My thoughts, for what they're worth

Ian Whetstone shares his thoughts -- for what they're worth -- on the debacle in the desert.

- Well, that certainly didn't go as planned.

- On the second play from scrimmage, Edgerrin James found a hole through some well-executed blocks, only to be leveled after a modest gain by Troy Polamalu rocketing in from wherever he wound up after his pre-snap walkabout. The force of the impact jarred loose the ball, but it bounced directly to Arizona receiver Bryant Johnson for an extra two yards. That was pretty much how the day went for the Steelers; they almost made any number of big plays, but Arizona's tenacity or heady play or Pittsburgh's failings or the luck of the bounce kept most of them in check.

- Of all the missed opportunities, James Harrison's dropped interception may have been the most egregious. Polamalu jumped about eighteen feet in the air to force that lollipop from Matt Leinart that cut short the Cardinals' opening drive, and it looked like just about the easiest fair catch anyone ever fielded. The ball slipped through Harrison's arms, and after the ensuing punt the Steelers began their first drive at their own 6 yard line rather the 40.

- That's not to let the interception following Harrison's later fumble recovery off the hook. Ben Roethlisberger generally played very well, buying much more time in and out of the pocket than his protection should have allowed, and hitting his targets on the run, but he chose a bad spot for his one big, costly mental error. In a tight game like that, with the offense sputtering most of the day, drives that start four yards from pay dirt need to put seven points on the board.

- Seriously, Heath Miller can tackle after an interception. Seriously, I wish I didn't know that. I mean, that was the sixth tackle of his pro career, and he doesn't play on kick coverage teams.

- I'd say that the three defenders Pittsburgh can least afford to lose are Polamalu, Casey Hampton, and Ike Taylor, and they saw two of those three leave with a lot of time left to play in this game. Safety depth in Pittsburgh is as good as it gets, but a unique talent like Polamalu simply cannot be replaced, and Chris Hoke can't provide good depth at nose tackle when he too gets hurt. Losing the team's two best defensive players sucks, but sometimes, them's just the breaks.

- It's no accident that James, despite uninspiring final numbers, found more success than most have running against Pittsburgh after Polamalu and Hampton left the game.

- And, all those penalties! The false starting by the offensive linemen may have done more damage than the pressure they allowed up the middle. Every starting lineman but center Sean Mahan contributed a false start, turning a makeable third-and-four into a drive-killing third-and-nine, or a tricky third-and-eighteen into a desperate third-and-twenty-three.

- The pass protection obviously fell short, especially up the middle, but a lot of the problems stemmed from simple mistakes in execution rather than linemen getting beaten individually. Several times, linemen released their assignments to no one, or to an already-occupied linemate, and progressed to the second level while their first man wreaked havoc in the backfield. I'm usually hesitant to buy into the perceived advantage of familiarity, but I do wonder how much Russ Grimm's knowledge of Pittsburgh's blocking schemes and individual lineman weaknesses came into play in this game.

- Speaking of Grimm, he's certainly got his new guys playing hard. Some observers wanted to undercut his success in Pittsburgh on the basis that he had so many high draft picks at his disposal, and never really developed any late-round talent, but he's making the proverbial chicken salad out of what certainly looked last year like… well, you know. Even absent starting rookie tackle Levi Brown, the two sacks managed by Pittsburgh were as many as that line had allowed in all three games previous, and they're opening holes for James.

- On the other side of the line, he may not be quite the All-Pro that he looked like in this game, but tackle Darnell Dockett can play. He's among a handful of core defensive players around whom the Cardinals have formed a pretty decent nucleus. Another such core player, linebacker Gerald Hayes, made a shoestring tackle on Pittsburgh's second drive to keep Willie Parker from beating 270+ pounders Calvin Pace and Antonio Smith to the edge for a big gain.

- Amid all due excitement over the ongoing development of Santonio Holmes into a really good pro receiver, the continued value of Hines Ward couldn't have been made more plain than by his absence. It wasn't just the passing game that suffered; more than one outside run failed because an Arizona defensive back beat his blocker to Parker. On one first-and-ten in the second quarter, Parker made for the edge off left tackle only to be dropped for no gain by Terrence Holt after Willie Reid whiffed on his block. Reid had lined up in the slot in a four-wide spread formation.

- On the positive side, it was good to see a little run-after-the-catch ability from Reid, though both opportunities came with the defense playing soft on third-and-long, and in neither case did he convert. One of those catches did get them close enough to go for it on fourth-and-short from their own 30 yard line, though… which, by the way, I absolutely loved.

- Arizona shows enviable depth at the top end of their receiver corps, with Johnson filling in admirably for the Anquan Boldin half of the best receiving tandem in football. That's probably to be expected, with two of those three receivers coming from the first round of the draft, and Boldin from the second. Though, those three are pretty much the extent of the depth at the position, unless rookie return man Steve Breaston develops into a quality receiver; bear in mind that this is a team for which Sean Morey has seen playing time on offense for reasons other than injury.

- Well, there goes Daniel Sepulveda's zero return yards streak. Is there any more predictable big play in football than the long return after a re-kick? We did finally get to see him boom a few punts, after three weeks of little opportunity for him to do so, and he certainly delivered. At times, he did seem to out-kick his coverage a little bit.

- Maybe it's because I just watched Field of Dreams, but is the part of Neil Rackers being played by late 80's Ray Liotta these days?

- I don't know whether to think of Ken Whisenhunt's quarterback swapping as bold or knuckleheaded. The potential for big-time second-guessing of the head coach because of such moves is obvious; imagine if Leinart had thrown a boneheaded pick in relief of Kurt Warner, up by only seven points. He's playing it like a virtuoso so far, though.

- Among the positives to emerge from this game for Pittsburgh, none was more obvious than the developing rapport between Roethlisberger and Holmes. Not even Ward looks so fluid out there running routes and hauling in passes. Deep bombs don't get any prettier than Holmes' first touchdown.

- Taylor also continued to play his corner position really well, minus a dumb penalty for taunting. Larry Fitzgerald caught twelve passes, but only three of them came against Taylor in coverage. The first, Taylor stripped with impressive arm strength for a big turnover. The second was just a quick hitter with Taylor playing off the line on the last play before Arizona's missed field goal to end the first half. The last, and most impactful, came on an underthrown long-ball by Leinart to begin his lone touchdown drive. There aren't many more difficult situations for a corner in man coverage than an underthrown deep ball, and I'd lay my money with Fitzgerald against any cornerback in the league in such a jump-ball scenario.

- It's a little eerie how many connections this Cardinals team has to Pittsburgh. It's not just Whisenhunt and Grimm, or the Pittburgh players who followed them to Phoenix like Morey, Mike Barr, and Chukky Okobi. They've got Pittsburgh's best college player from the past several decades in Fitzgerald, and another prominent alumnus in Hayes. No wideout in the league plays so similar a game to Ward than his injured Arizona counterpart, Boldin, and as unique a player as is Polamalu, Adrian Wilson probably mimics his versatility as closely as any safety.

- No loss is a good loss, but neither was this one tragic. 3-1 is certainly an acceptable start… not a great start, given the schedule, but acceptable. Prior to the domination Pittsburgh displayed against its first three opponents, I doubt many fans would have scoffed at 3-1. What's most important now is that Pittsburgh's injured defensive players get healthy as soon as possible. Well, that, and beating the snot out of Seattle next week. As much rehash whining as Steelers fans will unavoidably endure this week from a certain contingent out west, a nice snot-beating would go a long way toward soothing this past weekend's indigestion.


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