Troy Polamalu Interception vs Ravens Sparks Steelers to AFC Championship

The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens fought it out on the turf at Heinz Field  while officially the stakes were “only”the AFC Championship and the right to go to Super Bowl XLIII the two teams played as if they were fighting for the right to claim the legacy of the Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkis, George Halas and Vince Lombardi.

  • The first two games between these two AFC North Rivals both went to the wire for good reason: These two teams are about as evenly matched as is possible.

Both are led by dominating, punishing defenses and bright young coaches. On offense what the Raven’s lack in experience under center in comparison to the Steelers, they make up for in a stronger offensive line and a more productive running game.

Games where the stakes are so high and the teams so close come down to a variety of factors. Coaching, seizing opportunities, will to win, and great players making plays.

Each element impacted the game, but in the end only one proved to be decisive.

Troy Polamalu, Steelers vs. Ravens, Steelers Ravens AFC Championship, Troy Polamalu Interception AFC Championship

Troy Polamalu’s sealed the AFC Championship for the ’08 Steelers over the Ravens. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

It’s [Not] The Coaching Stupid

John Harbaugh is nothing if not audacious. When his team got the ball the Ravens came out throwing, which was quite bold considering the quality of Pittsburgh’s defense.

This move cost him 3 points early on, and it took time for Baltimore to gain their footing. If you fault the man for his wisdom, you’ve got to admire his attitude. He and his staff were also quite astute in challenging Santonio Holmes‘ first long catch, as almost no one in the stadium saw that Holmes had lost possession.

Mike Tomlin had a solid game plan, and the Steelers defense got the better of the Ravens during the early going. Yet, for all of the third down conversions, there was a palpable disruption to the Steelers offense as soon as Hines Ward was lost.

You don’t miss what you’ve got until it’s gone, but the Steelers should have been better prepared for this kind of contingency. Bruce Arians, who has drawn more than his share of fire from Steel Curtain Rising, called a pretty good game, and stuck to his plan to run the ball, even when it wasn’t working as well as anyone would have liked.

Nonetheless, his decision to throw out of an empty set on third and 1 while protecting a lead was foolish. The fact that Hines Ward was to be the primary receiver in the original play makes the call more mystifying.

  • The uncertain will absolutely arise against Arizona in the Super Bowl, and the coaching staff must adjust better.

Credit both coaches for this game, but in the end, coaching did not make the difference.

Opportunity Knocks – Will Steelers or Ravens Answer?

The Steelers have lived on edge all season, and watching this game made one think that they like it that way.

Limas Sweed certainly does, dropping a sure touchdown pass, and then allowing embarrassment to lead led him to feign injury, costing the team a precious time out and ultimately a field goal too.

Chris Kemoeatu and Ike Taylor also appear to be fond of sailing close to the wind, as had penalties called on them that greatly contributed to Baltimore’s second TD. (I won’t single out Bryant McFadden, as his pass interference penalty was borderline at best.)

Yet if you credit the Ravens for scooping up of these hand-wrapped gifts, you must fault them for discipline at a critical juncture. The personal foul on Anthony Madison after the Ravens had returned a punt to the 40 set Baltimore back at a moment where momentum was clearly on their side.

Mistakes aside, Pittsburgh also made its opportunities, in the form of numerous scrambles by Ben Roethlisberger and his ad-lib touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.

As important as these events were, opportunism would not rule the day.

Toughness Just the Price of Admission in Steelers vs. Ravens

The Steelers and the Ravens do not like each other. Both teams wanted a shot at the Super Bowl 43. Only one ticket to Tampa was to be had.

The result was a game played with an intensity seldom matched in today’s NFL. While momentum may have shifted back and forth, neither team showed any sign of backing down. The hits got harder as the final gun approached. Each side upped the ante when it came time to show who wanted it more.

The will to win has always been the requisite for admission when the Steelers and Ravens have played this year, but never a differentiating factor.

