Thursday, October 11, 2012

THURSDAY NIGHT T & R (thoughts & revelations)

The Pittsburgh Steelers have traveled outside of their home town three times this year, and three times they've come home losers. In the opening weekend against Denver, the Steelers fell victim once again to the team that cut short the 2011 playoff run. With Peyton Manning at the helm, it seemed somewhat forgivable. The next two losses at Oakland and Tennessee, not so much. The recipe for winning on the road is pretty easy; Protect the football, play solid on special teams, and cause or create a few turnovers. Instead the Steelers allowed a blocked punt which turned into seven Tennessee points, turned the ball over at a crucial point in the game, and missed a golden opportunity after creating a turnover of their own. They were penalized four times for fifty yards, all of them coming from their defensive backfield and all costly. Yet, with just over a minute to play, the Steelers set up 1st and 10 at the Tennessee 39-yard line, a victory within their sites. What happened next is something that for Steelers fans has become patented Steelers football. They played for the field goal. Ben Roethlisberger threw a short screen to TE Heath Miller. Sitting at the 35-yard line, the Steelers took their time, let the clock bleed down and the handed off to second year runner Baron Batch, who promptly lost a yard. Now with faced with 3rd and long, the Steelers had very little choice but to pass. Roethlisberger was pressured and his pass to Miller failed to reach its target. Shaun Suisham had kicked a 52-yard field goal earlier in the quarter, but the lost yard by Batch now placed the kicked back at 54 yards, and left it so if he missed, the Titans would have enough time and time outs to turn the game in their favor. This series of play calls underlines what the Steelers have done for a long time. Had the Steelers continued to attack, instead of biding their time at the 35 as if the game was already wrapped up, they might have scored a touchdown, pushing a victory beyond reasonable doubt. Certainly, their field goal could have been an easier one instead of one that had the additional ramifications should Suisham miss. This was a game, after all, against the Titans, a team that had given up the most points in the NFL. The Steelers do have Ben Roethlisberger, who coming into this week carried the third best passer rating in the league. He also had thrown eight touchdowns to just one interception.  What were they doing?  Maybe having lost Rashard Mendenhall to an Achilles injury, Isaac Redmen to an ankle injury, offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert to leg injuries, conservatism was what was called for. It's what you do when you're more experienced.  Or in this case, let me rephrase that; It's what you do when you're older. Few looked older than Ike Taylor, who was picked on again mercilessly, and committed three defensive penalties: two pass interference and one defensive holding. He also jumped the route and missed the ball on Matt Hasselbeck's touchdown pass to Kenny Britt.  Few looked as slow as James Harrison, who may work well in pass rush lanes, but wasn't within five steps of Jared Cook as he caught the decisive pass on Tennessee's final drive to put them in Rob Bironas' field goal range.

The best news for the Steelers is that Ben Roethlisberger became Pittsburgh's all time passing leader, and did so in a game where Isaac Redman became the first Steelers RB to have over 100 yards receiving in over 40 years. The fact that Redman led all Steelers receivers against a pass defense ranked 25th, one that had just seven sacks through five weeks, tells you all you need to know about the Steelers' offensive line issues. Redman also reminded fantasy owners how good he can be in space, that he's a guy who simply gains yard after yard, even after being contacted multiple times. This is why many fantasy owners felt that he'd be solid filling in for Mendenehall. Now both he and Mendenahll are down, and with Jonathan Dwyer fighting turf toe, the Steelers rushing attack has all but collapsed. If you're the Steelers, the four day schedule looks like a disaster in the making, and the injuries sustained in this game might do in their season hopes. What can be taken from this game is that the Steelers team of a year ago is in further decline, even with some of the most powerful offensive weapons in the league at their disposal.

Britt could come in handy down the stretch
If you're Tennessee, the schedulers just became your best friends. Chris Johnson looked a little more like his previous self, though it's very clear even when he finds space, the aggressive and fiery Johnson we saw just two years ago is gone. Kendall Wright may not be big, but he's a solid receiver who finds a way to get open when it matters. Kenny Britt was the wild card in this one, and he was one of the difference makers. His game-tying touchdown grab, along with his size and presence on the field made him someone the Steelers had to be wary of.  As Britt's health returns, so will his numbers, making him an interesting target for fantasy owners down the playoff stretch.  The Titans' final four opponents are the Colts, Packers, Jets and Jaguars.  That's three middling defenses all of which are giving up too many passing touchdowns, and the Jets, whose offense is such a liability that it can be argued they'll do what's left of their defense in.  Britt's return also means better numbers for Wright and TE Jared Cook, making them better plays as well. The Titans still won't be an offensive juggernaut, nor will the quarterback situation improve so much when Jake Locker returns. But by year's end, this team could easily spoil a few playoff scenarios, and Britt might bet the key to a fantasy ower taking home the title later in the season.