Wilson: Weathering the Storm

Another week, another poor Ben Roethlisberger performance and now the Steelers are sitting at 1-3 and the playoffs aren't even in the conversation. The team must first get back to .500. Blogger Ryan Wilson isn't ready to jump off a ledge just yet. He's close, but he still thinks this team can turn things around.

If you're a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I think you've seen this movie. I'm not talking about the forgettable 2003 season where everything that could go wrong, did. I'm referring to the 2002 campaign. You know, the one where the Steelers, coming off a 13-3 season (and another loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game), had serious Super Bowl aspirations.

In case you've forgotten, let me jog your memory: Pittsburgh opened the 2002 season – and Gillette Stadium – in New England and proceeded to get stomped. Bill Belichick went empty backfield for most of the game and Tim Lewis' defense – as was sometimes the case – didn't have an answer. The result? A 30-14 beat down.

A week later, the Oakland Raiders came in to Heinz Field to re-enact the Week 1 fiasco. And in case there's any confusion, the Raiders were playing the part of the Patriots in this tragic comedy. The result? A 30-17 drubbing.

After a bye, the Steelers called on the hapless Cleveland Browns to do what they do so often: gift Pittsburgh a win. If nothing else, at least the team wouldn't go winless. By this time the "replace Kordell with Tommy" blather was in full effect, and in fact, against the Browns Maddox made his first appearance in a meaningful professional game not sanctioned by Vince McMahon (although an argument can be made that Cleveland should've been relegated to the XFL). For all intents and purposes, that ended Stewart's tenure in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers lost the following week to the Saints and after four games their record was … 1-3. Sound familiar?

The good news is that Pittsburgh reeled off four wins in a row, and went 5-2-1 in their final eight games. For me, two things stick out about the Steelers record in the second half of that season: the tie against the Falcons, and the loss to the Texans. Atlanta mounted a huge comeback, primarily by converting a handful of 3rd-and-forevers, and the Texans managed 47 total net yards (47!) and thanks to Turnover Tommy, eked out a 24-6 victory.

To be fair, this was Maddox's first game back after being paralyzed in Tennessee, so it was kinda hard to hold it against him at the time. In retrospect, it's still pretty remarkable: the expansion Texans muster 47 yards total offense, the Steelers have 422, dominate the time of possession (40 to 20) but thanks to three Maddox turnovers that directly result in points, Pittsburgh lost. And they also lost a shot at homefield advantage in the playoffs too.

If that 2002 team, which in hindsight wasn't that good, can rebound from a 1-3 start, with Maddox leading the troops, then the 2006 Steelers are still in it. With each loss, things get exponentially more difficult, so just like the 2002 squad, this team will have to reel off a few to even sniff the postseason. But you already knew that.

Okay, with the pep talk out of the way, let's assess the damage…

* Give credit to Marty Schottenheimer. I never, ever thought he would have the cajones to put the game on Philip Rivers' shoulders. After that debacle last week in Baltimore, something must've finally clicked for Schottenheimer, and hey, it only took 30 years. Brian Billick sticks it to the Steelers again.

Whatever happened, after a rocky start, Rivers settled down and matriculated the ball up and down the field with relative ease. It was just like 2002 all over again watching the Steelers' defense fail to get off the field on third down. I was half-expecting a shot of Tim Lewis sitting in the booth with a puzzled look on his face just to complete the flashback.

* As long as I'm giving high-fives to the opponent, I might as well point out that Michael Turner is very good at his job. The Chargers don't ask him to do too much, but he's very efficient within his role. You know, kinda like the Bus minus 20 years. Jim Wexell reports that Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak pushed for Turner a few years ago, but Pittsburgh went in another direction. If I think about it anymore my laptop will go out the window in frustration.

After seeing Turner and the Giants' Brandon Jacobs earlier in the day against the Redskins, all I could think was, "Man, those are two guys who would fit perfectly into the Steelers' scheme." And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Pittsburgh should be blowing first-round picks on running backs (more on that later this week), but both of these guys were second-day picks. I know it's easy to make criticisms after the fact, but it's not like Pittsburgh has been setting it on fire with second-day picks recently.

* I know the offensive line looked less than effective Sunday night, but I think the San Diego front seven has to get some of the credit. Sure, the same thing happened against Jacksonville but it's probably worth noting that these are two of the best run-stuffing teams in the NFL. Yeah, I don't remember too many people complaining after treading the Bengals.

