That was sufficiently frustrating. I've come to grips with the fact that the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive line is strictly ornamental, and that for the most part, Ben Roethlisberger is on his own. But for the first time all season, I was actually embarrassed. For the second straight week, the Steelers came out flat, and for the second straight week, needing only one first down late in the game to sew up the win, the o-line couldn't come through. That's a mockery, folks. I'm sure Jerome Bettis was shaking his head in the NBC studios, wondering where it all went wrong. I usually try to temper my reactionary rhetoric, preferring to wait for the light of day to make grand proclamations. Desperate times, I guess.
Offensively, there seemed to be three fundamental problems with Sunday's game plan. First, the offensive line is a joke. And not a Chris Rock joke; I'm thinking more like Carrot Top. But we already knew that. Second, Bruce Arians called possibly the worst game this side of the 2003 season, that memorable 6-10 campaign that saw Mike Mularkey get exactly what he deserved: the Buffalo Bills head coaching job. Third, I don't have scientific proof, but I think Willie Parker is a mental case.
Offensive line. We can talk until Kendall Simmons decides not to get blown up at the line of scrimmage about all the issues plaguing this unit, but it's kind of like complaining that the sun rises in the east or that Brian Billick has yet to work his offensive wizardry in Baltimore: everybody is aware of said facts, and there's not much you can do about it. The Steelers are basically checkmated when it comes to moving around the chess pieces to shore up the line. Chris Kemoeatu could replace Simmons, but then what? Sean Mahan still looks overmatched at times, and Matt Spaeth still can't block. There is Max Starks, the "third tight end," but he can't even do that without earning a holding penalty.
Coming into the game, the Jets had registered nine sacks all season; in just over 60 minutes of action, they had seven more. Last year, this would bother me; now I realize that this is the bad that comes with the good when talking about Big Ben, coupled with the no-blocking scheme Pittsburgh's o-line now features. He's going to hold the ball, trying to extend plays, and that inevitably will lead to more sacks. I wondered last week how Roethlisberger would manage behind a line that could actually pass block when he was forced to stay in the pocket. The Patriots had some success with the in-the-pocket strategy during the 2004 AFC Championship game. We saw glimpses of Pocketberger against the Jets, and you know what, he was awesome. At one point midway through the third quarter, Big Ben was 11 of 12 between the tackles. But that had less to do with five linemen working together, giving their quarterback time to make a play, than it did with a conscious defensive strategy to contain Roethlisberger. If you're looking for a positive from the game, there you go: Ben is good in the pocket.
I have no idea how the Steelers fix the offensive line, though. It is what it is, and right now, it's going to get the quarterback killed.
Bruce Arians. There had been some rumblings in previous losses that Arians was suspect with the play-calling. I wasn't willing to indict the guy -- I thought he had done a solid job during the first half of the season. But after watching runs on 2nd and 10, and wrap-around draw plays on 3rd and forever, I was hoping the NFL would randomly select Arians for a drug test after the game. And it wasn't just running on 2nd down, or handing off on third down, it was the play-calling progression that left me staring slack-jawed in the general direction of the television.
Remember after the Broncos loss, Roethlisberger said Denver showed a lot of Cover-2 looks, something they hadn't done all year, and the Steelers had a tough time adjusting? The Jets gave the Steelers various gimmicky looks to start the game, and predictably, there were no answers. I'm not smart enough to know who's responsible for what on Pittsburgh's staff, but Arians is the head coach of the offense, so I'm guessing the buck stops with him. To the team's credit, the halftime fixed seemed to work. Pittsburgh came out in the third quarter and moved the ball. And if not for this sequence to end the drive:
1-10-NYJ 12: 39-W.Parker right end to NYJ 14 for -2 yards.
2-12-NYJ 14: 39-W.Parker left guard to NYJ 17 for -3 yards.
3-15-NYJ 17: (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger sacked at NYJ 19 for -2 yards.
The Steelers might've gone up 17-13, and the game could've turned out differently. We'll never know. It shouldn't have taken 30 minutes to work out the kinks. Against a better team, there is no coming back.
Willie Parker. There are only so many times I can watch Parker run up the middle for a half-yard gain. Or worse, fall down in the backfield. For the rest of the season, or until he makes it through 60 minutes of football without tripping untouched, I'll be referring to him as "Skates." Which, you may remember, is what they used to call former Phillies outfielder Lonnie Smith. So I was understandably psyched when Najeh Davenport came in midway through the second quarter and took over the rushing duties. He moved the pile, broke a few nice runs, and looked much more confident than Parker. But inexplicably, Davenport got his last carry with 10:21 to go in the fourth quarter. He converted a 3rd and 1 … and that's the last we heard of him. Parker, who had done bupkes up to that point, was back in, and proceeded to gain nine yards on five carries during the Steelers' final three possessions of regulation. Possessions, by the way, that really could've benefited from some hard running and a few first downs, since Pittsburgh only held a three-point lead. That Davenport had had success and Parker … well, hadn't, made it all the more mystifying that Skates got the call late in the fourth quarter.
Part of me thinks that Parker tries so hard to prove everybody wrong, that he sometimes loses sight of the near-term goal; namely: moving the pile forward. He's been in a funk since the Ravens stonewalled him. Of course, I know less about psychology than I do about football, so that should clue you in to my qualifications on passing judgment on such matters, but even if Parker has a clean bill of health mentally, he's still running like crap. And whether it's him, the offensive line, or just bad luck, I have no idea why the Steelers went away from Davenport late in the fourth quarter.
That's not the only reason the team loss; it's part of it, for sure, along with the aforementioned offensive line, the play-calling, special teams, and a Jekyll and Hyde defense.
We can kid ourselves into thinking this team is better than the 2005 version, but right now, everybody in the NFL situated outside of Foxboro is playing for second place. And if the Steelers don't work out the kinks over the next six weeks, they won't be playing for second place either.
The Steelers are schizo
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