My thoughts, for what they're worth ...

Ian Whetstone looks at the Steelers 34-17 AFC Championship game win over the Broncos.

- You know, it can be really daunting trying to write about a game in which every time the Steelers executed well, they succeeded, and every time the didn't execute well, they got lucky anyway. Luck or no luck, I can't believe that Denver looked like it didn't even belong on the same field as the Steelers. What do you write? This guy was great, that guy was great, everyone was great.

- I've never liked Mike Shanahan. I don't really know why … it's possibly because he looks kinda like Derrick O'Conner as the evil South African henchman in Lethal Weapon 2. But, I must say, he was about as gracious in defeat as I've ever seen a coach be. I won't use the term "classy," because that has actually overtaken "over/underrated" as the most ridiculously over-applied cliché in sports, but here's to you, coach Shanahan.

- The first drives on offense and defense both really set the stage and the tone for Pittsburgh, just as they had in Indy the week before. Denver came out moving the ball well both on the ground and through the air, but past midfield the Steelers toughened up and Rod Smith, who is Hines Ward plus two rings, dropped a high-but-catchable third-down pass in tight coverage. On offense, a few breaks and a couple of nice third-down conversions set them up for an early lead, and they never looked back.

- The Steelers did benefit from a couple of breaks on that first drive, but not so much as Denver fans probably think. Ward deserves some credit for "influencing" Champ Bailey's non-interception, and for hanging onto the ball despite a wicked shot from John Lynch (who, as likable as he is, plays a little dirty). And the Willie Parker fumble looked like an obvious overturn as soon as I saw it. People seem to have a real problem distinguishing the difference between close and unclear. Parker's fumble was close, but not unclear, and so the overturn was correct.

- Not be a total homer, but I'm not so sure that the same can be said of Chidi Iwouma's touchback on punt coverage. Unless the ref had a different angle than what we saw on TV, it didn't look at all clear that his hand was still in contact with the ball when his foot touched. But, whatever …

- The alarmist in me is getting nervous about the number of special teams guys who have been going down in recent games. Iwouma came back from his injury, but no James Harrison and no Andre Frazier is not a good thing for a coverage team that has really skated the line all season. Apart from that, it leaves them perilously thin at linebacker, albeit only for one more game (wow, that's exciting just to type). On the plus side, Sean Morey and Iwouma have both stepped up in their absences.

- James Farrior had a really good game, and unlike last week didn't temper it by also getting run over and/or juked out of his pants. He only made a couple of tackles, and wasn't Mr. Sack Machine this week, but he tipped a couple of passes, one of which looked like it would have otherwise been a big-gainer to Ashlie Lelie. This zone defense works best when the linebackers make plays on balls over the middle like Farrior and Larry Foote both did in this game.

- The game turned south for Denver in a real hurry. The score was only 10-3 at the first two-minute warning, but Pittsburgh went into the locker room up by 21 points. Think Denver might like to have those two minutes back?

- Alan Faneca really did take out three guys -- I'm pretty sure all three linebackers -- on Bettis's touchdown run. Holy crap, that was awesome. You know, a Super Bowl ring would be a nice addition to his Hall of Fame credentials, too …

- Cedrick Wilson: you cannot stop him, you can only hope to contain him. Nice to meet you, Ced. Stick around for a while.

- For the second week in a row, one of the other receivers really benefited from Ward's dominance in the red zone all season. I doubt that either the look-off on the Randle El touchdown last week or the pump-fake before the Wilson touchdown this week would have worked nearly as well if Ward hadn't been killing teams with that slant all year. The funny thing is, I have confidence that Roethlisberger could have completed a throw to Ward on both occasions, anyway … it's been nearly unstoppable this year.

- Lelie can really use his length to his advantage. That seems to be about all that he can do, but he's got that going for him.

- Jake Plummer's first pick was among the worst throws I've ever seen. It was almost inexplicably bad … like it was a practice throw just to give a clunky-handed DB confidence in himself. Which, actually, might be exactly what it turned out to be; I don't think anyone was more surprised that Ike Taylor finally hung onto an interception than Ike was himself. He caught it and held it out away from his body like it was a baby that some relative had stuck him with at a family reunion while she ran to the bathroom to sneak a couple of shots of bourbon.

- If anyone ever does actually throw a baby, I only hope that Heath Miller is there to catch it. Wow, does he have some big, soft hands. I find myself saying this almost every week, it seems, but he could be very important against Seattle.

- While looking up Taylor's stats, I noticed that in addition to being near the top in tackles, he also led the AFC in passes defensed with 24. Since we know just from watching him that he hasn't been getting burned or completed against much, we can arrive at two conclusions: opponents are still trying to pick on him, and he simply isn't letting them succeed.

