We all know the story. The Pittsburgh Steelers, fresh off of a 13-3 record, were crowned the pre-season AFC champions by almost every major media pundit. They began to "defend" their title by losing to the under-appreciated New England Patriots and then to the Old Folks Home Raiders.
It's not the fact that they lost these two games that was so worrisome, the Patriots and Raiders are two of the top teams in the NFL. Rather, it was the way they lost these two games. Turnovers, poor execution, defensive breakdowns, and horrid tackling plagued this team like bad acting plagues any Soap Opera. The Steelers needed the bye week and, in all hopes, have used these past 10 days to create ways to stop the empty set, establish and maintain a running game, and regain the confidence that highlighted last year's remarkable season.
Many fans lost trust in this year's squad already, and rightfully so. The team hasn't performed anything resembling last year's edition. Little to no motion sets, Jerome Bettis getting 10 rushes a game, fumblitis has infected the offense…in some ways it's like Bubby Brister is back and this time he's in the backfield with Richard Huntley. Is that Scott Shields and Travis Davis manning the safety positions? A host of infamous former Steelers seems to be possessing the souls and replacing the talents of many of the current players.
Not that the news is all despairing. Hines Ward (sans fumble) consistently gets open and scored 3 of the 4 touchdowns this season. Kordell Stewart shows flashes of brilliance, but regresses back to 1998 like some warped football version of the movie "Big". Joey Porter looks ready to break out on a Pro Bowl year. And Jerome Bettis, when given the opportunity to run, shows that he can and will be a threat on offense.
So where do the Steelers go from here? We have hope, what with that easy schedule and all. But, even that scheduling quirk worked against the Steelers. What was once an easy schedule has turned brutal - road games at New Orleans, Cleveland, and Tampa; home games featuring The Mighty Vick and his Falcons; the upstart Carolina Panthers. Lumped in are former division rivals Tennessee and Jacksonville, both on the road, and even a visit from Peyton Manning and his air-show. The combined record of the remaining opponents: 16 - 15. But, if you knock out Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Houston, the record becomes: 15 - 8.
It's a whole new game of golf, Steeler fans. The season started three holes ago, but the Black and Gold can't afford any more mulligans.
The Week 3 Six-Pack Review
- Tampa Bay 26 St. Louis 14 : You can't tell me that there isn't anything wrong with Kurt Warner's thumb. His passes look horrid. What's scarier is the play of the offensive line. Marshall Faulk's injury, if it proves serious, could end the year early for the Rams. Gruden can't be happy with the offensive play so far. They are under-using Michael Pittman ridiculously. That defense looks better than it's been in 3 years.
- New Orleans 29 Chicago 23 : The Saints look like they've solved the locker room problems of last year. The attack is balanced and that defense is getting a great push from the front 3. Chicago should have won this game, but a mental let-down and turnovers caused a 20-point swing. I'm sure Brian Urlacher has missed tackles in his career, but never one so publicly scrutinized as when he whiffed on Aaron Brooks.
- San Francisco 20 Washington 10 : The offensive attack isn't so impressive now is it, Mr. Spurrier? And what is wrong with that defense, Mr. Lewis? Many questions need answered before the Redskins can even think of the playoffs. I think the thing that is most intriguing about the Niners is the lack of offensive production from Terrell Owens (11 rec 112 yds 1 td).
- Miami 30 New York Jets 3 : I don't know if it's Vinny's fault or Paul Hackett's. I'm going to say get rid of the both of them and put in Chad Pennington. The calls for the backup in NY should be louder than what we hear in Pittsburgh, but the Jets love their Vinny. Miami may be the best team in the NFL right now. Yes, even better than the Patriots, but we'll have to wait for Week 5 to find out.
- San Diego 23 Arizona 15: San Diego finds themselves in familiar territory again with a 3 - 0 record. They'll give New England a good game next week. Jake Plummer probably wishes that the San Francisco front office had listened to Bill Walsh and drafted him when they had the chance. The "Snake" seems doomed to finish his career in the desert, underappreciated.
- Cleveland 31 Tennesse 28 : That Cleveland passing game looks lethal. Even though they can't run worth a rat's behind, they'll give Pittsburgh problems this week with a sound passing attack. The Titans have injuries, mistakes, and bad bounces plaguing them. Sounds like a repeat assessment of last year's squad.
The Power Core Rankings: Week 4
- New England - Barely survives but remains on top.
- Miami - Swatted the Jets away like flies.
- New Orleans - They may just be for real.
- Oakland - The Old Folks Home still knows how to play.
- Philadelphia - 1st Rehearsal break 10 -10, one hour later 44 - 13.
- Denver - They're beginning to make me believe.
- Tampa Bay - That defense will need to carry this team all season.
- Cleveland - A win this week would be huge.
- San Diego - Can they beat the Patriots? Maybe, just maybe.
- San Francisco - The lack of offense is surprising.
- Green Bay - Does this team want to be as good as they could be?