Troy Polamalu’s Vindicates Lynn Swann in AFC Championship

In his commentary for the video The Steelers of the 70’s in Their Own WordsLynn Swann said it best:

“Chicago has one Michael Jordan, who with the game on the line takes the ball in his hands, shoots and scores. Well, we had four or five guys who felt that they could do that on every single play.”

Steel Curtain Rising is not ready to elevate these Steelers to the status shared by their 70’s counterparts, not yet at least, but this team has some players who flat out make things happen.

Ben Roethlisberger has done it time and time again this year, against Baltimore, Jacksonville, Dallas, and then Baltimore again.

  • Hines Ward and James Harrison have also come through in the clutch.

The Ravens, with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and perhaps some others, have their share too. But the Steelers simply have more, and that was the difference in the AFC Championship. And there is no better illustration of this than the decisive score.

After completing a masterful 20 yard completion that brought Baltimore to close to mid field, the Steelers held the Ravens to two yards on first.

LaMarr Woodley turned it up a notch and sacked Joe Flacco on second. That brought up third down and it was time for the Steelers stars to shine.

Flacco faded back to pass, but as he has done so often this year, James Harrison was there, arriving just in time to disrupt the rookie’s pass.

  • Troy Polamalu was in coverage. He read Flacco’s eyes, positioined himself, leapted, and came down with the ball.

Hollywood producers would not have scripted what followed next simply because no one would have believed it. From 40 yards out Polamalu tucked the ball under his arm, dodged and weaved, accelerated and reversed direction, zigged and zagged, lunged forward and then cut back, flying past defender after defender as he found the goal line.

In a single play the Troy Polamalu interception vs Ravens simultaneously exorcised Pittsburgh’s “Ghosts of AFC Championship games passed” and sealed Baltimore’s fate.

John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco have every reason to be proud, and just as Steelers Nation should know that this duo is going to a formidable force in the AFC North to say the least.

But for the moment, the Steelers, led by their playmakers, are the power in the AFC to be reckoned with.

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2008 Steelers Defeat Bengals, 27-10, But “Half Full/Half Empty” Questions Persist

The 2008 Steelers completed the final leg of their three game home stand by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 27-10.

Despite the lopsided score, the pundits in the press sought fit to pan the team’s performance.

The Post-Gazette’s Bob Smizk summed it up this way:

The Steelers came out of their game against the Cincinnati Bengals last night with their eighth win and still in undisputed possession of first place in the AFC North Division. But there were as many questions as there was jubilation surrounding this 27-10 victory. It was not a performance befitting a team with Super Bowl ambitions.

His colleague Gene Collier was more upbeat in his evaluation (choosing to focus on the role that Santoino Holmes had in getting the offense moving) but he did offer this caveat:

Crocker ended his night, but if Holmes doesn’t remember any of it, let’s at least do him the courtesy of remembering it for him. And let’s not understate it, because when this offense again showed up with no apparent purpose — it finally broke 123 minutes and five seconds of touchdown-free football when Roethlisberger found Miller with a 3-yard scoring toss early in last night’s second quarter — it was Holmes who cleaned its fuel injectors just enough to pull away from the worst team in the AFC.

Commentary at the Tribune-Review was more positive, but the national media got into the act as well, as James Walker of ESPN started his article off this way:

The Steelers brought their “B-minus” game to Heinz Field Thursday night. But that was more than enough to beat up on the lowly Cincinnati Bengals
(1-9-1).

Pittsburgh continued its trend of surviving and advancing with a 27-10 victory over the Bengals to improve to 8-3. It was the second win in five days for the Steelers.

Perhaps style points are not important this time of year. But for three quarters the Steelers struggled in two phases of the game — offense and special teams — against an inferior team at home.

Paints a rather grim picture, doesn’t it? But is the portrait of “the struggling Steelers” accurate?

Black Out in Latin America

It is hard to know what to make of this for one who has not seen the game. As you might expect, Direct TV Latin America does not carry the NFL Network and they of course don’t make the Thursday night games part of the “pay full price and get half the games” Sunday Ticket offering that Direct TV offers customers in this part of the world.

