I've spent more time this season than ever giving Cowher the business for some ridiculous game-management decisions. The Bengals contest comes immediately to mind, and Cowher didn't exactly help himself in Atlanta where he burned through second-half timeouts faster than you can say, "Santonio Holmes fumbled AGAIN!?!" But I can't bring myself to blame the turnovers on Cowher. I mean, what's the guy supposed to do? Short of taking a cue from the father who has to sew his kids' gloves to the inside of their winter jacket so they don't keep losing them, I'm at a loss for how to fix this.
Honestly, I don't even know how you coach an entire team to not turn the ball over. Maybe Pittsburgh should hire a hypnotist. Or while watching film, maybe flash subliminal messages: "I love holding onto the football." "I am somebody ... who holds onto the football." "Cowher will drop-kick me into the Ohio if I turn the ball over." But short of something extreme, I'm at a loss. Sure, if it was only one player suffering from Tiki-Barberitis then it might make sense to pull him aside and give him some tips on how to carry the football more securely. But we're talking about the entire football team. And it's not like this is a perennial problem with the Steelers.
In fact, Pittsburgh has been very good about taking care of the ball, and in-game decision-making aside, winning the turnover battle has been a Bill Cowher mantra since 1992. (Well, that and "Let's Go!") But this year, for some reason, Pittsburgh hasn't been able to catch a break. Obviously, it started this summer with Ben Roethlisberger's motorcycle accident and it's been pretty much all downhill since. Oddly, I wouldn't categorize Sunday's loss as the nadir; that has to be the Oakland game two weeks ago. Since the schedule was released last spring everybody on the planet -- including most of the Raiders -- chalked it up as a Steelers' victory. Nope. Not even close. So if you're looking for a bright spot, there it is: Pittsburgh already hit rock bottom two weeks ago in Oakland. They got nowhere to go but up.
I know it's trendy to start talking about the 2007 draft and what needs Pittsburgh might look to fill -- and I should know because I feel like discussing such things around the fourth quarter of recent Steelers games -- but I think it's important to stress that most all of this team's problems can be traced back to ... turnovers. I know that's about as shocking as finding out the earth revolves around the sun, but it's the truth. So before we get too far ahead of ourselves with this draft-coverage talk, here are some thoughts from the latest head-scratching Steelers' loss:
... Well, Roethlisberger looks to be back ... again. And other than the last few plays of the game -- when Broncos' defenders were just teeing off on him -- he avoided taking any big hits. I thought the first-half 4th-and-2 call from Denver's 41 was a little iffy, but Big Ben threw a perfect pass to Cedrick Wilson that resulted in a first down, a 35-yard gain ... and ended with a fumble. Big surprise, right?
Wilson has an amazing knack for disappearing for long stretches only to make a big catch that leads to me think, "Hey, I forgot that guy was even on the team." Most other times he's busy whining to officials about phantom pass interference calls after he either runs the wrong route or drops a catchable pass.
I've been watching football most of my life and I continue to be surprised when players fumble the football because it was stripped from behind. How can you not realize, as a professional football player, that if there is only one guy in front of you, 10 other guys are somewhere behind you, in all likelihood trying to get the STRIP THE FOOTBALL?
Obviously, this will never change; you'd think I'd learn. Fool me once ... shame on … shame on you … if fooled, you can't get fooled again. Or something like that.
Roethlisberger did throw another red zone interception -- intended for Wilson, and while that probably took points off the board, that play was in no way solely responsible for Pittsburgh losing the game. Still, I question heaving the ball in Champ Bailey's general vicinity, especially when Wilson's the target. I know, I know, Wilson beat Bailey on a nice route during last year's AFC Championship game, but that'll happen once every eight or nine years. 2005 was Wilson's time; we shouldn't expect him to beat Bailey again until sometime during the 2013 or 2014 season.
Roethlisberger's second interception was a really good punt, and it was probably Pittsburgh's best pick of the season. You know, when you can identify your favorite turnover it's probably a safe bet that the hometown team ain't having a very good year. That said, maybe Cowher should leave Roethlisberger on the field on 4th down and just have him Hail Mary a pass and hope the defense intercepts it somewhere inside their 20-yard line. It would be huge improvement to the current punt-team coverage.
… I almost had to turn the television off after Hines Ward's fourth-quarter fumble. Is there anything sadder than seeing a dejected Ward on the sidelines about to cry? I give the guy credit for playing another great game. And I'm not even talking about catching seven passes for 127 yards. He is, without question, one of the two or three best blockers on the team. He spent much of the first half just laying people out. One Denver defender would go down with an injury courtesy of a vicious Ward block, and they'd just bring another sap in to get smacked around. If Simmons and Kemoeatu continue to split time and struggle while doing so, I say move Ward to right guard. I'm half-kidding, but blocking's a lot like defense: it's want-to. Right now, Ward plays like he wants to block; Simmons or Kemoeatu? Not so much.
... I love Santonio Holmes the wide receiver, but Santonio Holmes the kick/punt returner is making me crazy. I'm convinced teams don't even game plan the Steelers anymore. They spend most of their practice time working on stripping the ball during kickoffs and punts. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see a team sometime in the near future win the coin toss, receive the kickoff and then punt on first down. They'll inevitably recover the fumble and improve their field position in the process. It's like throwing a long pass with none of the risk.
Holmes seemed unaffected by his mid-game demotion, but any time a team has their third-string returners in for punts and kickoffs, things are going about as well as a 2-6 record would indicate.
On the upside, Cowher has been forced to make changes a little faster than he's accustomed. As recently as a few weeks ago, he was content to leave Ricardo Colclough on punt return duty. And then the Bengals game happened. Now, Cowher's wheeling and dealing like he's used car salesmen trying to meet his monthly quota. Nothing like the punch-to-the-face that is reality to slap some sense into you. Who knows what'll happen next week, but if Willie Reid has to field kicks on crutches I say let him do it because right now the special teams is a joke.
… I know a lot of people are down on Ike Taylor after Javon Walker torched him most of the day Sunday, but Taylor has been one of the most consistent players on the team. I think this says as much about how this season has unfolded as it does about Taylor becoming a top-flight cornerback. And frankly, no one's mentioned Ike's name in the past three or four games, so I think he's due a mulligan. And if you're looking for something positive to take away from his performance, at least he didn't drop an interception … which is a claim Deshea Townsend can't make. To be fair, that was a tough catch, but he should've made the play. But that's been the case all season; Pittsburgh just misses one tackle, one fumble recover, or one interception and the opponent doesn't. Every freakin' week.
… I suspect Cowher will tell us during his Tuesday press conference that the team is "very close to being good," "needs to cut down on costly mistakes," and "dumb personal foul penalties will be dealt with." The funny thing is – and I can't believe I'm writing this – the Steelers are still not out of it. All they need is a eight-game winning streak, a couple of lucky breaks, some magic beans and maybe a time machine, and they're right back in the thick of things. Yes, it feels like 2003 all over again; each week I convince myself that if Pittsburgh wins out they'll make the playoffs. The only difference is that the 2006 Steelers are actually a good football team. Maybe the worst "best football team" in history.