Wilson: Bye week tune-up

The Steelers might be the best 1-2 team in the league, but that probably won't make fans feel any better heading into the bye week. What might help? The defense continuing to play well, Ben Roethlisberger breaking out of his funk, the pass catchers actually catching passes and Ricardo Colclough being nowhere near the field during punts, would be a start. Blogger Ryan Wilson takes a closer look.

I feel better. After my diatribe following Sunday's debacle, I've had a couple of days to calm down, think about the game, and now I'm ready to talk about something – anything – but Bill Cowher ... except that I want to say one last thing about Bill Cowher before moving on to more pressing issues like Terrell Owens holding a press conference hours after allegedly trying to kill himself.

I like Cowher. A lot. I think he's great for the city and he's obviously been very successful coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, for some insane reason, I found myself defending him last January. A month before the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

So yeah, I was hard on Cowher for his hair-brained notion that Ricardo Colclough could return punts, but that doesn't mean I don't respect him, or that I wouldn't want him coaching the Steelers. In fact, here's what I wrote nine months ago (edited and updated for this column) in response to this post blasting Cowher's playoff record:

Look, there's no changing the fact that the Steelers have struggled in the postseason. And that's an understatement along the lines of, "Yeah, it does look like that Ravens owner guy basically neutered Brian Billick ... and he willingly went along with it."

But when you consider all the alternatives, things could be a lot worse. Try being a Lions fan. You end up wearing blaze orange shirts to home games. I guess in a perfect world, the Steelers should be going for their 14th consecutive Super Bowl. Should they have made it to more Super Bowls? Yeah, probably. Is every playoff loss Cowher's fault? Uh, no. Not unless, in the 2001 AFCC, he made Kris Brown kick the ball low enough to be blocked and returned for a TD, or told Kordell Stewart to throw two picks. Or three years later, encouraged Big Ben to do his best Kordell impression during the playoffs.

I know some Steelers' fans dislike Cowher, but whenever you ask them who should be the coach, they usually don't have any answers. And the next person I hear say "Kirk Ferentz" is getting roundhouse kicked in the face, Tyrone Carter style. Seriously. When's the last time a college coach came into the league and tore it up? Anyone? So now, in addition to getting rid of a guy perennially fields a playoff team, the organization is stuck in rebuilding mode for no clear reason. Yep, that makes a lot of sense.

Personally, I don't think Cowher's a great tactician, and I've said that before (In fact, he seems to make a lot of puzzling in-game decisions). But I do think he's a great motivator, and does a really good job of preparing his teams over the course of a season. He gets into trouble when he starts winging it mid-game. I'm all for him yelling, "Let's go! Let's GO!," all game long while Ken Whisenhunt and Dick LeBeau take care of little details like play-calling.

But more importantly, I think Cowher's a solid person. Yeah, I know, this is football, but character should count for something ... and it should be pretty high on the list.

I'll take the Steelers during the Cowher era over Brian Billick's one Super Bowl and six seasons of scandal and crappy football. I'm sure some Steelers fans would disagree with me, and that's fine. If everybody agreed about everything, I'd have nothing to talk about. But think about what you'd be talking about if the Steelers won a Super Bowl in 2000, and after getting their asses handed to them in 2004, followed that up with a 6-10 effort last year. Yeah, I'm guessing it would be something like, "God, our coach sux! We need Kirk Ferentz ... Now! O'Doyle rulz!"

It's hard to argue that the Steelers have been less than spectacular in the playoffs. But if you're willing to pin every loss squarely on Cowher and every victory on luck, then congratulations, you're the newest graduate from the Skip Bayless School of Really Lazy Journalamilism. Please report immediately to the set of "Cold Pizza," for your first assignment.

(Getting off soapbox)

*******

In light of Sunday's outcome, it's certainly reasonable to be incensed with the head coach. But my point is that it's way too early to start overreacting. (And yes, I'm basically talking myself down off the ledge at this point, but hey, sometimes I need a little tough love). There are 13 games to go and the fat lady hasn't even made her way to the opera house. Now if Cowher makes another dumb decision that single-handedly costs his team the game, then you have every right to give him the Tommy Maddox treatment. Just kidding. I think.

Lost in all the coach Cowher pinata-ing and Ricardo Colclough bashing was the play of Ben Roethlisberger. If he had just a below-average game, the Steelers would've won, and maybe Colclough never would've muffed that punt. So if you're looking for a silver lining, this is it. It took an early-season loss to get the point across, but we'll never see McFumbles returning kicks again. Way to take one for the team Big Ben.

It's easy to say that Roethlisberger didn't "play that bad" on Sunday, but ... well, it's just not true. Sure, he completed a few nice passes, but for the most part, he was indecisive, off-target, and held on to the ball way too long. In fact, on a per-play basis, he was the worst quarterback in the NFL last Sunday. (Granted, the Oakland Raiders had a bye, but still.) Roethlisberger's first interception was not only a momentum killer, but every Steelers fan in the bar where I watched the game all had an acute bout of STMFS – Simultaneous Tommy Maddox Flashback Syndrome. It was like somebody hit the "mute" button and then collectively punched us all in the stomach. That said, I was fine with the play-call. The Steelers scored on a similar play last year when Big Ben found Heath Miller wide open in the end zone. Give the Bengals credit for studying film (although Odell Thurman blew the coverage last year, and knowing what we know now, maybe he was drunk at the time).