- Chicago - The Bears blew it. It had nothing to do with Brian Urlacher.
- Atlanta - Pounded Cincinnati and there was noooooo doubt about it.
- Pittsburgh - Here's hoping the bye week was as kind as last year.
- Indianapolis - Beat up Houston. Not the best gauge to rank from.
- Carolina - Okay 3 - 0 gets you out of the bottom half.
- NY Giants - UGLY win. But a win is a win is a win…
- Buffalo - Drew Bledsoe doesn't equal wins, no matter how well he plays.
- Tennessee - Does this team ever get healthy?
- St. Louis - Someone give them the Heimlich. Please.
- NY Jets - That Miami curse was the only thing these Jets really had left to conquer.
- Dallas - Jerry Jones really likes Quincy Carter. Why?
- Arizona - Will someone please give Jake Plummer an offense to thrive in?
- Kansas City - If only Priest Holmes played defense.
- Jacksonville - Bye week moves them neither up nor down.
- Washington - You think Steveo wishes he were back with the Gators?
- Minnesota - "Hello, may I speak to Randy?" "He's not there?" That's what I thought.
- Seattle - Mike Holmgren is gone after the season.
- Detroit - Joey Harrington will be a success one day…after he leaves Detroit.
- Houston - Please. They beat Dallas for Christ's Sake.
- Cincinnati - Hmmm…remember when everyone thought Bruce Coslett was to blame?
- Baltimore - Sometimes Elvis never leaves the building.
Missed Prime Opportunity (MPO) Score
An MPO is when a team fails to score while in scoring range or doesn't take advantage of major swings in momentum (i.e. major penalties/turnovers/settling for field goals in successive series/inability to seal a game with first downs). These are killers because a team only gets so many opportunities. An MPO Score is like golf: It's best to score low. When a team scores low, it usually wins the game. It's remarkable how accurate it can be.
Pittsburgh's 2001 - 02 Regular Season MPO record: 0 - 2
Week 4 Preview:
Pittsburgh vs. Cleveland
Boy does this game scare me. Cleveland looks pumped and primed to give the Steelers an upper-cut knockout punch. On the other hand, the Steelers have had 2 weeks to solve problems.
5 Keys to the Game
- Turnover, Turnovers, Turnovers: The Steelers need to hold onto the ball. It is as simple as that.
- Establish a Running Game: Bettis needs to have at least 20 carries in this game. He has to establish himself and be feared once again.
- Dictate Tempo: The Steelers must dictate the tempo on offense and defense.
- Pressure Couch: Last year the Steelers did a great job confusing Tim Couch in Cleveland.
- Watch out for the Big Play: The Browns have had big plays in all three games this year. This game needs to be a boring grinding game on both sides. The Steelers need to get ugly.
If Bettis gets 100 yds, the Steelers win. But, I don't see him getting the opportunity to run for 100 yds. Sorry, folks, but until I trust this team again I'll be going with the opposing team. I like the Brownies by 10.
Apple Six-Pack: Week 4
- Tennessee at Oakland: Game of the Week. The Titans need a win to stay close to the Colts in the South. Oakland needs to win to stay with the Broncos. So much "need", but look for the Titans to pull out a gritty win.
- New England at San Diego: The Patriots and the Chargers isn't as sexy as it sounds, but two of the young standout quarterbacks meet in Southern California. Should be a fabulous match-up.
- Chicago at Buffalo: I like the Bears and I hate the Bills. But Drew Bledsoe is having an All-Pro year so I've got to go with the Bills to pull this one out. Especially since Chicago blew a 20-point lead last week.
- Miami at Kansas City: Will KC give Miami their first scare of the year? Priest Holmes and Ricky Williams should have a fantastic duel.
- Carolina at Green Bay: I never thought Carolina would ever be in a Six-Pack Game. I never thought I'd see Rodney Peete starting in the NFL again. It just goes to show: Never say Never.
- Dallas at St. Louis: Huge game for the Rams. They need to win and win big or the season will be in big jeopardy. Dallas should be fodder, but I said that about the Giants two weeks ago.
Thoughts Assisted By Yuengling
- The word out - New York should not expect Vinny Testeverde to last the full season.
- Marshall Faulk's injury was really ugly and the Rams can ill-afford to lose him for any lengthy period of time.
- Donovan McNabb is starting to look every bit like the NFL MVP I think he will be.
- If the Pack has a sub-par, non-playoff season, it would be reasonable to think Bret Favre will end his career.
- It's funny how Michael Vick only now realizes that he can't take on linebackers head-on for a full season. The last thing anyone wants to see is Vick's career go the way of the Dodo bird too soon.
- Speaking of Vick, he's gonna cause the Steelers huge problems when he visits Heinz Field.
- Mike Webster will be sorely missed. Although I watched him before I understood what was going on the field, it's obvious that he is the prototype of the modern center..
- Marty-ball is pretty impressive in San Diego right now. They may give Oakland and Denver a run for their money.