Giants Defeat 2008 Steelers, New York Vanquishes Pittsburgh 21-14

When the history of the 2008 season is written, the summary of the Steelers-Giants might read something like this:

The Steelers hosted the New York Giants at Heinz Field in a see-saw defensive battle where Pittsburgh succeeded in going toe-to-toe with the defending Super Bowl Champions until a wild snap made by an emergency long-snapper during a punt play led to a freak safety that tied the game, and ultimately gave New York the momentum needed to win….

Ah, wouldn’t that give you a nice warm, fuzzy feeling…

No one should be fooled by the score as 21-14 does not begin to reveal the poor showing the Steelers made for themselves. The Steelers lost their first game against “PrimeTime” competition, and their performance revealed some troublesome issues which Mike Tomlin and company must address if the Steelers truly want to become contenders

Mewelede Moore, Steelers vs. Giants, Steelers vs. Giants 2008

Mewelde Moore rushed 19 times for 84 years vs. the Giants in 2008. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post Gazette

For three and half quarters the story of the game was the 12 points the Giants netted in five trips to the red zone. New York has a strong offense, and the Steelers defense deserve all of the accolades that come their way for holding the Giants to four field goals in five goal line situations. New York’s domination of the time of possession puts an exclamation point on the defenses’ accomplishments.

  • All of which begs the question, why did the defense keep finding find itself in those siutaitons?

At the outset of the game I was somewhat surprised to hear Tory Aikman talk about how the Steelers offense has struggled. After all, the team was 5-1 and, while they’d bogged down for a few quarters here and there, the Steelers got on the board when they needed to.

  • But Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger not only seemed determined to justify Aikman’s criticism, but that determination grew stronger as the game wore on.

Aside from Mewelde Moore’s 32 yard run, and Ben’s long bomb to Nate Washington, the Steelers offense produced nothing all day. They could not protect their quarterback, receivers could not get open or hold on to the ball, they could not convert third downs, and they could not sustain drives.

  • Did anyone think the Steelers were going to mount a come back when they got the ball after the Giants scored the go-ahead touchdown?

It just wasn’t that kind of day.

Special teams was also once again a liability, as the return units gave up returns of 28 and 35 yards, giving the Steelers defense a short field to defend. While the long-snap fiasco really isn’t anyone’s “fault,” Steel Curtain Rising did point out back when the Steelers re-signed Greg Warren that the value of a long-snapper should not be underestimated (this is one of the times when you hate to be right.)

Bruce Arians and Ben Roethlisberger must bear the burnt of the blame for today’s loss. Ben’s his first and third picks were of the Kordell Stewart variety, even if his second interception wasn’t his fault, and maybe his last one can be written off as a desperation heave. Roethlisberger was simply out of sync, and most of the rest of the offense took its cue from him.

The Steelers third drive in the third quarter offers the perfect example. Pittsburgh started on its 23 and advanced to New York’s 38. They were in perfect position to put the Giants away.

Except that a 15 yard unnecessary roughness penalty pushed them back to the Giant’s 47. In the succeeding four plays included:

  • A nullified a 53 touchdown strike to Nate Washington (which pushed them back to their own 37)
  • A three yard scramble on a broken play (read, Ben escaped before he was about to get sacked. Again)
  • A poorly thrown deep third down pass dropped by Nate Washington

The Steelers ended up punting from their own 40, and lost Greg Warren in the process.

At this juncture in the season one has to seriously question the play calling of Bruce Arians. The Steelers seemed reluctant to rely on Medwlede Moore, but since then man who went into training camp as an afterthought at running back has shown that he can play.

  • Against the Giants Mewelde Moore averaged 4.4 yards per carry, he ripped off 32 yard touchdown, and showed that could both run between the tackles and make a team pay when he can turn the corner on the outside.

Why wasn’t he used more? He did get 19 carries, but he showed every indication of being willing and able to do more. To be certain Moore was held to 21 yards in the second half, but its not like he is the only option. If the offensive coaches were worried about putting too much on Moore shoulders, Gary Russell was there.