- The lollipop pick aside, I have to applaud Plummer's efforts in this game. He was truly under the kind of constant duress that Peyton Manning believed himself to be the week before all game, but he made a ton of plays with his feet and was Roethlisberger-esque in avoiding a number of sacks. I can hardly blame him for getting freight-trained by Joey Porter, leading to one of the more amusing big-guy-scrambles-for-the-ball from Casey Hampton that I've ever seen.

- Speaking of Hampton, he has now put on a stellar performance in successive weeks against Rich Braham, Jeff Saturday, and Tom Nalen. Given that level of competition, and with respect to Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, Hampton might have been the most dominant player on the team in this postseason run. He'd better keep it up, too; as amazing as Seattle's left side is, the Steelers will need Hampton to create some things in the middle.

- That said, here's what a force of nature Polamalu has been: he made six tackles, including one behind the line from twenty yards out on a screen pass and another on which he'd been blocked and had no business making the tackle, and it still seemed like he had kind of a quiet day. I dug the little throw he put on blocking TE Wesley Duke at the end of an early play, too … he has that mean streak in him between the whistles.

- An unexpected kickoff out of bounds aside, Jeff Reed continues to have a solid postseason. A 47-yarder on the opening drive isn't easy anywhere, rarified air or otherwise.

- I argued with someone before this game that Nate Washington, the latest addition to the cast of undrafted wideouts about whom Steeler fans get way too excited way too early, would play absolutely no role in the outcome of the game. So, of course, not only did he catch the first third-and-long of the game for Pittsburgh, he made a great play to break up a probable interception in the end zone on the same drive. Shows what I know …

- I don't think enough is said about what a fine job Verron Haynes (and his evil twin Vernon Hayes) does as the third-down back. Guys in that role get most of their touches in situations with the odds stacked overwhelmingly against them, and Haynes makes something out of nothing on more than his share of plays.

- Tyrone Carter is not only showing up more and more on the field, but on the sideline and in the locker room, too. I don't know if it just seems that way because the cameras follow the noisy guys, but he sounds like a really passionate player. I don't know if he's capable of doing it, but what are the chances that he just slides into the starting free safety role if Chris Hope leaves in free agency? I like having him around for this title run, at any rate.

- Like Plaxico Burress before him, Antwaan Randle El probably doesn't get noticed as much as he should for the effort he puts into downfield blocking. And, unlike Burress, he's doing it without a size and strength advantage over his opponents.

- Brett Keisel (and his evil twin Brad Kiesal) can play some football. Re-sign that guy, please.

- That sort-of-inside-handoff kinda-trick play near the goal line on the called-back Bettis touchdown was a great call. A great call.

- Willie Parker has been quiet, but unlike earlier in the season when I worried that it was a sign that he's not cut out to be a starting running back, now I just feel like it means that he's due for a big game. Prove me right, Fast Willie …

- Of course, even when he isn't running particularly well, Parker is consistently productive on screens and dump-offs. He averaged 12.1 yards per catch this season, and he wasn't exactly catching the ball 12.1 yards downfield. As a matter of fact, Parker has received the ball, on average, 1.6 yards behind the line of scrimmage on each catch. His 13.7 YAC per reception was the highest among starting running backs this season, and significantly higher than the rest of the pack, including Larry Johnson (11.4), Priest Holmes (11.1), Tiki Barber (9.7), and LaDainian Tomlinson (9.1).

- Of course, some of that credit goes to Roethlisberger, who is seeing the field so well that he knows when to dump off underneath. Not that everyone doesn't already know this, but he is playing so far beyond his years, it makes me absolutely giddy to think that I've got fifteen more years to enjoy. His receivers and his line are playing their hearts out for him, too, and he's clearly having fun. He has such obvious confidence in himself and in the guys around him, too … it took some stones to throw that touchdown to Ward in the back of the end zone.

- I'd be remiss if I didn't point out what a stellar job the line did in pass protection, and what a role that played in Roethlisberger's success in this game. Simmons didn't have a great game, but he continued to show the athleticism that made him a first-rounder four years ago.

- So, I sort of expected that first we'd see a bunch of stories about Bettis's homecoming, and then a bunch of stories or general whining about how sick everyone is of hearing about Bettis's homecoming. It seems, though, that we've mostly skipped directly to the complaints without actually hearing too many homecoming stories in the first place. People are actually sick of anticipating the overexposure of the story.

- Hooo, boy … they're one win away. One. Win. Away. Come on, fellas … we all want this so badly. Seattle is a damn good team. Moreover, they have a damn good offensive line, and any worthwhile Steeler fan knows how far ahead of the curve that puts a team. I'm encouraged by Pittsburgh's performance against Cincy's, Indy's, and Denver's lines, none of which may be quite as good as Seattle's, but all of which are close. One more game. One for the Bus. One for the thumb. I don't really care why … just get it done.


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