The Pittsburgh Steelers' Christmas elves of 2009 have come to town in the person of the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons. The ecumenical effort to rescue the season of the defending Super Bowl champions broadens this weekend to include the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots. Whereas the goodwill effort to resurrect the 2005 season was limited to opponents of the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, and was a parallel process in conjunction with a four-game Steelers season-ending win streak, this latest initiative must be more extensive, and has been clandestine, commencing operations in the midst of the Steelers' five-game spiral into the abyss.
These Steelers, in dire need of an upset last weekend, found the big present under their tree, delivered direct from Mile High Stadium in Denver where the Raiders vanquished the Broncos. The Steelers, though beneficiaries of league-wide largesse, were still staring at their own coal and ash-filled stocking until it morphed into festive holiday fare on the game's final play versus the Green Bay Packers.
Of course, the final-second heroics were nearly overshadowed by The Great Onside Kick Controversy of 2009. It was a move viewed in some circles as a bone-headed move by Coach Mike Tomlin, akin to trotting his field goal kicker out to attempt a 53-yard field goal two weeks earlier in a venue where no one had ever kicked beyond 51 yards, thus opening the 4th quarter floodgates for the Raiders. Tomlin explained the inexplicable, confessing that he essentially offered the Packers a short field while holding just a two-point lead in the game's final four minutes based on a belief that his swiss cheese 4th quarter defense was not up to the task of stopping their opponent.
And really, who could rightly blame the coach?
* For the 2nd straight Heinz Field Sunday, Dick LeBeau's charges surrendered a trio of 4th quarter touchdowns.
* For the fifth time this season, the defense failed to get off the field at any point in the 4th quarter without allowing a score.
* Twelve times the defense took the field in the final frame against Chicago, the home-and-home against Cincinnati, and most recently against Oakland and Green Bay, and allowed 12 scores.
* This defense last made a 4th quarter stop on their home field prior to the final days of Daylight Savings Time.
* This defense, which has surrendered 123 points (absenting a plethora of returns for touchdowns) through the first three quarters of this year's games, has allowed their opponents 122 fourth quarter points.
* Winning covers alot of warts, and the 19-yard Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace hookup on the game's final play has largely absolved Tomlin, who otherwise might be fleeing Pittsburgh at this hour with vigilantes in hot pursuit. Poor Ike Taylor though, is being held accountable for touching the onside kick prior to it traveling the required 10 yards. Perhaps Ike can't catch when the ball's in the air. Perhaps Ike can't time his jump when the ball's in the air. What Ike did on Sunday though was to make every effort to chase down Jeff Reed's onside attempt, appropriately lacking the tentativeness of placing a marker on the field to check his location prior to grabbing the football. It's the kicker's job to put the ball in the right place; it's Ike's job to go after the ball like a bat out of hell.
* It was a tough day for some on Sunday against the Pack, a magical day for others, most obviously Ben Roethlisberger who enjoyed a record-setting outing. The secondary play of Tyrone Carter continues to be wretched, utterly abysmal. It's about time to have a little celebratory soiree for #23, toast his contributions to a pair of Super Bowl champions, give him a gold watch, a Christmas turkey, then show him the door and tell him to get out. He's been unable to cover, can't tackle, takes bad angles, but certainly knows how to celebrate. Where have you gone, Troy Polamalu? There has to be a better answer than Carter, and the better answer had better be right now. On the offensive side, it was a tough day at the office for beleaguered Max Starks, allowing multiple sacks while drawing a few penalty flags as well. But the left tackle will hopefully offer a solid performance versus Baltimore.
* While Mason Crosby was missing his lone field goal attempt for the Cheeseheads, Reed punched all three of his attempts squarely between the uprights, as well as the game-winning extra point after time had expired. None were extraordinarily long, but they all registered on the scoreboard. After his miserable day in Chicago back in September, Reed has missed only the aforementioned 53-yarder, and a 52-yard attempt in Cincinnati. And he's had no run-ins with the local gendarmes for at least a couple of months. He's dependable in the treacherous confines of Heinz Field, no small accomplishment. Yes, his kickoffs are wanting, but if a roster spot can be devoted to a return specialist who's been no great shakes, why not have a kickoff specialist, and keep a guy like Reed, who can be counted in for the threes.
* Going forward, can this squad who's lost five games in a row, win out, and then, receive more Christmas cheer from their cohorts around the league this Sunday, offering them control of their playoff fate as the New Year is ushered in? And what of their playoff future; would they have a chance at their seventh Lombardi Trophy? Naysayers reference the long-losing skein, stating correctly that no team has ever lost so many consecutively and still won a Super Bowl. Neither though, prior to 2005, had a No. 6 seed ever been to the Promised Land of a Super Bowl Championship.
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