My thoughts, for what they're worth

Ia Whetstone stomachs another look at the agita-inducing disappointment that was Steelers-Broncos.

- Ugh. I waited two weeks (and all day Sunday) for that? I suppose I should count my blessings that this game and the Seattle game weren't played in reverse order, and Steeler Nation wasn't gnashing its teeth, wearing sackcloth and throwing dirt upon its head for two whole weeks over the bye.

- And the opening drive seemed so promising. Third-and-seven, Ben Roethlisberger lofts a 40-yarder to Nate Washington, looking more like the Washington who posted some of the best production among all third receivers last season than the one who had fans clamoring for Willie Reid to get more chances a few weeks ago.

- Ike, Ike, Ike… how can you follow up a brilliant effort against the Seahawks by allowing such a soft touchdown to Brandon Stokley, the opening salvo of Stokley's best performance since 2005? Don't get me wrong, I love Ike Taylor, and he posted a reasonably good game apart from that play—not a stellar game, but a decent game—but that was a terrible time to allow such a play to give the opening-drive points right back, on third-and-long, by way of a wideout against whom he possesses every physical advantage in the world.

- Speaking of guys I like who gave up plays, I really don't want to see James Harrison running downfield with a tight end. Or two steps behind a tight end, as the case seemed to be. Harrison offers a nice bull rush, and he pursues the ball-carrier very effectively, to the point that he leads the team in both total and solo tackles. But among the linebackers, only James Farrior has shown a consistent ability to match up against a legitimate pass-catcher in anything more than a short zone.

- I don't know if the pass rush disappointed more, or the fact that every short drag route seemed to go completely uncovered. I'll call it a tie.

- The accidental hit on Aaron Smith's knee by teammate Travis Kirschke looked innocuous enough. Here's hoping that the injury proves to be no more damaging than the hit appeared.

- I blame myself for Jay Cutler's 31-yard-dash to setup Denver's second score. I noted two weeks ago that QB scrambles had accounted for a full quarter of the relatively meager rushing yardage the Steelers had yet allowed. I can only assume that Mike Shanahan read that, and devised a game plan wherein Cutler would crush my hopes and dreams with a full third of Denver's total rushing yards on one timely scamper.

- Hines Ward looked, through most of two quarters, like a guy who hadn't played football in a month; he snagged just one of the first five passes thrown his way, and that came on a WR screen. He turned back into the real Hines Ward at around the first-half two minute warning, and caught six balls on seven targets the rest of the way (plus another wiped out by a holding penalty), but it's a shame that it took a botched third-and-three and a tipped interception to get back to that point.

- Okay, ummm… what happened to the run? The Steelers took the league's most productive running offense into Denver, with the league's best run-blocking receiver newly returned to the field, up against a defense that singlehandedly revived LaMont Jordan's career… and declined to feed them a steady diet of Willie Parker. I understand the rationale for working counter to expectations, but when you pick up seven yards on first down, run the damn ball at least once in the next two. Yes, they've been successful building first-half leads through the air, and yes, we saw some of Fast Jekyll and Willie Hyde with 80 yards on five carries, and just 13 on the other 16 totes, but I can't shake the feeling that getting too cutesy with the game plan cost them an opportunity to stay out of a semi-track meet that they eventually lost.

- Dre' Bly may not be Champ Bailey, but he put on a pretty good show in his absence. As I imagine was the case for many Steelers fans, I didn't see a whole lot of the former Lions and Rams corner during his NFC days. $33 million over five years is too much to pay a 30-year-old DB, but he's giving Denver some solid coverage for their money. He locked Santonio Holmes down when lined up against him, at any rate.

- The pass to Holmes that Bly picked off was not one on which Roethlisberger should have taken the gamble. Holmes has shown that he can be a legitimate deep threat, but he needs to create separation from the defender to do so, because he doesn't have the kind of body to snatch away a ball up in the air. With Bly in his hip pocket, Holmes would have had a chance only at a perfectly-thrown ball, and that kind of pinpoint deep accuracy is not Roethlisberger's strongest suit.

- Of course, making plays and generally being awesome are very much Roethlisberger's strong suits. Consider what a strong game it takes to post a 108 passer rating despite two picks, never mind in the face of a consistently heavy rush. Not since Steve McNair's co-MVP season has the league seen such a dynamic escape artist under center. It'd almost be a shame to see him get better protection in the pocket and miss out on the shrugging and side-stepping. Yeah… almost.

- Hey, if Roethlisberger got pocket protection, maybe he'd also draw a roughing the passer flag occasionally. You know, not necessarily at the Peyton Manning "sneeze on his sock and get slapped for fifteen" level, but at least for the more egregious violations of the violent crimes penal code that currently go uncalled.

- Anthony Smith still has ball skills, and probably the best hands in Pittsburgh's secondary. With as much playing time as he sees, it was just a matter of time before he showed up in the big play column again.

- I never had a problem with the Steelers using Heath Miller sparingly as a receiver, but I certainly won't complain about how they're using him now. He's growing into one of the more valuable offensive players on the team, period. Such consistency catching the ball combined with rare drive-blocking ability among the true receiving threats at the position makes him an extremely valuable commodity.

- Miller's first touchdown highlighted his completeness as a tight end. On second-and-one at the goal line, Roethlisberger bootlegs to his right after a play-action fake. Miller, in selling the play-action, blocks DE John Engelberger out wide for a solid two seconds before releasing, dropping to the goal line, and turning for the quick strike and the score. That's beautiful play design, and he faked a better block than most TEs can manage on an actual running play.

- Pittsburgh gave up a return touchdown to Arizona, and lost by seven. They allowed a fumble return by Denver, and lost by three. There's no real mystery, here; they're good enough to squash a hell of a lot of teams when they don't give up easy points, and vulnerable enough to lose to mediocre teams when they do.

- It was a disappointing loss coming off of the bye week, up against an opponent with every matchup and every bit of mid-week news seeming to favor a Steelers victory. But, all told, 4-2 still leaves them in good position within the division. They also still look handily like the best team in the AFC North, between Baltimore's putrid offense, Cincy's atrocious defense, and the two automatic annual wins against Cleveland. It makes the coming game in Cincinnati loom that much larger, though, as a loss would truly throw the division back up for grabs, and sink the Steelers into the murky depths of the fair-to-middlin' teams around the league.


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