Russell has flashed at times at other moments he’s been a little flat. But against the Giants his only carry was good for eight yards. Putting Russell in for a series, if only to spell Moore, carried little risk with a might higher potential reward.

  • The issue of Bruce Arians will be discussed here later on in the week. Suffice to say, the passing offense was unable the execute their portion of his game plan. That was clear early on.

What remains unclear is why Bruce Arians showed no inclination to use the other weapons at his disposal. Thus far it has hard to avoid the sensation that Arians, perhaps because of the injury to Parker, (perhaps not) is not comitted to establishing the running game.

The Steelers are seven games into their season and they’re having difficulty sustaining drives and they cannot protect their quarterback. The Giants game revealed none of these warts, as each was on display in previous games. But the Steelers were able to compensate for them up until now. In fact, they compensated so well that one wondered if they were aberrations.

The Giants game revealed that the against a legitmate contender the Steelers would not be able simply make up for a several sloppy drives with a heroic comeback.

No, the Giants game demonstrated that the Steelers have some issues on offense, problems that they rectified soon as they play more legitimate contenders over the next several weeks.

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Key to Jaguar’s Game: Roethlisberger Must Show Restraint

Last January the Jacksonville Jaguars defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs, accomplishing what no team had done before: Beating the Steelers twice at home in the same season.

Although the Steelers finished 10-6 and won the AFC North in Mike Tomlin’s rookie season, the loss to the Jaguars added a stark exclamation point to an already weak 1-3 regular season finish. Tomorrow’s game against Jacksonville will serve as an excellent yard stick for gauging how much progress, or lack thereof, the Steelers have made in the eight months that this return bout has been in the making.

Pass Protection

Opposing defenses sacked Ben Roethlisberger 47 times last season. Perhaps the strongest imperative entering the 2008 was to protect Ben better. Pass protection held up pretty well against the Texans and Browns, but the flood gates opened against Philadelphia, as the Eagles sacked Ben 8 times, and added another for good measure against Bryon Leftwich. The Raven’s defense threw Big Ben around like a rag doll during the first half of the Monday night game, but the Steelers pass protection greatly improved in the second half.

  • Bottom line: Jacksonville did not sack Ben once last January, and has only registered 5 sacks thus far. For comparison’s sake, James Harrison already has 6 sacks. Failure to protect Ben in this game means that the Steelers pass protection is a glaring liability.

Ground Game

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Steelers totaled 46 yards rushing against Jacksonville in the playoffs, but they were playing without Willie Parker. To shore up their rushing game Pittsburgh dumped Najeh Davenport and added Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore…

Alas, Parker is out for this game, Mendenhall is on IR, and Najeh Davenport is back on the roster. Carey Davis is also out against Jacksonville.

  • Bottom line: Mewelde Moore was perhaps Steelers most interesting free agent signing, and now is his time to shine. His rushing numbers this year are unimpressive, but he made plays when things counted against Baltimore. He needs to do more of this against Jacksonville.
  • Gary Russell teased during the 2007 preseason, but has done little to impress since then, but he’s had few opportunities to prove himself. That should change fast.

Defense

Statistically the Steelers defense held Jacksonville in check last time around, limiting David Garrard to 140 yards passing and the Jaguar’s running backs to 3.2 yards a carry. Ah, but there’s the minor matter of David Garrard’s 32 yard on fourth and two….

The Steelers will miss two of their three starting defensive lineman tomorrow night, but LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons have boosted the Steelers defense corps a shot, as has the return of a healthy Troy Polamalu.

  • Bottom line: No deep analysis here. Jacksonville’s offense has been a little inconsistent while the Steelers look to have improved on defense. But the Jaguars play a bruising offense, and the Steelers simply must be more physical.

Key to the game: Roethlisberger’s Restraint

The Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette opined earlier this week that with the Steelers running back roster depleted, the Steelers offense would “come to pass.” It doesn’t take a football genius to know he’s on to something, and therein might lie a danger.

Many factors contributed to the Steelers playoff loss against the Jaguars, but one of those was Ben’s play in the first half. Roethlisberger simply tried to do too much after Jacksonville immediately tied the score on the heels of their 96 yard kick return. The result was three interceptions that led directly to 14 points for the Jaguars.