And as I've written before, sacks, in part, are often on the quarterback. Exhibit A: Big Ben in Weeks 2, 4, 5. Which brings us to …

* Roethlisberger continues his quest to break the single-season interception record. Not really, but it sure seems that way after watching him for three weeks. But here's the good news: Big Ben's improving. Now, that's kinda like saying "Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol" was better than "Police Academy 6: City Under Siege." Both movies sucked, one was just less sucky than the other. Same with Big Ben so far.

After looking absolutely dreadful against the Jaguars, he was competent against the Bengals early in the game (before imploding), and he had a solid first half against the Chargers (before imploding … again). At this rate, he should put together a complete performance sometime around Week 8. And I'm not even kidding.

The good news is that Pittsburgh has Kansas City at home, and Atlanta and Oakland on the road the next three weeks. If there's ever a time for Pittsburgh to right the ship, even with a less-than-100-percent Roethlisberger, this would be it.

Football Outsiders Mike Tanier said it best shortly after the game (and he's an Eagles fan):

Roethlisberger will make some bad decisions here and there. He's a guy who will force some passes. Some people think that every forced pass is a big mistake; but show me a quarterback who never tries to throw into a tight spot and I will show you Joey Harrington. Great QBs sometimes force passes; the trick is learning when to pick the right spots. This is Roethlisberger's first run of on-field adversity. I think he bounces back in the next few weeks.
Let me just say this isn't what I was thinking at the end of the game. In fact, after Roethlisberger's second interception, I actually thought, "The force (of Turnover Tommy) is strong with this one."

Okay, so last night at 11:30 I wasn't in any frame of mind to be offering unbiased, rational commentary, but after saying the ABC's backwards (something Odell Thurman couldn't do, by the way) and taking a couple of deep breaths, I feel better. In the light of day, Tanier's right. Great quarterbacks take chances. And for two seasons Roethlisberger has been very successful playing this way. Now, he's suffering through his first slump. I think it's part injury, part bad luck, and I'm sure the two are correlated. But like I said above, I think Roethlisberger is still a few weeks away from being anywhere near what he was in 2004 and 2005. While it might be difficult, I think fans need to be patient with Big Ben. At least until Week 8, and then we can start circulating the Start Charlie! petitions.

* It was great to see Willie Reid as the return man, but that excitement was short-lived. He injured his ankle before half time and didn't return. When Andrea Kremer relayed the news I turned to my wife and said, "Why does God hate the Steelers?" She ignored me, as she often does during games, but I do wonder.

And when I saw James Harrison taken off the field on a modified golf cart, my first thought was, "Can we trade for Andre Frazier?" I don't really think Pittsburgh should trade for Frazier, but these are the things that run through your mind when your team is falling apart while you watch.

* It's also worth noting that Santonio Holmes bypassed both Nate Washington and Cedrick Wilson on the depth chart sometime around the third quarter. I don't know if this was due to injury or something else (like, say, talent), but I was pretty excited about it. I've liked Holmes since seeing him in person at training camp. Here's what I wrote at the time:

Holmes then answered a few questions from the media. I wasn't so much concerned with the actual Qs & As but I was interested in watching Santonio's demeanor and body language. The more I see and hear him, the more I really like this kid. Yep, he's made some mistakes, but I think he wants to do the right thing and hanging out with Ward can only help him. We'll see.
So far, so good.

Holmes had a couple of nice grabs and I get the feeling he's a head fake away from breaking one. This has never been the case with Wilson. And I'm glad Washington got a chance to redeem himself with a few nice catches after an uneven outing against the Bengals.

I know there's been some gnashing of teeth about the pass catchers, but honestly, this group will be fine.

* Jeff Reed was another bright spot in an otherwise crappy evening of football viewing. He converted two big kicks and I'll go ahead and scratch his name off the Guys I Was Worried About list. Right after I put other line through Ryan Clark's name. I know the Steelers personnel department has taken some hits recently, but let's give them credit on this one. Clark, in my mind, is Chris Hope, but he's much faster and a better tackler.

* Also, I thought Cowher rebounded nicely Sunday night after completely melting down two weeks ago. I was fine with the fake punt, and I didn't have a problem with the flea flicker in theory, although the execution could've been a littler better (obviously). At one point during the game I actually got the sense that both Cowher and Schottenheimer were trying to out-anti-Martyball each other. I think Cowher won. So if you're looking for your moral victory, there it is. In the meantime, no one jump off a ledge just yet. We've got till Week 8 before going the ritual suicide route.

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