Steelers Thoughts #6 (12/1/14): Garbage Time

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The various quirks and conventions of this blog have taken root and grown in a highly organic, practically accidental way. Because I was particularly taken with a certain swatch of dialogue and decided, apropos of nothing, to quote it at the beginning of my first ever movie review – for the 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel – the introductory dialogue capture went on to become a feature of my subsequent reviews. Because I happened to be in a serious, self-reflective and analytical headspace, with no traditional subject matter in mind, when the time came to write the blog’s twenty-fifth post, it became an instant (and self-evident) tradition for each twenty-fifth post to focus on personal matters rather than my normal geek and pop culture ephemera. I knew from the moment that I launched DAE that I would periodically write about the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have been my unquestioned favorite sports team since I first “discovered” them at the age of five. I always figured that I would write whenever the spirit moved me, although in my heartiest moments I still never imagined I could stomach analyzing sixteen games per year, not including playoffs. I became a fan with a web page, talking about the offseason, draft and training camp at three different intervals, but I never wrote about actual on field developments until my disgust over the Steelers’ week four loss to Tampa Bay boiled over my mental battlements and onto the page. With that, it became accidental but logical convention that I should approach my Steelers writing by dividing the regular season into fourths and presenting quarterly reports, using an analysis of the team’s most recent game as a sort of stand-in representation of its recent growth or decline.

Little did I realize at the time that game twelve would directly interfere with my Thanksgiving vacation in Northeast Tennessee, and only a medieval soothsayer could’ve predicted that games four, eight and twelve would be such a whiplash-inducing precision sample of the Steelers furious potential and puzzling futility to date. Jack Lord only knows what bizarre, frustrating, potentially amazing kinds of sh*t and mystery week seventeen will bring. I’m having anticipatory heart palpitations a month ahead of time. But, worst things first. I naturally feel something of an irrational professional obligation to post my reaction to the Steelers’ thoroughly depressing week thirteen defeat at the suddenly potent hands of the 4-7 New Orleans Saints, a team that entered Heinz Field down, out, and presumably reeling, riding as they were a fairly high profile three game losing streak (including two pastings at the hands of rival AFC North pengalitos* Cincinnati and Baltimore). I took notes all game long like a cub reporter, taking the ample bad with the abbreviated good, and I’m typing this write-up on a rickety Acer notebook that rests on a pillow in my lap, in my mother’s den at 11:35 Sunday night, with House Hunters International on in the background. Because I care about this blog, I’d like very much to present a halfway professional product here, but, as that is at best what the Steelers were able to accomplish Sunday, I hope you’ll understand if I fall short.

*Apologies for my mangled attempt at Spanish profanity, which is definitely not something taught by Rosetta Stone.

On the first seasonably warm day in seemingly forever, a day on which in-stadium festivities celebrated the fortieth anniversary of their franchise’s redefinition as winners in Super Bowl IX, the Steelers looked noticeably anxious coming out of their week twelve bye. Not nervous, necessarily, but prickly and oversensitive at the least. The Steelers drove the ball and owned defensively a low-scoring first quarter, then carried that slight momentum into the first half of quarter two. Despite a handful of first downs, the early going was marked largely by missed connections: an overthrown long incompletion to Antonio Brown, an attempted flea-flicker on the opening series foiled by defensive pressure, and a long sideline pass that sailed on Ben Roethlisberger and almost resulted in a turnover. While the passing game seemed discombobulated, Le’Veon Bell exhibited his trademark tremendous patient running, gouging the center of Kris Kristofferson’s defense for a succession of 8-12 yard gains. In general, the middle of the field was the real estate an erratic Roethlisberger was best able to exploit, particularly via swing passes to Bell and numerous completions to working class hero TE Heath Miller. Ben banged his wrist hard on an incomplete and was in visible pain for the rest of that series. “They still haven’t passed it since Ben hit his hand,” remarked FOX broadcaster/junior detective Thom Brenaman. Ben’s first subsequent pass attempt resulted in a first down to former Saint Lance Moore, although he also served another pass among the first downs to Saints CB Patrick Robinson that should’ve been intercepted. Two Shaun Suisham field goals, including a 49-yard slice that looked bad until it knifed fair at the last possible moment, gave the Steelers a precarious 6-0 cushion. Then Drew Brees and the Saints offense awoke from their recent slumber and the Steelers’ wheels came off in dramatic fashion.

I’m fairly sick by now of professional broadcasters professing shock whenever an underachieving or downright awful team plays its best game of the year against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Who cares if it doesn’t fit the preferred/predetermined narrative? We have an unfortunate tendency to bring out the best in everyone but ourselves, and the sooner our coaches and team come to terms with this fact and strive for meaningful answers, the better. The precedent, if not outright template, had already been established by Tampa Bay and the New York Jets, two teams still with four total victories between them. In New Orleans, however, the Steelers were facing a much-maligned group teeming with both offensive weapons and potential. Against a defense that continued its recent trend of generating next to no pass rush, one with an underpowered, imminently exploitable secondary, Brees took on the air of his 2009 Super Bowl-winning incarnation, picking the Steelers apart for a total of five touchdowns. Receiver Kenny Stills was the main recipient of Brees’ passing windfall, but the quarterback spread the ball to an impressive number of targets, not unlike how Roethlisberger plays when the Steelers’ offense is in its highest gear. RB Mark Ingram gashed the front seven for some timely runs, providing a sense of balance that eluded the Steelers all day. The returning Troy Polamalu flew around early in a convincing approximation of his trademark style, before coming off the field with an apparent concussion after laying a vicious hit on Ingram. He’d return after halftime, though his name was rarely called. In the late second quarter, the Steelers were driving off the back of a 41-yard kickoff return by the game and hard-working Markus Wheaton, and a 15-yard play action conversion to Miller, when Ben uncorked a long, underthrown interception into the double coverage blanketing Derius Hayward-Bey. Momentum thus blunted, the Steelers alternated large chunks of yardage with dropped passes while Brees hit everything that moved, culminating in Suisham missing a dead on 54-yard field goal attempt that would’ve been good from 51. It’s supposed to be a difficult kicking stadium, remember? At the half, the Saints led 14-6.

