Monday, October 4, 2010

OPPORTUNITY COMES CALLING, STEELERS DON'T HEAR DOORBELL

ABOVE: It's hard to imagine how many paper towel dispensers were damaged in the Steelers Heinz Field locker room last evening.

When a team loses a game like the Steelers did yesterday, whether they had their starting quarterback or not, you can't help but think that it was an opportunity squandered.

In this case, it was a chance to go 4-0 for the first time since 1979, the year they won their fourth SuperBowl championship. Who out there would have ever dared think that the team could pull that off...especially without Big Ben? Even the great Nostradamus picked them to go 2-2 (although he did predict that the Steelers would lose twice to the Ravens this year and thus become a wild card team coming out of the AFC North.

But sooner or later, mistakes have a way of catching up to you in the NFL. For example, two missed Jeff Reed field goals would have looked nice on the scoreboard at the end, but before you pin this entire loss on Reed (who is certainly working very diligently on finding another team for next season) there are plenty of other errors too.

To begin with, the Steelers defense once again came up with two more turnovers. Reed's misses notwithstanding, the offense did very little with these two possessions at all. This is absolute taboo stuff in the NFL where all logic dictates that you must score points off turnovers or await whatever fate becomes of you.

That's exactly what happened yesterday. So not only did the Steelers not score touchdowns, their paper towel dispenser punching, public urinating, constantly whining kicker couldn't even get them three points on two separate occasions! (By the way, his kickoffs were lousy yesterday too).

But lest I sound like the rest of the Steeler fans out there today who are pinning this loss entirely on Reed (who has already missed as many kicks this year as he did all last year at Heinz Field) let's look around for some other culprits.

Refereeing, for one. The Steelers were penalized a multitude of times and every call made against them was a good one. I'm not talking about those calls, but the great many off sides calls that repeatedly weren't called against the Ravens plus at least a half dozen holding calls as well. In Pittsburgh, we've always been taught by the Steelers coaches to never blame the refereeing for a loss. In respect to that preference for manhood, I'll close this subject by saying that had Baltimore been flagged accurately (as the refs always managed to get it right where the Steelers were concerned) it would have had a profound impact on the game.

While we're "calling out" people for blame, let's fast forward to the Steelers' possession just after their 93 yard scoring drive and the subsequent fabulous defensive stand that preserved their 14-10 lead in the fourth quarter. In resetting the game, the Ravens had already burned two timeouts and there was just 2:40 left on the game clock. The ball was resting precariously on the Pittsburgh two yard line.

It was obvious to everyone watching this game, or to anyone who had ever watched a number of these types of finishes before, that it was crucial that the team be able to move the ball and retain possession here. With Baltimore having the two minute warning and just one time out left, the Steelers would have ended this game quickly had they been able to get that first down. Cue the blame music.

On first down Rashard Mendenhall was sent off tackle for a two yard gain. It was now second and eight from the four. It was before the next play where Chris Kemoeatu was flagged for a false start, thus negating the first down gain by Mendenhall. On the next play, digging deep into their bag of tricks. Mendenhall was dispatched to again plow into the line of scrimmage. This time he gained three yards. So with an upcoming third and seven awaiting them and most undoubtedly the most critical play of the game for the Steelers, the team approached the line of scrimmage. Completely focused on its' importance, tight end Matt Spaeth promptly was flagged for a false start which moved the ball back to the two again! were these guys for real?

Much as I would like to criticize Bruce Arians for not having the guts to call anything but an off tackle run, with ineptitude being displayed like this, what would you have expected him to call, a Charlie Batch naked bootleg? So, once again the Steelers went into their "one yard and a cloud of dust" offense and Mendenhall got them just that, one yard. The good news was that neither Spaeth nor Kemoeatu managed to jump offsides again on this play. What a relief.

With Daniel Sepulvida kicking from the back of the endzone, he did an amazing job of blasting away another great punt. (By the way, Sepulvida has become a tremendous weapon for the Steelers and is certainly among the top three punters in the NFL.) While the ball was punted to the Baltimore 49 with no return, another Steeler holding penalty tacked an ten additional yards of field position.

So starting the drive from the Pittsburgh 41, Joe Flacco, a former Pitt qb who transferred after he was beaten-out for the job by Tyler Palko, engineered a scoring drive against the vaunted Steeler defense with the surgical precision of heart transplant specialist Dr. Michael DeBakey. Two passes to Anquon Boldon and two (including the game winner) to T.J. Houshmandzadeh were enough to put the Steelers on a gurney. There would be no miracle finish on this day as that quarterback was still serving a suspension.

So after the Steelers had begun their drive at the two yard line with 2:40 remaining, because of penalties, play selection, a two minute warning and Baltimore using their final time out, the Steelers got the ball back with 30 seconds still remaining. Two complete possessions by the teams including a total of eight plays had taken just 2:10.

On the first play from scrimmage, grizzled veteran, Ray Lewis, intercepted Charlie Batch's first pass and the crowd existed in silence, thoroughly disappointed.

Somehow, with smoke and mirrors and some fine defensive play, the Steelers managed to finish the "Pre-Ben" portion of their schedule better than most would have ever expected at 3-1. But when you have a legitimate shot at 4-0, Ben being there or not, it still stings. Don't forget after all, this was the division-rival Ravens whom we had just lost to at home.

The team now has a perfectly-positioned bye week as Big Ben comes back from his suspension. The team will be anxious to have Roethlisberger's prowess back in the lineup and the fans will probably celebrate his return as though it was Mardi Gras. While many Steeler fans, myself included, will find it hard to root for Roethlisberger, the Steelers have proven to their fans that the Black and Gold are a lot more than just one man. The team deserves the respect that they have earned with their performance over these first four weeks. If Roethlisberger can come in and give them a big upgrade at the quarterback position...then god help the rest of the league.