My thoughts, for what they're worth

Okay, that's three up, three down on the 2007 mid-season intra-divisional tour, and it leaves little doubt as to the top dog in the AFC North. Ten weeks in, that's a pretty good situation for Pittsburgh.

- I'm not one to question play calling very often, but a WR reverse option on third-and-two? Really? It's the Browns. Line up and run the ball, or throw a quick slant out of the shotgun.

- Joe Jurevicius, on Cleveland's first third down, broke away from a James Farrior tackle just enough to squeak out a conversion. Jurevicius made a good play, but that's not the kind of offensive attack that's likely to be sustained against the Steelers for four quarters; for one thing, Farrior won't let very many tackles slip away like that.

- Well, the inevitable costly Anthony Smith taunting penalty finally showed up. I should probably be happy that it came playing a team against which they were clearly good enough to overcome such mistakes.

- After Cleveland made the score 21-6 in the first half, Pittsburgh saw their opening play of the next drive wiped out by an illegal block. The subsequent ten-yard run by Willie Parker on first-and-20 came back on a downfield hold. The third attempt at first down picked up a decent seven-yard chunk on a pass to Santonio Holmes, and the Steelers proceeded to score points on the drive. That sequence, even considering the score, really crystallized in my mind how overmatched Cleveland was, and convinced me that Pittsburgh would be able to overcome its own gaffes throughout the game.

- Let's hear it for Ike Taylor and the rest of the secondary. The pass rush generated very little pressure, but they covered a pretty decent group of downfield threats all day, shutting down completely the deep field, and almost all of the intermediate routes.

- I hear talk of the great half-time adjustments that made the difference in the defense's effectiveness, but I'm not sure what exactly those adjustments were supposed to be. I know that they didn't decide to blitz less, and drop more men into coverage. In the first half, by my count, Cleveland tried 17 pass plays. On those 17 plays, the Steelers rushed a conventional four men nine times, five men four times, three men twice, and six men and just two men once each. On 15 second-half pass plays, they rushed four men four times, five men six times, three men four times, and six men once. If anything, they blitzed slightly more in the second half, despite no more significant success getting to Derek Anderson.

- My sense of things is that Pittsburgh played a pretty good defensive game plan right from the start; it just worked out better in the second half. Against an inaccurate passer like Anderson, it makes sense to force him to complete a bunch of shorter throws consistently in order to drive down the field. It just so happened that he strung most of his third down conversions together in Cleveland's opening drive, and saw extremely short fields on the other two scoring drives.

- Let's hear it for Pittsburgh's kick coverage. Um… not. I can think of no current player who more thoroughly deserves the moniker of "Steeler killer" than Joshua Cribbs. Not since last week's fall of the Steve McNair empire, at any rate.

- Pittsburgh's pass rush couldn't get through Cleveland's offensive line, but that unit will stone a lot of defenses in pass protection. Joe Thomas and Kevin Shaffer comprise a formidable tackle tandem, on par with any in the league. With that line, those receiving weapons, and a non-existent defense, Cleveland reminds me of Cincinnati before Carson Palmer took the reins, when the offensive supporting cast made even Jon Kitna effective. Hell, they've even got Eric Steinbach in the mix.

- What a game by Hines Ward. The stat line simply doesn't do it any justice. That was the same Ward who I remember from 2004, when he caught an astonishing 74% of the passes thrown to him in what I regard as his best career season, bailing out some iffy passes with great grabs: along the sideline for Ben Roethlisberger's first throw of the day, contorting to snag a ball behind him, invoking his playoff game in 2002 against Cleveland by crashing through two defenders for extra yards on a third down conversion.

- The pass-catchers really seem to be clicking with Roethlisberger, and settling into some very effective roles. Holmes provides the deep threat to open up Ward for the underneath possession stuff, moving the chains along with fellow red zone target Heath Miller. With those top three guys all very reliable—they're hauling in a combine 69% of the passes thrown to them—Nate Washington doesn't necessarily have to be. Chris Henry isn't a dangerous component of Cincinnati's passing attack on the basis of reliability, not with a career catch rate under 54%; he's dangerous because he can make a big play when defenses clamp down on the starters. Washington provides a similar type of option.

- I don't know how it's working against opposing defenses, but Roethlisberger's improved play action motion certainly seems to be fooling my eyes more frequently.

- That was a nice play by Brodney Pool to pick Roethlisberger off just over the outstretched arms of Holmes.

- Is there a record kept for the most tackles in a season by an offensive player following interceptions? Because, for serious, Miller must be on pace to shatter it. Roethlisberger has thrown just seven picks to date, and Miller has tackled the interceptor on, what, like twelve of them. Hey, maybe he should cover kicks.

- I don't know whether Miller contributes more to his team than Kellen Winslow does for his, but I can say with confidence that Todd Heap is now the third-best tight end in the division. It's not just the catches, the sure-handedness, the red zone presence, and the outstanding blocking; it's his field awareness, and the post-interception tackles, while a funny stat, pay tribute to it. He's just such a heads-up kind of player, as when he recovered what could have been a disastrous Roethlisberger fumble in Pittsburgh territory early in the second half.

- I've been critical of Winslow's run-blocking on the pro level, largely because he seemed so much better at it, and so much more interested in doing it, in college. He managed to block Clark Haggans just enough, though, to put him in Farrior's way and prevent defense of the goal line touchdown to Lawrence Vickers. He also made a nice move to interfere with Troy Polamalu on what could have been an interception, while making it look like incidental contact on an attempt to play the ball.

- What a terrific play by Polamalu to break up an otherwise-easy catch by Winslow to open the second half of play. That wasn't just a batted pass, it was a batted catch, settled firmly between Winslow's hand, and could have set the second half off with the same unfortunate momentum Cleveland had enjoyed to that point.

- Brett Keisel then kept the second-half defensive mojo rolling by batting down the next pass from Anderson. Can there possibly be a player on Pittsburgh's roster whose stats do less justice to the impact he makes on defense? Through nine games, 17 total tackles and zero sacks look pretty abysmal, even for a 3-4 end. He's playing good football, though, and his six batted passes attest to the pressure he's bringing. In fact, no DE anywhere in the league boasts more passes defensed.

- Of course, Calamity James Harrison can make up for the other types of statistical plays. Whattaya want, forced fumbles? Here, have two more.

- Catch first, then run. I'm looking at you, Matt Spaeth. An easier ball than that, you may never see at the pro level.

- Roethlisberger threw for a healthy 278 yards, and remarkably, no more than 22 of them came on any single play. I guess you can average 8.2 yards per pass attempt despite no really long completions when 17 of your 34 throws go for at least ten yards. Along with about a million other areas of growth, he's becoming very adept at taking the throws that the defense makes available. Throw deep? No problem. Throw intermediate? No problem. Dump off? No problem. Throw from the pocket, move out of the pocket, under heavy rush… no problem.

- If Cleveland was an opponent against whom the Steelers had the ability to overcome mistakes, the New York Jets should be that much more so. That doesn't mean I'm at all eager to see them overcome any such mistakes, of course, and I surely hope that the Steelers take no road opponent lightly. I can't like the matchup against Leon Washington in the return game any, right?


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