The defining moment of the Steelers' season came with 11:16 remaining in the 3rd quarter of Monday Night's matchup with the Denver Broncos. Victimized by an enemy touchdown return for the sixth straight game, the Steelers answered with "Shock & Awe," traversing 80 yards of Mile High sod in four plays, a drive as precise as it was sudden. The proverbial "Sleeping Dog" of the Steelers' offense, stirring from an early evening Mile High nap, had been poked with a stick and awoke, fully enraged.
The ills that have haunted the defending Super Bowl Champions, even throughout their perfect Oktoberfest, have not been cured, but were significantly ameliorated. Rather than a 4th Quarter Meltdown, there was a 3rd Quarter Hang-Around as the Steelers had the Broncos on the ropes but were not delivering the knockout blow. The Steelers' trio of 3rd Quarter possessions brought drives of 50, 80 and 82 yards, and while only the middle one, sandwiched between a pair of book-ended turnovers, produced points, one had the sense that this time the four-point lead was safe. The Broncos' offense, under the direction of Popgun Kyle Orton, and the tutelage of Head Cheerleader Josh McDaniel (why does Mike Tomlin seems so much older and wizened than his thirty-something counterpart?) could seemingly have played all night in the thin Mile High air and not produced another point.
In a tale of two halves, the Denver offense that had moved smartly for a field goal on their initial possession, held the ball for only 20 second-half plays, and produced only three first downs, all on first down throws. The Steeler offense, unable to cross the midfield stripe while running 18 first half plays, moved the ball seemingly at will after intermission, gouging the Orange Crush defense for big gains.
In Denver, the 4th Quarter was but the exclamation point on a night of complete and utter domination by the Steelers, with the offense ending their evening by moving 73 yards in 11 plays, Tyrone Carter bagging his second interception in relief of Ryan Clark, and James Harrison continuing to wreak devastation on the opposition.
A few more observations on The Beatdown at Mile High:
* The Steelers' run game was there for the taking all night long. Even the staid first half, in which the Black & Gold produced only 25 rushing yards, witnessed their doing so in six carries. It wasn't until the initial 3rd-quarter possession that the Steelers ran on consecutive plays. Rashard Mendenhall ripped off runs of 24, 28, 36 & 18 yards in the second half. The second-year back, who gains the edge oh so quickly and with considerable power, still yields to ball security as an Achilles' heel. He very nearly gave up the ball preceding the Mike Wallace touchdown, and arguably did cede possession in the shadow of the Broncos' goalposts at game's end, though replay did not come to the aid of the home team.
* Conversely, Fast Willie Parker is now Fast Becoming Obscure Willie Parker. Told by his coach in this contract year to "put it on tape," last night's tape consisted of a cameo appearance with Parker on the field for a single offensive play and no stat sheet entry, this following a 1-for-2 performance against Minnesota.
* Limas Sweed Flu did enter the fray for the oxygen-deprived Wallace on two 3rd-quarter possessions, these being the only 2nd half possessions that did not produce points or chunks of yardage. Sweed was thrown to once. He didn't drop the pass. But neither did he catch it. He did participate on special teams, and made the stat sheet via being flagged for holding. Sweed's effort was diligent, however, and fact is, his team at this juncture, does fine without his stepping up big as a receiving threat.
* The other receivers? Santonio Holmes prepared for the rarified Denver air by sleeping all week in a chamber that sounds like a giant humidor or a high-tech coffin. Hines Ward showed no signs of slowing down, leapfrogging the erstwhile Champ Bailey on his way to the end zone for the final score And Wallace played well.
* The Steelers ran their base offense of three or more wide receivers on 37 of 59 offensive plays (excluding a pair of kneeldowns), and lined up three tight ends to the same side on eight plays over their final two possessions. The 3rd tight end, in the presence of D.J. Johnson, was in the game for an additional six plays, but one of the tights was lined up as a fullback on those plays. The Steelers ran their two-tight end, two wide-receiver set on eight plays. Mendenhall was an Equal Opportunity Runner, ripping off his four long-gainers from all sets with the exception of the two-tight with fullback topping variety. Of the Steelers' 29 passing plays, 25 came out of the multiple wide-receiver sets, as did all three sacks of Roethlisberger.
Next up for the Steelers is their rematch with the Cincinnati Bengals for AFC North supremacy. For the 6th straight year, they enter the Heinz Field version of this 40-year, home-and-home rivalry, on short rest.
-- The Steelers played Sunday night in a Miami deluge in '04, prior to returning home to beat the Bengals.
-- In both ‘05 and '06, the Black & Gold lost away Monday nighters and were then defeated by the Bengals at Heinz Field.
-- In '07, the Steelers defeated Miami in a Monday night home quagmire prior to beating the Bengals in the same venue six days later.
-- And finally, both teams had an abbreviated week in '08, playing on a chilly Thursday night, with the Steelers coming out on top.
For more by Dave Villiotti, check out We're From the Town with the Great Football Team: A Pittsburgh Steelers Manifestoas well as We Cheer the Pittsburgh Steelers: The ‘70s, available at both www.amazon.com and www.lulu.com