts, and injuries, the last quarter especially had no rhythm to it at all. It didn't help my blood pressure any, either.
- Speaking of injuries, I don't like how many kick coverage guys seem to be going down, lately. A return touchdown is one of the crappier ways to lose a playoff game.
- Manning is the absolute definition of a rhythm passer. When he's in rhythm, he hits everyone in perfect stride, and any play can go the distance. When he's out of rhythm, he might as well be Jon Kitna. He falls into and out of rhythm faster than most, too.
- I don't think I can stress enough how big the defensive stand on Indy's next-to-last offensive series was. In Manning's prior eight passes, in which he finally found his aforementioned rhythm, he went 7/8 for 148 yards (18.5 YPA) and a touchdown. Starting from Indy's own 18, the defense then proceeded to move them backwards 16 yards in four plays. That was sucking it up and getting it done when it really counted.
- I can't imagine a better bunch of reactions to Vanderjagt's miss if they'd been scripted. Four men, coaches and players, who just watched their six month investments of blood and sweat come down to one idiot kicker's choke job, all uttering exactly the same words with varying degrees of elation, relief, disbelief, and disdain. "He missed it." Yes, he did.
- I have a hard time faulting either coordinator anything in such a perfectly prepared-for game, but I really was hoping to see at least a little play-action when Indy was just begging for it late in the game. I wonder, though, how much of that was just a matter of protecting Roethlisberger's arm after what looked like a pretty killer shot taken on the earlier sack.
- Was that Big Ben Roethlisberger being coy about an injury when asked by Armen Keteyian about his arm? "We won the game, and that's all that matters?" Come on, big guy ... if you're ever going to get leeway to talk up an injury, that was the time! After that brilliant game! No? Okay.
- I give credit to Boomer Esiason, for whom I'm sure it's a little painful to say anything of the sort about Pittsburgh, for so vehemently making clear his feelings about the Polamalu call, the officiating in general, and how incredulous he would have been if Indy had been able to pull out an ill-deserved win. "Highway robbery" was the term he used, and it would have been a very apt word.
- So, Denver has to be very happy to get another home game, and not to have to face their own personal playoff demon Colts this week (Denver has Indy demons, Indy has Pittsburgh demons, Pittsburgh has New England demons, and ... now New England has Denver demons?). I'm a little torn about whether Denver or New England would have proved to be the better draw. I'd have been very wary of Tom Brady on a roll in the playoffs, but I don't like the idea of playing in Denver at all. They have, statistically, enjoyed the best home field advantage in the league.
- The attitude of every player on the team says that they're making this run for Bettis. They weren't going to let him go out on a fumble ... and I don't think they're going to let him go out without a ring, either.
- Here we go, Steelers, here we go ...
My thoughts, for what they're worth ...
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