The offensive line is always a series away from implosion, but through the first three weeks, Larry Zierlein's duct-tape held up. Against the Cards, it all went to hell, and I expected more of the same against a better-on-paper Seahawks squad.
Add a hobbled Hines Ward, a no-blocking Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington, and I fully expected Willie Parker to put up another 19 for 37 performance. But a funny thing happened on the way to the bye week: Pittsburgh came out, running at about half strength, and punch Seattle squarely in the mouth. All day long.
The win was possibly the most impressive in the Ben Roethlisberger era. Some of it had to do with the seven or eight other healthy players on the team, but most of it had to do with Big Ben. Think about that for a second: Pittsburgh is 38-15 since 2004, and save the 2005 postseason run, I can't think of one game that was more thoroughly contingent on Roethlisberger putting the team on his back, and saying, "Alrighty folks, nothing to worry about. I'll take care of everything." He looked like he was pressing in the first half -- watching Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington run routes with all the urgency of a geriatric using an ATM machine for the first time will do that, I guess -- but Ben calmed down, found his bearings and started making plays. Which, when you're playing with confidence, is a world away from forcing mistakes.
And he did it without Santonio Holmes AND Hines Ward. Ward wasn't a surprise -- he's been hobbled since Week 3 -- but I was a little shocked to see Holmes on the sidelines yukking it up Bryant McFadden during the first series. I was watching the game with my buddy and I mentioned that Holmes is the healthiest looking injured guy I'd ever seen. Didn't matter to Roethlisberger, though.
One thing I've come to accept is that Big Ben is going to take some sacks. Sometimes, it's on the offensive line, but a lot of times it's on him. It's not a bad thing necessarily, just all part of the package. Roethlisberger has so much confidence in his ability to break tackles, that he's willing to take some chances in the pocket. As a fan, it's enough to make you crazy, but it's something I've just accepted. I prefer this mindset -- "I can't be taken down by just one fat defensive lineman" -- to that of, say, Shaun Alexander, who took more dives on Sunday than Cristiano Ronaldo during the first half of a typical Premiership match. (Not into soccer? How about this: … Shaun Alexander, who took more dives on Sunday than A.C. Slater in "Breaking the Surface: The Greg Louganis Story".) I never thought Alexander was a particularly tough runner, but jeebus, watch out for that strong breeze, dude.
Big Ben seemed to understand that this is his team. No Jerome Bettis (he's from Detroit, by the way), Alan Faneca has stepped down from his leadership role, and Hines Ward was a cheerleader for the second straight week. Roethlisberger was basically forced to step up. I don't know if Mike Tomlin has anything to do with that (anybody see Tomlin's modified Fun Bunch jump into Big Ben during pregame? That's something you'd never, ever, ever see from Bill Cowher … or most coaches for that matter), or if Roethlisberger has finally matured into a leader, but he was running the show Sunday.
For me, this development, which was anything but assured at various point during Big Ben's short career, is a much bigger deal than winning with a roster full of backups. Depth is important, obviously, but you gotta have somebody calling the shots. Right now, that's Tomlin; and Big Ben's his right-hand man.
Perhaps the most amazing thing to come out of the Seahawks game other than Roethlisberger gettin' all growed up was
Early in the game, sometime after Ike Taylor dropped his second pick, but before he nabbed his game-changing end-zone interception, I commented to Andy that one part of Seattle's game plan that didn't change from Super Bowl XL was going after Taylor. Mike Holmgren must've figured that there really is no risk in throwing the ball in Ike's direction when it's one-on-one coverage. The worst that can happen is an incomplete pass. Well, Ike Taylor laughs in your general direction, Mr. Holmgren.
Generally speaking, I cringe whenever Pittsburgh features the rush three, drop eight defense. It means the quarterback has gobs of time to makes decisions, and under those circumstances, even Kyle Boller can complete passes. But Sunday was different. In addition to being without, in my opinion, the team's two best players (Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu, in that order), the coverage was maybe the best I'd ever seen it.
(Who knows if the game plan would've been different with a completely healthy roster. I'd assume yes simply because I've NEVER seen this scheme used for an extended period with LeBeau pulling the strings. Maybe that had more to do with Cowher's influence over the play calling, or, as was suggested in the Football Outsiders game thread, this new-fangled look could've been Tomlin's first real contribution to the defense. Whatever, I'd love to know the origins of the game plan -- especially if Tomlin was instrumental in its implementation.)
For now, though, the Steelers are 4-1 and have a week to get some guys healthy. More important than that, the rest of the teams on Pittsburgh's schedule just had their "I swallowed a bug" moment after watching the LeBeau All-Stars dismantle a pretty good offensive team using a shiny, new scheme. And most important of all, Ben Roethlisberger emerged as the leader of this bunch. Not because some media type said so, or the coach suggested it might be a swell idea, but because he put this team on his back and carried them. Virtual high-fives all around.