Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I guess I can cut my hair now

It really wasn’t until the Steelers' opening offensive play for a 60-yard touchdown that it dawned on me that our defense matches up terribly against Pittsburgh.  Despite a lingering, outdated reputation as a rushing offense, the Steelers are actually a pass-first spread offense with several quality receivers and a Pro Bowl quarterback.  What struck me as Wallace took that first pass into the end zone is Green Bay simply doesn’t have the depth in the defensive backfield to match up.  Like that alert snap to attention you have when you see a highway patrol while going 85, I instantly had a pit in my stomach as I realized we were finally going to be exploited for the obvious weakness in our #2-ranked defense since Al Harris went down.  So that’s where I need to start my weekly observations.

1) 503 passing yards.  Wow.  Franchise record for Roethlisberger, and they’ve been a franchise for a long time.  The Packers came in with the 3rd-ranked pass defense in the league, but the Steelers had an answer: get Jarrett Bush on the field.  We’re now the 11th-ranked pass defense.  Most teams refer to a 5-defensive back formation as the “nickel”, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers, in keeping with his creative scheme names, refers to it as the “Oh, @#$%!  I have to put in Bush!”  Or just “@#$%!” for short.

On both his plays giving up 50+ yards, Bush displayed the confident technique of veteran corners around the league – wildly flailing your arms with your back to the ball.  “We’ve been working on ‘flail’ technique all season,” said Green Bay cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt.  Bush could have been the hero, with an interception on the Steelers’ final drive.  But, alas, it was nullified by Chillar’s illegal contact penalty – instead providing Bush with the opportunity to give up one more big play, allowing Heath Miller to convert on 3rd and 15.  One player glad to see Bush on the field more was Tramon Williams.  “At least it’s not my ass on SportsCenter this week,” said Williams after the game.

In the final series, the Packers dug even deeper into the playbook.  Most teams call their 6-DB defense the “dime”, but, again, Dom has his own unique nomenclature, referring to it instead as the “Who the hell is that dude?!?” package.  Previously reserved for pick-up games at company picnics, the scheme starts with an audible – something like, “Hey, what’s-your-name… yeah, you there… no, to the left of the Gatorade cooler…  Josh Bush?  Jarrett Bell?  Whatever.  Think you can cover that guy?”

Evidently, the answer was no in the final play.  You certainly can’t put all (or really even much) of the blame on Bell – most of the rest of the backfield was responsible for the other 485 yards given up through the air Sunday.  But the reality, if you watch that play again, is if Bell turns around he intercepts that ball.  As Roethlisberger said in the post game, “We always say, if the guys’ got his back to me there’s two shoulders I can throw at.”  [PS – that last quote is real.  As painful as it is to watch, there’s a good breakdown of that final Steelers drive on NFL.com]

The rest of the defense played pretty well.  We got pretty consistent pressure; including 5 sacks (really 6 + a forced fumble – more on that later).  I probably would have been more aggressive with the blitzes in the final drive – particularly on that 4th and 7 deep in Steelers territory.  But that would be largely second-guessing.  If the Bush interception hadn’t been nullified by penalty, then I probably would have thought rushing 3 and dropping 8 was the right call.  But if you drop 8, you need to cover people, which they didn’t.

2) 9 rushing plays.  This was really surprising to me, particularly since we’d done so much to establish a balanced attack the last few weeks.  McCarthy didn’t dial up any running plays in the first two series, both of which went 3 and out  The Steelers have shown themselves to be vulnerable to the run.  The touchdown scamper by Grant confirmed that vulnerability.  And an effective running game is a great way to stifle the blitzes they were throwing at us from the first play.

