Play like a champion today

All it took was a 45-7 drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs for all to be right in Steelers Nation. Blogger Ryan Wilson takes a look back at the game that could be the turning point in Pittsburgh's season.

Well, that was fun. Nothing like running up a 31-point halftime lead on the way to a 45-7 victory to quiet the critics. For a week, anyway. Ben Roethlisberger finally had a complete game, Santonio Holmes continues to get better, as does Nate Washington, the offensive line was masterful, and the defense -- especially Troy Polamalu -- put together as dominating a performance as you'll see in the NFL.

Of course, Holmes also had some issues on punt return duty -- specifically a muff and a fumble -- and Parker fumbled twice as well. Usually, putting the ball on the ground four times is a recipe for losing, but when the Pittsburgh Steelers rack up 219 yards on the ground, hold the ball for over 34 minutes, and the quarterback completes 16-of-19 for 238 yards, 2 TDs and no picks, I guess it's okay. As a side note, what are the chances that after a Holmes muffed punt, Ike Taylor cleanly recovers the ball? I have it about two percent.

Last week I poked fun at Taylor's unique workout regimen growing up in Louisiana, which was featured in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated. Specifically, Taylor and his uncle would toss a brick back and forth for 25 minutes to "improve his catching skills." Until yesterday, I wasn't buying it. But after the nice fumble recovery, I'm willing to give it another chance.

Still, on a day when the Steelers imposed their will on a hapless Chiefs team, the turnovers are just quibbles. And hey, none of them were Roethlisberger interceptions, which is a first this season.

During the three-game losing streak I called Big Ben "Rustyberger" but fell short of saying he should be benched, was rushed back too early or that his slow start had something to do with neuro-psychological issues associated with his off-season motorcycle accident. I never wrote those things, but I'd be lying if I said they never crossed my mind. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the same guy who was 27-4 coming into this season, reeled off 13 straight victories as a rookie, and played some of the best football of his young career during last year's playoffs ... with a broken thumb.

Here's what I wrote last week:

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.
As of Sunday night it looks like I was off by a couple of weeks, but the point still holds. And as long as I'm preaching to the Chicken Littles, I think Dale Lolley gives some advice we should all heed:
Take a deep breath, people, and think about things clearly before you say or write them.
Okay, I'm getting off the soap box. On to the game ...

  • This is exactly what Roethlisberger needed to get on a track. A pass defense that doesn't play a lot of pass defense. Of Big Ben's three incompletions , only one -- the pass to Santonio Holmes near the sideline that was nearly picked -- was ill advised. The first-half bomb to Nate Washington was a good idea -- and unlike last week, at least it wasn't into double coverage -- but Washington just mistimed his jump. The final incompletion to Dan Kreider on a third-down play was a great example of Roethlisberger not forcing things like he'd done on a pretty consistent basis earlier this season.

    Further proof of this was the check down to Heath Miller after this first, second, and third options were well covered downfield. Miller caught the ball in the right flat, gained steam, and starting looking for people to bulldoze. I can't say this enough: good things happen when Heath Miller has the ball in his hands.

  • It's very seldom that I'm right -- or even close to being accidentally right -- about something, so I'll take this opportunity to continue pimping Santonio Holmes. I know a lot of people were happy with the pick back in April, but the bandwagon started losing fans after he had a few brushes with the law coupled with a slow start in during preseason. To those of you in that camp, I refer you to Lolley's comments above. In the immortal words of Brad Hamilton: Learn it. Know it. Live it.

    I wrote last week that Holmes seemed to be a head fake away from busting one, and that's exactly what happened Sunday. He turned a short pass from Big Ben into a 50-yard gain and he might've gone for a few more if he didn't decide to perfect his stop, drop and roll technique right in front of a Chiefs defender. (Actually, he slipped, which is a recurring theme at Heinz Field. I say just pour concrete on the whole thing and let the players wear roller skates. At least they'd have a chance of not falling down every time they made a cut. Plus, who wouldn't want to see Chris Kemoeatu on skates?)

    And honestly, I'm okay with Holmes' two gaffes on punt returns. Unlike Ricardo Colclough, I have confidence in Holmes, and he managed a few nice run backs. Plus, as soon as Willie Reid is healthy, he should resume that job, assuming Cowher learned his lesson after the Bengals debacle.

