Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Quick Thoughts on Steelers-Bengals. Starks out for the Season


The big news coming out of the Steelers 27-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals Monday night was injury-related. During the game offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey, Chris Kemoeatu and Max Starks all left with injuries while a variety of other players got dinged up. Pouncey's injury in the second quarter appeared to be a potentially serious one and would have been a devastating blow. He has anchored an improved offensive line and has performed even better than the loftiest expectations. Fortunately he returned to the game just before the half and didn't seem to suffer any ill-effects. The left side of the line was not as fortunate. LG Kemoeatu had an MRI during the game which showed no serious structural damage, but he could not continue. LT Starks was reported to have a stinger in his neck and shoulder, returned to the game and then left for good. The makeshift line which included Doug Legursky and Jonathan Scott held up just well enough to help the Steelers secure the victory.

At his press conference on Tuesday Mike Tomlin went through the "laundry list" of injuries. A few concussions that would be monitored, Brett Kiesel still having hamstring problems and the offensive line. Pouncey had a bruised tibia and would be fine, according to Tomlin. Kemoeatu had a sprained knee and would be limited during week, while Starks had a stinger. Generally, this was a best case scenario with none of the three missing any significant time.

Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case. An MRI later in the day revealed that Max Starks had a significant disc problem and Wednesday morning he was placed on the injured reserve list, ending his season. At the moment it appears Jonathan Scott will be first in line to fill Starks' role. The Steelers will now go the rest of the season with two tackles who weren't in the plans when camp opened in July. Flozell Adams has been a pleasant surprise on the right side. What happens on the left side will go a long way in determining the Steelers' success the rest of the way.

A look at what transpired Monday night:


The Good:
*Rashard Mendenhall again ran the ball really well. While the offensive line opened a few holes, Spindenhall did an excellent job of turning potential losses and no gains into productive runs. In his third year he is clearly emerging as an elite back.

*Mike Wallace has become one of the game's leading deep threats, leading the NFL with a 23.0 yard/catch average. He caught three more long balls on Monday, including one down the sideline on a great throw by Ben and another on a trick-play from Antwaan Randle El. If Ben didn't consistently underthrow him, Wallace's numbers would be even more impressive.

*On the goal line in the first quarter the Steelers lined-up Doug Legursky in the backfield and Mendenhall was able to pound it into the end zone behind solid straight ahead blocking. It appeared the team learned something from their lack of success the week before in New Orleans.

The Bad:
*Roethlisberger's interception was a terrible throw at a very important point in the game. I don't think he saw the safety and tried to float the ball into Heath Miller. Ben can't turn the ball over in that spot and has to do a better job of throwing the ball on the underneath route to the tight end on the outside. He's had trouble with that throw in the past.

*The Bengals only had one sack but Roethlisberger had to avoid pressure on multiple occasions, again doing a great job keeping plays alive. The sack came against the same formation that gave up three sacks last week at N.O., three wides, Heath Miller as TE and Isaac Redman (as opposed to Moore) as a sidecar to Roethlisberger. Miller missed his chip block, but Roethlisberger did have time but couldn't find a receiver. The offensive line appeared outmanned for the second week in a row, although injuries did play a part this week.

*Both Wallace and Hines Ward put the ball on the ground. Ward's resulted in a turnover leading to a touchdown while Wallace's went out of bounds. Last week Heath Miller had a costly fumble and return man Emmanuel Sanders fumbled a kickoff. That is way too many fumbles from receivers who are only touching the ball a handful of times a game.


The Good:
*The Steelers linebackers are an absolutely dominating unit. James Farrior had his best game of the year with nine tackles while Lawrence Timmons again was outstanding. The Steelers had four sacks--all by linebackers, one interception--by Timmons and six tackles for loss--five by the 'backers. The defense is designed to have the linebackers make the plays and they are coming through in dominating fashion.

*The run defense continues to be outstanding. None of the D-lineman was credited with more than one tackle but they did another outstanding job, limiting Cedric Benson to 54 yards after the Bengals had some early success. Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood have been solid if not spectacular in filling in for Aaron Smith and Brett Kiesel.