  • On paper there is no way that a team like the Steelers should let the Bengals hang around like they did. But there is a reason why you play games.

If it is disturbing that the Bengals succeeded in shutting down Willie Parker, it is encouraging that the Ben was able to beat them with his arm, and he did it be throwing downfield. Heath Miller was also back in the line up, making his precense known by scoring the team’s first offensive touchdown in several quarters.

Sure the defense gave up an opening drive touchdown. Sure LaMarr Woodley’s sack was the only one of the night. But they held Cedric Benson to 35 yards on 16 carries. They also hauled in another interception, something which have not been in abundant supply.

The defense also kept Cincinnati off of the board after Limas Sweed gift wrapped good field position by muffing a punt at Pittsburgh’s 39 yard line with one minute left to play in the half. (And you know the NFL Network was cuing up that stat about how the Steelers have been outscored at the ends of halves.)

Your Chance to Sound Off

Adding to the mystery of this game is some rather eerie symmetry between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Last year the Steelers played the Dolphins in a downpour, and escaped with a 3-0 win. They followed that a week later with a game against the Bengals, again in foul weather, where they won 24-10. That victory seemed to indicate progress, but the Steelers proceeded to lose the next three out of 4 (or 4 out of 5.)

Despite these similarities, my feeling is that the 2008 Steelers are different, if for no other reason than their defense is the real deal.

So, to my fellow members of Steeler’s Nation, ask not what Steel Curtain Rising can tell you, ask what you can tell Steel Curtain Rising…. (OK, that was cheesy.)

Seriously, if you watched the game please take a moment to leave a comment with your analysis. Did the Steelers simply escape with a win, or did they take a step forward?

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2008 Steelers Smash Bengals, 38-10

The Pittsburgh Steelers trounced the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium today to the tune of 38-10. The win improved the Steelers record to 5-1, while the Bengals fell to 0-7.

Going into the game the main danger for the Steelers was complacency. And for a while, it looked like the Steelers were going to let the Bengals into the game.

After jumping to a quick 10-0 lead, the Steelers followed up with three straight punts and were miserably failing to convert third downs. The defense held the Bengals in check until the final drive of the first half, when Bengals marched 92 yards in fourteen plays to bring the score to 10-7 at the half.

The Steelers scored at the top of the second half to extend their lead to 10 points, but the Bengals marched 49 yards downfield, and succeeded in converting a four down inside the endzone. But the Steelers defense held fast, and forced the Bengals to settle for a field goal.

After another three and out, the Steelers offense went on to score another 21 unanswered points, while Dick LeBeau turned his defense loose on Ryan Fitzpatrick, as James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and James Farrior combined for 7 sacks.

On offense, the Steelers were lead by Ben Roethlisberger and Mewelde Moore. Making his second start in as many weeks, Mewelde Moore had 20 carries for 120 yards, while Ben Roethlisberger completed 17 passes for 216 yards, and connected on touchdowns to Mewelde Moore and Nate Washington.

  • Byron Leftwich came in to relieve Roethlisberger in the fourth quater, and connected on a 16 yard pass to Hines Ward.

For the first time all season the Steelers offensive line held an opposing defense sackless (ok, the Cincy defense isn’t exactly a reincarnation of the ’85 Bears defense), and second round pick Limas Sweed made his first catch of the season, hauling in one grab for 11 yards.

[In the interest of transparency, this write up is based on what I could gather from listening to the broadcast on the radio and reading summaries on the internet. Direct TV Argentina, in its infinite wisdom, decided not to allow Sunday Ticket subscribers to see the Bengals game. I guess they decided I wanted to see the 49ers vs. the Giants, or the Cowboys vs. the Rams, or the Vikings vs. the Bears…. They were wrong. You can read my Direct TV rant here.]

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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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Watch Tower: Colbert Keeps His Word, Steel Curtain Rising Was in Err

This time it is not the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette or Pittsburgh Tribune Review that is under the microscope, it is Steel Curtain Rising itself! That’s right, keeping true to the spirit of the Watch Tower, it is time to eat my own dog food.