Roethlisberger's second pick was much, much worse, however. In the third quarter, Big Ben dropped back and instead of hitting Verron Haynes in the flat – or Dan Kreider underneath – he tried to connect with Cedrick Wilson on a 60-yard bomb. It might as well have been a six million yard bomb because the result was the same: interception. Here's the thing: if you're going to throw the ball deep – and I'm all for it, by the way – you should probably do it before your wide receiver is already 50 yards downfield. That way, when you try to throw it out of the stadium, you reduce the risk of actually falling down.

And yes, replays showed that Big Ben slipped on Marvel Smith's foot, but that does nothing to change the fact that it was a terrible decision. I watched the play a couple of times and five seconds elapsed from when the ball was snapped until Roethlisberger tried to throw it out of the stadium. FIVE SECONDS. Did I mention that both Verron Haynes and Dan Kreider were open?

To be fair – and Joe Starkey made this point in the Tribune-Review earlier in the week – the guy is a few months removed from a near-fatal motorcycle accident:

I do think, however, that it's perfectly normal to be curious about how a severe head injury, a near-death experience and seven hours of reconstructive facial surgery -- followed 83 days later by an emergency appendectomy -- might affect a guy whose livelihood depends on making split-second decisions amid speeding 300-pound maniacs bent on bashing his brains in.
You know, that's a good point. It might also explain some of Roethlisberger's indecisiveness. There were a handful of occasions last Sunday when I was screaming at the television for him to run the ball after scrambling out of the pocket. Most times, he would try to make the tough pass, and still take a hit from a defender for his troubles.

Ron Jaworski was on "Pardon the Interruption" earlier this week and here's what he said:

"He is really not seeing the field very well. And I use the term "seeing ghosts" – you know, you're not really sure what you're seeing out there. Consequently, you hold on to the football and ... it's kinda filtered into his game: not getting rid of the football in a timely rhythm with his wide receivers. He's waiting for them to come open, which is a no-no in the National Football League. You must anticipate them coming open so when they snap their head around there's the football. He's waiting; I don't think right now ... he really feels comfortable ... yet. I think it will come, but right now he's struggling to find his rhythm.
Here's the punch line: he was talking about Daunte Culpepper. But the whole time all I could think was, "This sounds an awful lot like Big Ben."

That said, I'm not worried about Roethlisberger. During Wednesday's press conference he admitted to still being a little rusty, and given what he's been through the past four months, I'm willing to give him a little time to work things out. I think the bye week couldn't come at a better time – in addition to Big Ben, Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu can get healthy, Najeh Davenport can get more comfortable in the offense, and the wideouts can work on actually catching the ball. Which reminds me ...

I love Nate Washington but he has to stop it with the drops. Has to. The shoulda-been-fourth-quarter-touchdown-pass is the most glaring example, but he also muffed one on a key third down play earlier in the half. Yeah, the ball was high and behind him, but I'm sure if you ask him, he'd say he should've had it. Roethlisberger did make the point after the game that he doesn't lose any confidence in his wideouts after a dropped pass, but at some point, maybe subconsciously, it has to be a concern. Which leads me to Ed Bouchette's question of the day:

Question: Knowing that drastic changes cannot be made in-season, is this logical and feasible: Deactivate Nate Washington, activate Willie Reid (not losing much) and use Heath Miller as the fourth wide receiver/tight end in late-game packages? I feel this would strengthen the return game and passing game. Is this possible?

Ed Bouchette: Sure it is, and it makes sense to me. I don't believe they want to use two rookies among their top four receivers. Rookies have a knack for running the wrong way as the quarterback throws the other way. It happens to veterans too (remember Super Bowl XXX when Andre Hastings and Neil O'Donnell were "not on the same page" and Larry Brown and the Cowboys benefited?). But why not use Miller? He's the only tall one of the bunch, and he's shown he can run and catch. Put him in the slot and let him run the inside stuff when they go to four receivers. Or what's the worst Reid could do? Drop a few passes? If that's the case, he'd fit right in.

You know, it's hard to argue with this line of reasoning. If Nate's deactivated for a game to get Willie Reid on the field, fine by me. And no, I don't think Reid will magically improve a pretty pedestrian-to-date wide receiver corps but he's unquestionably an upgrade on the return team.

(As an aside, I'm baffled by fans who somehow think they know Reid is a better receiver than Holmes. And the only reason Holmes is active on game days is because he was a first-rounder. This drives me absolutely bonkers. Unless you've seen enough practices to make a judgment, how, exactly, do you know Reid is better? Preseason? Newspaper reports? Miss Cleo? I like Reid and I want to see him on the field just as much as the next guy, but let's stop with this silliness. Thank you. That is all.)

Not only that, but the Steelers used Miller at wideout during training camp, so at least he's familiar with the position. Plus, if receivers struggle to get open down the field, Pittsburgh might as well have a guy running intermediate patterns who can actually catch the ball.

The good news is Pittsburgh is the best 1-2 team in the league (at least according to Carson Palmer). And more importantly, the Steelers have two weeks to figure things out. That should be more than enough time.


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