The injuries at running back certainly mean that Ben is going to need to throw more, but it’s more important that he throw wisely.

Ben’s credentials as a franchise quarterback are beyond dispute at this point, but Roethlisberger must resist the temptation to try to win the game by himself. If he does that, and if the defense plays has it has thus far this year, the Steelers should defeat the Jaguars.

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Steelers Cut Najeh Davenport – Backfield Winnowing Begins

Training camp remains 29 days away, but the process of thinning out the glut at back up running back has begun. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review first reported that the Steelers have waived reserve running back Najeh Davenport, after unsuccessful attempts to trade the reserve running back.

The Steelers picked up Davenport in September 2006, after it became clear that Duce Staley was unable to serve as an effective complement to Willie Parker.

At 6-1, 245 pounds and arriving with a 4.9 yards per carry average, Najeh Davenport tantalized…. Although he did have an injury history, he appeared capable of filling big back void created by Jerome Bettis’ retirement and Stanley’s decline.

While Davenport’s did put in some solid performances and his overall numbers were respectable, he failed to deliver at key moments. The coaches opted not to use him in a goal-line situation against New England, and overall he was unable to help the team move the chains when the Steelers needed to kill the clock in crucial games.

It became clear after Willie Parker got hurt in St. Louis that Davenport would never grow beyond a role player. As a starter against Baltimore in the season finale and in the playoffs against Jacksonville, Davenport totaled 52 yards on 28 carries.

  • The signing of Mewelde Moore and the drafting of Rashard Mendenhall apparently made Davenport expendable.

Davenport was due to make one million dollars this year, and his departure gives the much needed Steelers salary cap room as they enter negotiations with their draft class.

This move also signals a vote of confidence in Gary Russell, an young back with tremendous potential. All major press reports indicated that the Steelers prefered to keep Russell over Davenport.

The Steelers also waived two other players, and must shed two more to reach the NFL’s 80 man roster limit prior to convening training camp in Latrobe on July 27th.

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Steelers 2008 Draft: Pittsburgh Stockpiles Potential at Important, If Less Critical Need Areas

At 2008 off season’s outset Steelers coach Mike Tomlin reaffirmed his commitment to attrition football – in other words to fighting and winning games in the trenches. To that end he, declared Steelers “need to get bigger and younger on both lines.” The Steelers then proceeded pick a single lineman in the 2008 NFL draft, Texas offensive tackle Tony Hills….

The Rolling Stones once opined that while you can’t always get what you want, you sometimes you get what you need. More recently Cold Play warned that those who got what they wanted but not what they needed would require fixing….

  • The dust from the 2008 NFL draft has settled, but the question remains, did the Steelers get what they wanted or what they needed?

The answer is that what the Steelers got in the draft, they needed.

Prior to the draft, Steel Curtain Rising was firmly on the record in support of drafting a offensive lineman. Yet we’ve also endorsed Tomlin and Colbert’s “draft the best man available” philosophy.

The Steelers followed their philosophy to the letter, and in the long run, that should reveal itself as a positive. Pro Football Weekly’s five year analysis of the Steelers draft record largely coincided with the analysis presented here in the Colbert Record. Namely that the Steelers success on day one of the draft has not carried over to day two. Pro Football Weekly concluded that this tendency has hurt the Steelers special teams play and their overall depth.

This conclusion is sound, and its one reason why reason to praise Colbert and Tomlin’s decision making, in spite of the team’s failure to land a blue-chip lineman.

All things being equal, the Steelers probably would have drafted a lineman early, but as fate would have it, drafting a lineman in the 1st or 2nd would have constituted a major reach. Reaching to fill a need in the draft is dangerous, remember Troy Edwards?

  • The Steelers 2008 draft score card is made up of a running back, a wide out, two outside linebackers, an offensive lineman, a quarterback and a safety.

The Steelers field Pro Bowl caliber talent at running back, wide out, and at outside linebacker. Yet at each of these slots, their depth is critically thin.

