Restoring the pride

The Steelers allowed seven sacks to the lowly New York Jets and lost in overtime on Sunday. Should the line be benched? Should the coach be blamed? Should a life be sacrificed? Nothing of the sort, writes Jim Wexell.

One of the benefits of the internet age is that football fans are no longer at the mercy of grudge-holding sportswriters who watch the game once – live and while on deadline – and stick to the opinions formed from that brief view.

The funny part is they actually think they know what they're looking at.

In the old days, the myths they created became legend, only because they wanted them to. But we now have writers who re-watch the game, and most of the time in slow-motioned, TiVo'd, high-definition detail.

One of those writers pens an O-line breakdowns column every week and it appears in my mailbox within 48 hours of the game. The writer is J.J. Cooper and he does what few of us want to: He reviews every member of the line on every play.

But J.J. has yet to write this week, possibly – and this is just a guess -- in the fear he'll be mocked for reporting that the tape shows an O-line that really wasn't as bad as we all thought it to be.

I had thought the O-line was bad. After this past game I let loose a few salvos in a column, and the funny part was I pretended to think that I knew what I was looking at.

So after a few days of waiting for the O-line breakdown column that never came, I thought it best that I watch, rewind, jot, watch, rewind, jot, watch, rewind, jot in the form of my own breakdown. And I was astounded by what I saw. In fact, as my emotions calm, I realize this is not the great season-breaking loss most fans and media are making it out to be.

So get out your crayons everyone and prepare to write me some nasty notes, but I feel as if I must make the following excuses for the play of the O-line in particular and the Steelers in general following the loss to the Jets:

1. First of all, the Jets aren't that bad. My guess is we'll learn that soon enough. This was a playoff team last year with a candy-armed quarterback named Chad Pennington and a fading running back named Kevan Barlow. This former playoff team made the right move a few weeks ago by going with a young, strong-armed, mobile quarterback and Kellen Clemens came out of the bye week by living up to all of the potential he'd flashed at the University of Oregon a few years ago. Barlow, of course, was let go by the Jets after 2006 and even the RB-starved Steelers let him go in the first round of cuts this summer. He'd been replaced in New York by the hard-running Thomas Jones, last seen rushing for over 100 yards in the Super Bowl for the Chicago Bears. On defense, the Jets brought back all of the players who had more than one sack last season, added two stud rookies in LB David Harris and CB Darrelle Revis, but for some reason struggled through half a season. Some blamed video-gate. Some blamed the veteran QB who is certainly near the end of his career. But on Sunday, the Jets looked like that playoff team, and a playoff team that had made drastic improvement at QB, RB, LB, and CB. The reason they were 1-8 coming into Sunday's game is not my column to write. All I know is that Steelers fans and media believe that record translates into a horrendous loss by their team. But in my mind, if Clemens plays like this the rest of the season, other teams' fans and media will be feeling similar angst.

2. The Jets were coming off the bye and reverted back to their 2006 blitzing style. Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians figured they would, but still didn't have his passing game ready for it, and we'll get to that in a minute. But the Jets came out with a new blitz by Harris that worked twice in the first half before the Steelers adjusted. The Jets also used Shaun Ellis at OLB in their 3-4 as a curveball. It's not something they'll lean on the rest of the way because teams will test Ellis in pass coverage. But for this game, it was a master stroke. Now, back to the bye. The Jets were among the last wave of bye teams this season. All four of them won and the other three won big: Houston beat New Orleans 23-10; Tampa Bay won at Atlanta, 31-7; and of course New England won at Buffalo, 56-10. Last year, the last wave of bye teams went 3-1 off the bye, highlighted by the Jets' 17-14 win at New England – WITH KEVAN BARLOW AT RUNNING BACK! Sorry about that, but the only team to lose off the last bye last season was Arizona, and they were who we thought they were. It's not difficult to understand why the last wave of bye teams would be at an advantage. Next year, this will be the great betting trend and half the people raving about the Steelers' loss right now will ride it and profit.

3. Speaking of betting on football, you won't lose over the course of the year if you only pick teams that are better in your favorite statistical categories AND have the emotional edge against an opponent that particular week. If you bet the Steelers against the Jets, you bet on a team that had a 3-game lead in its division, was coming off a 3-game stretch against rivals, and was playing a 1-8 team coming off the latest bye week of the season. Shame on you for listening to the media if you did bet the Steelers minus 10 points.

4. Now, about the city's red-headed stepchild, the offensive line. The Steelers allowed seven sacks. The first sacker (3rd-8) was unblocked and none of the four receivers turned hot. The second (3rd-10), third (3rd-15) and fourth (2nd-10) sacks were coverage sacks. Willie Colon got beat on the fifth sack (3rd-13). Tight end Matt Spaeth (3rd-2) was responsible for the sixth sack. And Sean Mahan got beat for the seventh sack (2nd-7). Mahan, who's on his way to being every bit the center the overly remembered Jeff Hartings was, tried quietly to tell reporters after the game that Dewayne Robertson was moved around the line, and that he'd only allowed the last sack. But Mahan was ignored and is now being lambasted by people who haven't watched the tape. It was Mahan's best game, and it might've been the best game played by Kendall Simmons and Colon as well. The quarterback took too many seven-step drops, held the ball way too long, and probably wasn't getting much help from his receivers. In fact, after deep threat Santonio Holmes left the game early in the fourth quarter, Ben Roethlisberger completed only one pass – the ridiculous screen to Najeh Davenport – of four attempts, fumbled twice, was sacked three times, took a knee, and gave up on third-and-17.

5. The running backs are the biggest problem on this team right now. Willie Parker must be hurting, because the lanes were there and he missed them. Watch the tape. It also appears he has little confidence in his vision because he's cutting back when he shouldn't and vice versa. Parker was outplayed by the unremarkable Davenport, because, as has been pointed out, the lanes were there and Davenport plodded through them. The truth is, the poor play of the backs set up the Jets' pass rush all day long.

At his weekly press conference, Mike Tomlin's first lament was his team's inability to run the ball in the final five minutes of the game. Think this team misses a true hammer like Jerome Bettis? Nah. It's the center.


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