The Bad:
*The Steelers pass defense again had trouble getting off the field on third down, a problem that plagued them last week and all of last year. In the second half the Bengals were able to convert a 3rd & 13 and a 3rd &14. Allowing other teams to keep drives alive in the second half when they are behind is the primary reason the Steelers haven't been able to put teams away.

*Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were non-existant in pass defense for the second week in a row. Receivers have been running down the field uncovered and the Steelers did nothing to counter the Bengals move of putting T. O. in the slot, where he was able to take advantage of a much smaller William Gay. The Steelers safeties have to play better, especially Troy who seems to have gone missing the last 3-4 games.

Special Teams:

The Good:
*Emmanuel Sanders is proving to be a threat every time he touches the ball. As Mike Tomlin becomes more comfortable with Sanders' ball security I expect him to get more opportunities to return punts. He is already making the kickoff return team look as dangerous as it has in years.

*Sanders and rookie Jason Worilds got the Steelers off to a great start by causing and recovering a fumble on the game's first play. Four plays later it was 7-0 Steelers.

*William Gay had the team's first punt block on the Bengals second drive. That was excellent coaching to call the block on the first opportunity and to then go get it. An early 10-0 lead.

The Bad:
*Jeff Reed again missed a crucial field goal. After hitting a solid 53-yarder to end the first half, Reed missed a 46-yarder that would have iced the game. While Reed hasn't missed a kick from inside 40 yards, he is 0-4 from 40-49 and his 70% conversion rate (14-20) is dead last in the NFL.

*After starting the year with improved distance on his kickoffs, Reed again is having trouble getting the ball past the five. While colder conditions certainly play a part, it will be worth keeping an eye on in coming weeks. His 65.1 yd/avg is mid-league. Let's hope it stays there.

*Dan Sepulveda had an uncharacteristically short punt in the second quarter. This is only noteworthy because he has been excellent with both his gross and net punting average all year.


The Good:
*The Steelers pounded the ball straight ahead on the goal line on their opening drive. They gave the ball to the deep back (Mendenhall) with a lead blocker in the backfield.  Last week against N.O. they gave it to the upback, starting a bad sequence of plays. Lesson learned.

*Arians generally mixed up the run and pass effectively and dialed up a trick play that worked even though Randle El underthrew Wallace. He deserves credit for setting that play up with an earlier call and then calling it when it had a chance to succeed.

*As mentioned above, the punt block was a result of something seen on film. An excellent call and superb execution.

The Bad:
*The Steelers again mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half. With 00:45 left Ben completed a 24-yard pass to Mike Wallace to the Cincinnati 35-yard line. They should have immediately called timeout. Instead the offense got to the line and Roethlisberger spiked the ball with 00:22 remaining. That wasted at least ten seconds and cost them a down. Two incompletions later, they were left with a 53-yard field goal, 00:10 on the clock and two unused timeouts in their pocket. Terrible. Again.

*Once again the defense didn't seem to be able to make adjustments when exposed by their opponent. Dick LeBeau chose to focus on Chad Ochocinco and roll safety coverage his way. The Bengals countered by moving Terrell Owens into the slot and also using him in combination routes against William Gay. Owens finished with 10 receptions, 141 yards and two touchdowns. That's a big day and the Steelers safties were nowhere to be found.

*Continuing a disturbing trend the Steelers committed a number of penalties late in the game and totaled seven for 73 yards.

Big Officiating Calls:

*The Steelers took three consecutive big penalties early in the fourth quarter. On Roethlisberger's interception Flozell Adams got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that set the Bengals up at the Steelers 36. On the first play Casey Hampton got a very questionable roughing the passer call and that was quickly followed by a 20-yard pass interference call on Ike Taylor. The Bengals had the ball at the one and scored on the next play to make it 27-21 with more than nine minutes left.

*With just under two minutes to go and the Bengals facing a 2nd and 10 from their own 48, Ike Taylor took a bad pass interference call on an underneath three-yard pattern. This set Cincinnati up with another fresh set of downs.

Up Next: The 6-2 New England Patriots at Heinz Field Sunday night. A big test for both teams.

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