  • In addition to Reid, the Steelers were also without Joey Porter, Kendall Simmons and James Harrison. And it was surprising to see Deshea Townsend on the field after his midweek hammy injury. Despite losing four key players, I was never worried about the backups not stepping up. For all the criticizing we love to do of the front office, we have to give them credit for putting together one of the deepest rosters in the NFL.

    If you don't think so, just look at the Patriots roster; whenever the Steelers release a player, or don't renew their contract, their first stop is usually New England. For the other side of this coin, I present for your amusement the Washington Redskins. Now here's a team that spends a zillion dollars on mediocre talent and has a depth chart littered with second-day picks, undrafted free agents, and rookies. And I'm not talking about third teamers. I mean, immediate backups, and in some cases, starters. Yesterday, the team was without both their starting defensive tackles and had to go with Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery. Yeah, I'd never heard of them either. Both players are rookies and Golston was a sixth-rounder and Montgomery was a fifth-rounder.

    Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with finding those diamonds in the rough late on the second day, but not both of these players are second teamers. Doesn't that say something about the lack of depth when you're drafting rookies with the implicit knowledge that they're a play away from starting? And as far as being diamonds in the rough, the previously 0-5 Titans treaded the Redskins for 194 rushing yards. And Travis Henry had 178 all by himself.

  • I suspect two things will come out of the offensive line's performance Sunday: First, to butcher Mark Twain, "the rumors of this unit's death have been greatly exaggerated." I wrote after the Chargers game that while the line struggled, a lot of that had to do with the fact that both Jacksonville and San Diego are two of the best front sevens in the league. Everybody struggles against these dudes. To say Jeff Hartings was overmatched against Jamal Williams is kinda like saying that Paris Hilton is no match for Stephen Hawking when discussing theoretical physics. Yeah, no crap. If you want proof that Hartings still has plenty of life left, check out the Willie Parker sweep left that gained 10 yards. After the snap, Hartings makes his way through traffic gets out in front of Parker and takes out two Chiefs defenders. I think he'll be okay. Again, I refer you to Lolley's comments above.

    Second, after a very good game, the "Kemoeatu should start" contingent will gather steam. I re-watched the game Monday and I paid particular attention to Kemoeatu. To say he dominated would be an understatement along the lines of saying it was sorta embarrassing watching Najeh Davenport getting tracked down in the open field by a six-foot-six, 270 lbs. defensive end. I don't recall a single running play where Kemoeatu didn't totally blow his man off the ball, and although he's known to struggle as a pass blocker, he did more than hold his own. I'm not quite ready to anoint him the starter -- I think Kendall Simmons has rebounded nicely from a rough 2005 regular season -- but if nothing else, this reinforces the argument that there are gems to be had in the late rounds (Kemoeatu was a sixth-round pick in 2005) and the Steelers found one in Kemoeatu.

  • Speaking of the running game, it's amazing how it opens things up in the passing game. This is the first time all season Hines Ward has been able to get open (ostensibly because Kansas City couldn't double team him with Parker imposing his will running the ball), and Washington also made several nice catches, including a pretty nifty touchdown grab. If I have one complaint, it's that Washington should've been flagged for his end zone dance. Not because it violated the new and infinitely inane celebration rule, but because it was so ridiculously awful.

    In fact, it would've been well within referee Scott Green's rights to throw a flag and explain the infraction thusly: "Hee-Haw dance infraction, No. 85 Pittsburgh. 15-yard penalty to be added to the kickoff. One more such penalty and the player will be ejected." It was that bad. Somebody give Washington a copy of this for future reference.

  • Defensively, I think it's safe to say Troy Polamalu's back, huh? This was easily his best game of the season, and it's amazing how much better he is with two arms. The fact that he was better than half of the NFL safeties with one arm should tell you something.

    I also continue to love Ryan Clark's game. I was legitimately concerned about the loss of Chris Hope, but Clark's made that a non-issue. (By the way, Hope is having a pretty good season with the Titans.) Tyrone Carter has proven that he's not a starter, but he's played very well the last few weeks in much the same role the Steelers used him in last season: enforcer.

    In fact, the defense as a whole played very well, which makes about 18 out of 20 quarters of solid football. Now, with Roethlisberger seemingly turning the corner, the offensive line coming together and the pass catchers actually catching passes, the Steelers could be primed to make a run. It's just like it's 2002 all over again. But better.


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