When Willie Parker went down, we learned why Najeh Davenport is and will be a career back up. Carey Davis and Gary Russell’s potential is just that, potential.

At wide receiver Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes are backed up by a solid Nate Washington and the hope that Dallas Baker and Willie Reid will show something they’ve failed to show thus far.

At outside linebacker, James Harrison has established himself as a force, and LaMarr Woodley came on very strong in late 2007. But the cupboard is very, very bare once you look beyond these two players.

Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed, Bruce Davis, and Mike Humpal have proven nothing at this level. The odds are against all four blossoming in the NFL, but their presence certainly strengthens the Steelers foundation in three key areas.

Quarterback is a little different. Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch give the Steelers the best 1-2 tandem in the league and if, God forbid, disaster were to strike both men, no one would say “If only Brian St. Pierre were still here…..”

Given this reality, Steel Curtain Rising whole heartedly concurred with Steelers Digest’s Bob Labrolia that “using [a pick] on a guy who would only be competing for the No. 3 spot would be a waste.”

With that said, Dennis Dixon is a player that would have gone on day one had he not been hurt. The Steelers have the luxury of letting him heal and develop. Time will tell if the Steelers can groom him into a number two, but if they do he will prove to be a wise selection.

The bottom line is, if Steelers determined the lineman who were on the board in the fifth would be unlikely to make the team in September, they were right to pick a high value player.

The Steelers did net offensive tackle Tony Hills in the draft. Even if Hills proves to be tougher than the pundits think him to be, the Steelers lines remain a major area of concern.

But the simple fact is that quality lineman were not available when the Steelers had to pick. Instead of panicking or allowing themselves to be victims of circumstance, they gave themselves a chance to strengthen other, if less urgent, need areas.

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Wanted: The Next Willie Paker and the next James Harrison

The Pittsburgh Steelers followed the 2008 NFL Draft by filling out their roster today by signing 12 undrafted free agent rookies.

As reported by the Tribune-Review, the following players will join the Steelers 2008 draft class for mini-camp:

Patrick Bailey, LB, Duke
Dorien Bryant, WR, Purdue
Doug Legursky, C, Marshall
Roy Lewis, CB, Washington
Mike Potts, QB, William & Mary
Martavius Prince, DL, Southern Miss
Julian Rauch, K, Appalachian State
Micah Rucker, WR, Eastern Illinois
Jordan Reffett, DL, Washington
Dezmond Sherrod, TE, Mississippi State
Travis Williams, CB, East Carolina
Donovan Woods, LB, Oklahoma State

In most NFL cities, rookie free agent signings are rather ho-hum occasions – a chance to pick up bodies that can keep starters fresh during training camp by taking reps for the starters.

  • Without a doubt, that is exactly what the vast majority of the players you see listed above will do.

However, since coming on board in 2000, Kevin Colbert has not only managed to do well on day one of his NFL drafts, Colbert has also done an exceptional job of doing well the day after the draft.

The Steelers entered the 2000 season with two excellent NFL full backs – John Witman and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala. In successive weeks, both men were felled with injuries just as the team was hitting its stride after starting 0-3.

Making his first start against the now fabled 2000 Baltimore defense, Dan Kreider stepped into the line up, and the rest is history. Kreider was the first of Colbert’s post-draft day gems, and he would go on to become the veritable equivalent of a 6th lineman until he got hurt in 2006.

Kreider was not the only rookie free agent earn a roster spot, but to, but to distinguish himself as a starter. The Steelers current roster features Gary Russell, Carey Davis, Nate Washington, Chris Hoke, and Anthony Madison who made the roster as undrafted free agents.

None of these men has contributed to the level of Kreider, but last year the Steelers have two more undrafted rookie free agents who happened to blossom into Pro Bowlers – Namely James Harrison and Willie Parker.

It would be too much to expect that Colbert can regularly produce viable starters from undrafted free agents. But if they cannot expect, Steelers fans can at least hope that Colbert will have once again worked his magic with either Martavius Prince of Southern Mississippi or Jordan Reffett of Washington, as the team did not address the defensive line on either day one or day two of the 2008 NFL draft.

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