... After Pittsburgh's first series, I called my buddy Andy to say how much I liked Ken Whisenhunt's game plan: Get the ball to Jerame Tuman early and often. Sure, Tuman only caught one pass during the first drive (and for the night, as it turned out), but in this offense that's like a 20-reception night. After the first few play-action passes, I expected to see the Steelers-versus-the-Colts-in-the-playoffs game plan: use the pass to set up the run, get ahead early, and then grind it out.
Unfortunately, the guy responsible for photocopying said game plan for all the coaches must've gotten the pages mixed up because after the first series, the Pittsburgh Steelers went straight to their "It's the 4th quarter, we're up by 20, let's run out the clock" offense: Run on first down; run on second down; screen pass/draw play on third down. Punt. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
By the way, let me be very unoriginal in saying this: The Monday Night crew blows. It's damn near impossible to make the three-man booth work, and this group is Exhibits A-F. And I stress the "F." I like Tony Kornheiser, but watching him force jokes in between Joe Theismann's idiotic non sequiturs is just painful. If I had to guess, watching a typical MNF telecast is kinda like being in a motorcycle accident sans helmet while having appendicitis. Back to the game …
As it turned out, the first series was the highlight of the evening for the Steelers. Well, other than listening to Joey Porter introduce the defensive starters. In a million years, who would've guessed Peezy busting out a Dave Chappelle-impersonating-Howard Dean scream? BYYYAAAAAH!
... Some people thought Roethlisberger should've sat out this game just to make sure he was completely healthy for next week's Bengals matchup. I am not one of those people. First, Rusty – this is what I'm calling Big Ben since he looked, well, rusty Monday night and he kinda looks like a kid I used to know named "Rusty" – was 0-2 last year in games where he didn't start the previous week because of injury. I liken last night's Jacksonville performance to the Monday night Indianapolis performance last year. Not awful, but not great, either.
Second, if the past is any indication, Rusty will never be completely healthy. The guy had a temperature of 100.4 degrees before the game. Don't get me wrong, Roethlisberger has shown he can play through pain, but it's always something: a broken toe (imagined or otherwise), a broken thumb, motorcycle crashes, appendicitis, pregame fevers. You name it, and Rusty's probably had it at some point during his short NFL career. Please keep this guy away from spinach for the rest of the season.
The good news is that Roethlisberger played the entire night, didn't (re)injure himself, and will have a full regular-season game under his belt as the Steelers face their division rivals. As a fan, I have never been less worried about a player than I am about Rusty right now.
... Another thing I'm not worried about is the running game. As I noted above, part of the problem was the play-calling. Running on first and second down against Jacksonville's front four – Reggie Heyward or not – is a lose-lose proposition. That's why I thought we might see more play-action early to set up the run later. Nope. Just runs early to set up the run later.
Granted, Roethlisberger wasn't particularly accurate and receivers were dropping catchable passes (Cedrick Wilson, I'm looking at you), so that didn't leave Whisenhunt a lot of options. I guess Chris Gardocki could've just punted on first down to allow the Steelers to at least win something – the field position battle – but it never came to that.
... Was anybody surprised to see Duce Staley in civvies ... again? I don't know what'll happen between now and Sunday, but I'm all for cutting Duce now and signing Chidi Iwuoma, or at the very least, dressing Willie Reid. Because the next time I see Ricardo Colclough at punt returner, the television's going through the window. It's this kind of "outside the box" thinking that led Marty Morningwheg to kickoff during overtime even though his team won the coin toss (and yes, the Lions lost). There is no justification for putting Mr. McFumbles on punt return duty short of: "All our other players are dead and Colclough's all we got." And then it's still debatable.
And if I'm wrong, why did the Cowher, for the second straight week, go with Santonio Holmes on all subsequent punts after Colclough's misadventures? I'm fine with Holmes returning punts if all the coaches are concerned about is eliminating muffs. But if the idea is to actually give your team better field position, it might be time to revisit the current set up. And if you asked Colclough, I think he'd agree.
Luckily Cowher doesn't have any intentions of activating Reid next week, so at least we know he's concerned about it. Sheesh. I don't like to bash Cowher. Honest. But this just defies logic.
... Lost in all this grumbling was the play of the defense. Sure the Jags converted some third downs, and okay, Fred Taylor rushed for 92 yards, but the Steelers only allowed three field goals. And it's more like two since the last one was a direct result of Rusty throwing a pass to Rashean Mathis deep in Pittsburgh territory. (And yes, as best I can tell, the two-interceptions-in-the-span-of-two-minutes sequence was Roethlisberger paying homage to Turnover Tommy and his circus-like performance against Jacksonville last season. Duly noted. Moving on ... )
For the most part, I thought the front seven had a great game, and it was good to see Larry Foote and James Farrior both playing like it was 2004: Injury-free and all over the field. I'm sure people will continue to complain about Ryan Clark, but unless you're watching the coach's tape, I don't know how you're able to make such proclamations. If I can't see the guy on the television screen, it's kinda hard to tell what he's doing, good or bad. I do know that he made a big third-down tackle while taking on a blocker that led to – surprise, surprise – a Jacksonville punt.
On a side note, I mentioned this summer that the Kimo Rule – the one adopted this off-season in the wake of Carson Palmer's knee exploding during last year's wild card game – was so subjectively defined that it would create more problems than it solved. Well, the personal foul called on Brett Keisel was one such example. When, exactly, did it become illegal to tackle a guy at his waist and then let him go before hitting the ground? It wasn't even like Keisel went low. I say we quit the charade, and just put quarterbacks in red jerseys complete with a flag football belt. I mean, other than the wardrobe, what's the difference now?
I suppose one could make a case that the game would've been closer if the Steelers didn't miss so many tackles. Fair enough. Off the top of my head, both Deshea Townsend and Troy Polamalu had a rough go of it. In fact, Polamalu looked like he was playing with one arm because, well, he was playing with one arm. When Theismann first pointed it out, my initial reaction was that Cowher should probably replace him if he can't, you know, tackle people. But then I realized that Polamalu with one arm is still better than most other safeties in the league with two arms. And after the tongue-lashing Cowher gave Tyrone Carter, I was even more convinced on this point.
... Punting duties aside, Holmes had a pretty tough evening. I don't know who was responsible for Rusty's first interception, but Holmes was the intended receiver, and it looked like he also botched a third-down play later in the game. Frankly, to expect a kid to come into the NFL without making any mistakes is a bit unrealistic. Save me the "he's a first-round pick" speech and just think about it this way: Let him work through all the rookie-related stuff now and when the team needs him later in the season he'll be in a much better position to make you forget all about his early-season troubles.
... It's also worth mentioning that the Jaguars played a great game, and they always seem to give the Steelers fits. It's hard not to like the way Jacksonville plays if for no other reason than they're a lot like Pittsburgh.
Still, this loss doesn't bother me quite so much. Maybe I'm getting old, or maybe I'm just getting smarter (yep, better go with "old") but this loss isn't nearly as troublesome as, say, the Bengals loss last year. For starters, nothing's so broken it can't be fixed. Specifically, Roethlisberger usually responds well to failure, the defense looks good (other than the obvious tackling issues), and – knock on wood – the team came out of Jacksonville without any major injuries. And that's a very big deal in a week that saw the Bengals lose three starters.
I fully expect the Steelers – and Rusty – to come out Sunday afternoon much like they did to start their playoff run late last season. Let's all take a deep breath because it's on ... on like Donkey Kong! BYYYAAAAAH!