The most hideous part of being a football fan – and we’ve all been there – tends to come at that juncture in the game where your team is technically within striking distance but has shown no evidence whatsoever of possessing the ability to pull off the comeback. This exact thought occurred to me three minutes into the fourth quarter, with the Steelers down by 12 and New Orleans driving, when a crucial third down drive-ending sack was negated by an Antwon Blake holding call. Ingram ripped off a long run to the four on the next play, touching off a minor scrum when Mike Mitchell followed through on his tackle out of bounds and returning CB Ike Taylor – who was torched on multiple TD passes, just like old times – hit him late. After the dust settled, Brees calmly swung a little out pass to Marques Colston in the front corner of the end zone, making it 35-16 Saints with ten minutes remaining…a.k.a. ballgame. The Steelers lost this game in equal measure due to underwhelming execution (Brees looked engulfed by the pass rush at times, only to miraculously emerge and throw yet another TD) and timely mistakes (the numerous dropped or sailing passes on offense, Roethlisberger’s backbreaking second interception, which was batted up in the air at the line and fluttered down into the arms of the offending DE), the Saints suddenly surgical passing game and overall offensive balance, and even made room for a bizarre third quarter sequence where, after setting the ball for play, the referees blew dead a promising punt to Antonio Brown because they were “out of position to officiate”. Of course the rekick was negligible. Until the last ten minutes of garbage time, poking holes in the Saints’ soft zone coverage and already down 19, it was just that kind of day overall.

For the second straight Sunday, the offensive game ball should go to RB Bell, who ran for 95 yards, caught a crucial early TD and an assortment of check down passes, including a 50-yard rumbler that might’ve gone for a TD if Brown had come back to the ball instead of trying to block downfield. Bell passed ceremonial captain Franco Harris during the game for the team’s single season record for receiving yards by a running back. He’s having a revelatory year. Markus Wheaton showed great effort not only in the return game but also in attempting to stretch for a late fourth down conversion, which the refs called successful but Saints coach Sean Payton immediately challenged and won. The Steelers defense probably had its best series of the game on the ensuing three and out, but, in a microcosm of the day to date, the Saints uncorked a booming punt that Antonio Brown let sail over his head, only to bounce at the three yard line as if it had hit a wall and stay out of the end zone. The Saints downed it at the five as Brown trudged off the field in apparent disgust. Compounding the disgust felt all around was the disheartening loss of stalwart DE Brett Keisel, who emerged from a rugby pile in the third quarter favoring his shoulder and in obvious pain. The resulting muscle tear landed the valiant Keisel (without whose supreme efforts we’d have likely imploded in week five or before, rendering all subsequent commentary moot) on injured reserve and leaves the Steelers with limited options and a harrowing leadership defecit on the defensive line. We’ll see if Cam Heyward has the makings of a line captain, and also what kind of starter Stephon Tuitt will be. Crunch time isn’t just approaching. It’s already all around us. The Steelers are standing in quicksand at waist height, and need to move intelligently and decisively, with all speed and urgency.

Today just wasn’t the day for those kinds of moves. Brown got his baseline five catches+ of course, but no big plays until the bitter end, when he delighted fantasy owners with two last minute touchdowns and companion 2-point conversions, pulling everyone’s favorite trash collectors within a field goal for an improbable 35-32 final. I’m glad he at least resisted the temptation to do his weird Humpty Dance celebration both times. It was nice to hear the remaining fans still cheering faintly as the Steelers dinked and dunked their way down the field during garbage time, periodically chanting “HEEEEATH” whenever TE Miller, who was Roethlisberger’s most dependable non-backfield target by far, caught another first down or 8-yard pass. But otherwise, the expressions worn on the sidelines or in the stands were either blank or sour, as wholly befit the occasion. This is a team with endless questions, limited answers, and, one would assume, dwindling prospects to put things together in time for it to mean anything. But, strangely enough, on a day where Baltimore and Cleveland both lost to keep pace with Pittsburgh in the over .500 cellar, and where Cincinnati came one thin point away from getting sideswipe-Buccaneered the same way we did in week four, the Steelers control more of their destiny than seems humanly possible. Two road games remain at Cincy and Atlanta, followed by K.C. and the Bengals again at home, all of them “must win” games in my opinion, or that of anyone with a pulse. The surest way to the playoffs – perhaps the only way – is to win the division. I know this team is entirely capable of doing just that, but my doubts loiter and fester like a wound. This team comprehensively sucked the fun (and life) right out of me on the day I volunteered, over two months ago, to play beat reporter. Here’s hoping my week 17 write up is a less complicated, less enigmatic and far, far happier occasion.

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