Early in the 2008 off season, Steelers Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert declared that the Steelers were not going to take a need-specific approach to the draft, that they were going to draft the best player available.

One two separate occasions, Steel Curtain Rising politely took exception to Colbert’s remarks. On the first occasion, we pointed to the fact that Colbert had said “we like our defensive backs” immediately after the 2002 season, the year in which the Steelers secondary collapsed. Two of the Steelers first three picks in the ensuing 2003 draft were Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor.

The second time around, Steel Curtain Rising again suggested that fans watch what Colbert does, not what he says. We also suggested that the team return to its semi-official policy of the Cowher era of using one premium pick on an offensive lineman.

Mike Tolmin and Kevin Colbert were very explicit that the Steelers needed to “get younger and bigger” on both the offensive and defensive lines. But they stuck to their word.

By the time the Steelers came to make their first pick, 7 offensive lineman had been taken, and five defensive lineman had been taking. Meanwhile, Rashard Mendenhall, who’d been projected to go as many as ten picks higher was sitting right there.

Likewise, by the arrival of their second pick 12 defensive lineman had been taken, and 9 offensive lineman had been taken. Again, Limas Sweed, a player the Steelers had listed as one of the 25 best overall in the draft was still on the board after 52 names had been called. Again, Colbert and Tolmin kept their word.

Through all of this, both men kept their cool. While the Steelers only had 6 picks, they could have packaged some of this year’s picks with picks from the 2009 to try to move up. They didn’t. Credit both Colbert and Tomlin for staying true to their word.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 Draft Class Is Complete

The Steelers closed the 2008 NFL Draft by picking up five more players, including one rather perplexing selection in the fifth round. The Pittsburgh Steelers 2008 draft class is:

1 Rashard Mendenhall, RB, ILLINOIS
2 Limas Sweed, WR, TEXAS
3 Bruce Davis, OLB, UCLA
4 Tony Hills, OT, TEXAS
5 Dennis Dixon, QB, OREGON
6 Mike Humpal, OLB, IOWA
6 Ryan Mundy, Safety, WEST VIRGINIA

The Steelers focused on the skill positions during day one of the 2008 draft, netting what most analysts concluded were steals in both the first and second rounds. Both Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed have the potential to bolster areas which are solid, but also in need of reinforcement and depth.

The Steelers picked three defensive players, and two more offensive ones on day two of the 2008 draft. Again the shored up their outside line backing corps, an area that features two solid starters (if Woodley’s play in 2007 is any indication) but little depth. They also picked up a safety, perhaps looking to add some depth in the face of Ryan Clark’s injury recovery and Anthony Smith’s erratic play.

  • They also grabbed an offensive tackle Tony Hills in the fourth round, which we will discuss in a later post.

The most perplexing pick is that of Dennis Dixon in the fifth round. The fact that the Steelers took the time to work out Dixon prior to the draft was eyebrow raising. The fact that they picked him is even more surprising. The Steelers have probably the best QB/back up combo in the league with Big Ben and Charlie Batch. Taxi QB’s can be found on the cheap after the draft, or by picking up street free agents.

Perhaps Mike Tomlin wants to go with the old, Joe Gibbs model – Established starter, veteran back up, up and comer. A very viable model – but given the team’s failure to address the defensive line, Steel Curtain Rising has to question the use of a pick on a quarterback.

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Steelers Address Skill Positions – Lines Still a Critical Need Entering Day Two

The Steelers drafted RB Rashard Mendenhall and WR Limas Sweed in rounds one and two of today’s draft.

The consensus is that they are sticking to their credo of drafting the best players on the board. The team did not expect either of these men to slip to them, and they felt both were too good to pass up.

While both men can help the Steelers, Pittsburgh needs to seriously look at drafting offensive and defensive lineman on day two of the draft, in the 3rd and 4th rounds especially.

Offensive line is particularly critical. The Steelers invested serious money in Ben Roethlisberger, and they desperately need to improve the protection around him.

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