I can understand the thinking that the Steelers defensive secondary is pretty weak, particularly with Polumalu out.  But 48 passes to 9 runs?  That’s really lopsided.  Particularly in a road game against a hot quarterback who you want to keep off the field.  In fact, that play calling was almost a textbook example of how not to start a game on the road:
  • First offensive series: Go 3 and out on 3 incomplete passes
  • First defensive series: Give up a 60-yard touchdown
  • Ensuing kick-off: Rack up a 10-yard holding penalty
  • Second offensive series: Go 3 and out again, aided by a 5-yard false start penalty
That’s really on McCarthy as the play caller.  I don’t know if he was particularly amped up for this game since it was a homecoming for him, but I wish he had stuck to the game plan that has been a winning formula the last few weeks for us – control the clock with a balanced attack.

3) Winning close games.  I just wrote a thoughtful and well-researched (if I may say so myself) article on this exact subject.  Games like this are heartbreakers to lose.  But every game from here on out is going to be like this – hard fought and down to the wire.  Winning or losing will boil down to one or two guys making plays.  Not to call guys out, but here are all the individual players/plays that could have given us a victory Sunday:
  • Josh Bell on the final touchdown – already documented.  Even if he’d blatantly interfered that would have been better, forcing them to take one more play from the 1-yard line.
  • Cullen Jenkins with 10 seconds left on the final drive – had Roethlisberger for a sack that would have killed the clock since the Steelers were out of time outs, but he couldn’t wrap him up.
  • Brandon Chillar with 51 seconds left – if he avoids the illegal contact 8 yards from the line of scrimmage, Bush gets an interception that ends the game.
  • Charles Woodson with 1:00 minute left – had his hands on a would-be interception.
  • Nick Barnett with 1:08 left – if he breaks up the pass on 4th and 7, the game is over.
  • Tramon Williams with 1:14 left  – also had his hands on a potential interception on an out to Santonio Holmes.
  • Mason Crosby on the missed field goal – McCarthy said publicly he has "zero interest" in bringing in another kicker.  I hope he’s singing a different tune privately, considering Crosby has missed a field goal from inside 45 yards in four straight games.  Arguably, no one on the team is more responsible for winning close games than the kicker.  (By the way, coach, the Saints cut John Carney.)
  • Donald Lee – if he holds on to the pass (admittedly tougher than it looked since it glanced off the defenders head), he likely takes that in for a touchdown.
That’s 8 players/plays that could have changed the outcome of that game – and those are just the plays I remember.  I’m not saying any of these were easy plays to make, but this is the difference between a championship team and merely a contender.  I'm not getting all fair-weather fan.  I'm still bullish about the team, but you have to make some of those plays.  Combine the small plays into series, the series into drives, the drives into possessions, and possessions into scores and you have the outcome of a game. 

Of course, there were also many players who did make big plays.  Rodgers, of course, as always was money.  Greg Jennings's long touchdown run was beautiful.  Jermichael Finley continues to step up and had a fantastic touchdown catch.  And I have to call out, yet again, Clay Matthews.  He’s nominated for Rookie of the Week again.  The outstanding sack/forced fumble/recovery that he had was as impressive an individual effort as I can remember seeing.  The fact that play was reversed in replay is a travesty.  If it had stood, that would have not only set up a score, potentially changing the outcome, but it would have been one of the main highlights of the game – likely catapulting him to the front-runner for defensive rookie of the year.  I watched that replay again and again, and they absolutely robbed him of that play.  I can’t understand what the ref was looking at to see “indisputable evidence” to overturn it.  Matthews also deserves credit for disrupting the onsides kick towards the end, forcing the Steelers to touch the ball before it went 10 yards.  He’s always near the ball.

The biggest bummer of the Packers loss?  I don’t get to grow my hair long any more.  I thought about amending my earlier pledge – something like “as long as the Packers are still in the playoff hunt and haven’t lost a game by more than 3 points.”  But that feels forced, doesn’t it.  So I guess I’ll have to get it cut at some point…

1 comment:

  1. I was really disappointed by the loss. I figured maybe earlier in the season, Pitt might have it, but with them about to be "Six-burgh", I was more confident.

    I didn't get a chance to watch most of the game (Fox was playing the Bears game instead), but how the hell did Rodgers go 13 and 29 at the half? He's a lot better than that.