For Mike Tomlin, it's go time

Anthony Smith's mouth isn't why the Pittsburgh Steelers lost Sunday, his legs were. The team's true test will come against the Jaguars. A win and the team is primed for the postseason; a loss and Steeler Nation takes one step closer to the ledge.

I don't take issue with Anthony Smith's mid-week guarantee. For starters, it's not like he grabbed a reporter's microphone, stood up on his locker room chair, and started screaming, "WE ARE GOING THROUGH NEW ENGLAND LIKE SHERMAN THROUGH ATLANTA! I GUARANTEE IT!" If you read his comments, Smith prefaced his guarantee with some caveats. He talked about the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense playing well and the special teams doing its job. If you have even a passing interest in tackle football, you know that assuring victory contingent on Pittsburgh's special teams not bungling something is kind of like Jeff Reed promising to keep his shirt on while having a few pops at the local watering hole. Yeah, right.

Also, it's worth remembering what Smith does for a living. He dresses up in a funny outfit and runs full speed into fat guys, while yelling and screaming. It's not like he's a middle manager who just showed up at the Wednesday staff meeting and out of nowhere starting ranting and raving about some work-related inanity. Which, if we're being honest, is exactly what that guarantee was.

What does bother me about Sunday's game, though, is that Anthony Smith, all by himself, took the Steelers -- and Steeler Nation -- right out of that game shortly after halftime. The Moss-to-Brady-to-Gaffney hook-up broke Pittsburgh's will. Or at least it seemed that way given how the final 25 minutes played out. Maybe it was the visual of Smith chasing Gaffney into the end zone, and then coming within a fingertip of breaking up the inevitable. This close.

And while it sure looked like the Patriots were picking on Smith, I think it had more to do with New England doing what they do better than any team in the NFL: exploiting opponents' weaknesses. For the Steelers' defense, that conversation begins and ends with the secondary. Specifically, the safeties. I like both Smith and Tyrone Carter, but neither are full-time starters. If anybody still had doubts why Ryan Clark was the free safety coming out of training camp, Sunday's beatdown was Exhibit A. Off the top of my head, I don't remember Clark getting beat deep once in his Steelers career, and he is just as stout against the run as Smith. This may all be moot, of course, if Clark isn't able to fully recover from having his spleen removed.

In the meantime, Smith is the guy. You just wonder if he'll learn anything from the experience. I'd like to say yes, but this is the same dude who caused Dick LeBeau to blow a gasket during last year's Carolina game … and didn't seem to care. So who knows.

Smith's performance aside, the Steelers' defense played about as well as could be expected during the first 30 minutes. They were able to pressure Brady, force him to get rid of the ball before he wanted to, and control the line of scrimmage. That's encouraging … but Pittsburgh still trailed 17-14 at the half. That should give you some indication as to how good this Patriots offense is. And don't misunderstand, I'd rather write anything -- Brian Billick is an offensive mastermind, T.J. Houshmandzadeh was right to clean his shoes with the Terrible Towel, Philips Rivers isn't the biggest nerd in the NFL -- instead of heaping praise on the Pats. But look, let's face facts, we're watching some high-level football. And for two quarters, Pittsburgh was able to trade punches with New England. It's a modest start. Certainly no reason to schedule a parade, but anybody who tells you they were surprised the Pats put up 34 points either isn't being honest, or they think it's 2000.

I thought Dale Lolley's observation was illuminating: "The Steelers were 0-for-3 in the red zone Sunday and lost by 21 points. You do the math." I'm not big on moral victories, but even though the Steelers did score three points in those three trips, it's a telling stat. I'm not willing to concede a Pittsburgh victory if they convert all three red-zone opportunities -- Anthony Smith just wouldn't have allowed it, I think -- but it could portend good things over the next two months: like the fact that the Steelers were able to get into the red zone to start with. The offense was out of sync in the second half, primarily because it was playing catch-up, but the first half was pretty impressive.

Ben Roethlisberger continues to make his case for one of the NFL's best quarterbacks. For some absurd reason, conventional wisdom dictates that the way to contain Big Ben (literally and figuratively) is to keep him in the pocket. Well, if the idea is to prevent him from improvising and just let him carve up defenses from between the tackles, then yes, by all means, contain away. Roethlisberger is quite comfortable taking a five-step drop and getting the ball out of his hand as his back foot hits the turf on step No. 5.

For most of the season, Big Ben's been on his own back there; the offensive line has been mediocre at best. But against the Patriots -- save Mike Vrabel beating Willie Colon a few times, and a nifty Vince Wilfork spin move to beat a double-team -- I thought the offensive line had its best game of the year. Steelers fans have been lamenting two things all season: the o-line and special teams. Well, hopefully, we can, Earl Hickey-style, mark one more thing off our list. (Good luck with special teams, though.)

I was bellyaching last week about Willie Parker's mental problems, and I owe him an apology. He played like it was the first half of the season, ran hard, and didn't seem skittish after the Miami debacle. He dropped an easy dump-off pass, but give Arians credit for finally putting Parker in a situation to have that opportunity. He runs a 4.3-something -- it stands to reason that he can probably beat a dime back/safety/linebacker down the field. Might want to incorporate that into a few more game plans.

Although the media would have you think this was just about Anthony Smith, there are some things to feel good about in the aftermath of a 21-point loss. (By the way, you gotta love Jim Nantz's righteously indignant take on the pervasive ills of smack-talking in sports. He claimed that today's players are of the "any pub is good pub" mindset, and offered ESPN plastering Smith's mug all over the airwaves for four days as proof. Yes, Jim, because the networks would in no way be responsible for trying to drive ratings. The only thing more shocking than your mock exasperation was the fact that you didn't pimp the latest "Survivor" episode in between self-righteous breaths. Sheesh.)

Ultimately, this was just one of 16 regular-season contests. Sunday's Jaguars game counts just as much in the standings, and how the Steelers respond will probably be more indicative of what we can expect for the rest of 2007 than a 34-13 loss to the league's best team. In a way, this feels a lot like the 2005 season, when Pittsburgh, 12 weeks into the season and sporting a 7-5 record, faced the very real possibility of missing the playoffs.

This year is different -- Pittsburgh is 9-4 and leading the AFC North -- but blowouts have a way of creating an underdog mentality even when logic suggests otherwise. It was the '05 Monday night game against the Colts that left a lot of slack-jawed Steelers fans wondering what to make of a once-promising start to the year. The circumstances were different last Sunday, but the bottom line is the same: it's not that you got punched in the mouth, it's how you bounce back from getting punched in the mouth. We know how that movie ended. But the year before, it was just the opposite: Pittsburgh smoked the Patriots 34-20 in the regular season and got smacked around in the AFC Championship game. Remember: it's not a sprint. And Mike Tomlin knows as much.

In the moments following the loss to New England, here's what the first-year head coach's Michael Silver:

Given the Pittsburgh Steelers' breakdowns in performance and composure in [Sunday's defeat], Mike Tomlin had every right to be seething mad, perhaps even a bit despondent.

If so, the 35-year-old rookie coach did a hell of a job hiding his emotions. When asked shortly before boarding the team bus what he'd learned about his team, Tomlin answered calmly and thoughtfully: "It's more about how we respond to it – that's what will really be revealing. We know what happened (Sunday). We got out butts kicked. Now, how do we react?" It's not always about yelling and screaming. Sometimes it's more than that. Let's just hope this week is one of those times.

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