Last week, I waxed pessimistic following the Steelers' embarrassing 35-7 loss the Baltimore Ravens, and let's just say that there wasn't exactly a shortage of things to fret about when it came to Pittsburgh's performance on the field. In short, the defense looked sluggish and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was no-helmet-on-a-motorcycle irresponsible with the football.
In the variance- and parity-heavy world of the NFL, I've always felt that each team operates within a unique spectrum of performance Any Given Sunday™. Sometimes the inferior team will be firing on all cylinders, playing near the top of their spectrum, while the superior team—the one that would take home a majority of the wins if you could run the contest in a vacuum a bajillion times—falls short, because they're having a crummy day and are just not executing.
Maybe after last week's divisional debacle, you freaked out and sold all your shares in Black & Gold, but hopefully you just accepted it as a result of a good team (Pittsburgh) playing close to the bottom of their spectrum, against a second good team (Baltimore) performing at the top of theirs.
While this Sunday's 24-0 handling of the dreadful Seattle Seahawks was by no means a perfect outing for the Steelers, it was still a dominant shutout performance that should leave Pittsburgh fans feeling more optimistic going forward. (Helps to have the Peyton-less Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, of course!)
So without further ado, let's dive into some game notes.
Marcus Gilbert performs admirably in Steelers debut
With right tackle Willie Colon lost for the season (again), Pittsburgh's second-round rookie out of Florida got the starting nod next to guard Doug Legursky on the right side. For the most part, Gilbert played very well in his first NFL game. If you're a casual fan who only watches the ball, you probably won't remember much about Gilbert's performance Sunday afternoon That's a good thing, since commentators are usually only calling out offensive linemen when they're blowing a blocking assignment in pass protection or failing to achieve a push in the running game.
Throughout the first half, tailback Rashard Mendenhall gained big chunks of yardage on stretch plays to the right side of the Steelers' offensive front. A few of these were improvised, as the fourth-year back couldn't find running room left, then cut back to the strong side. Of course, some of this is due to Gilbert lining up a) against fairly pliable Seahawks front four and b) next to a quality blocking tight end like Heath Miller. But the point remains: Gilbert held his blocks in the running game and played to the whistle. Steelers fans have to be encouraged by that.
One Gilbert gaffe I noticed came during the team's first drive. Following a huge pass interference penalty on Mike Wallace—who had a terrific game with eight receptions, 126 yards and a touchdown—Pittsburgh had a chance to take an early 7-0 lead. After Mendenhall couldn't punch it in on 1st down (he really needs to stop dancing at the line sometimes), Seattle sent
retro video game enthusiast safety Atari Bigby on a blitz from the left. Bigby was sniffing around the line of scrimmage pre-snap, so Gilbert really should've known to kick out and pick him up off the edge. Instead, Bigby got a free shot at Roethlisberger, and the Steelers ended up with zero points after a failed 4th down attempt maybe two feet from the goal line. Gilbert was also beat off the edge on a play where defensive end Raheem Brock rattled Roethlisberger's knee and knocked him out of the game momentarily. Nonetheless, these are learning opportunities in the film room for a young player. Sunday was a net positive for Gilbert and his development.
After a disastrous Week 1 performance, the Steelers' quarterback played a very good game against the Seahawks. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes for a ridiculous 9.9 yards per attempt (YPA). However, Roethlisberger definitely left some plays on the field, overthrowing open receivers from time to time. He also gift-wrapped a pick-six to outside linebacker Aaron Curry, who had dropped into a Cover-2 zone. Fortunately Curry couldn't hang on to the football, because no one fast enough to catch him was anywhere nearby. I don't mean to belittle Roethlisberger's performance, which truly was great, but he's going to have to improve if the Steelers are to hang with teams more competitive than Seattle—which is to say, just about anybody else.
"Momentum" = magic?
Tony Siragusa was really getting on my nerves with his insistence on referencing "rhythm" and "tempo" and "momentum." He was really pursuing that non-narrative, he wouldn't let it go. You could just as easily have replaced any of these words with "magic fairy dust" and what Goose was yammering on about would've made just as much sense. Despite no evidence that it even exists, "momentum" is one of those myths of sports journalism orthodoxy that's endlessly perpetuated for very transparent reasons.
For example, if one team scores a touchdown, they've captured the
mystical frog prince momentum, right? Now, they have the upper hand, because they have the the Force momentum. Look, that team does have the upper hand, but that's because events that allegedly grant you the power of flight momentum—like touchdowns and fumble recoveries and long field goals—are good from a football standpoint. They help you win games, because it's always good to have more points than the other guy. It's got nothing to do with unsubstantiated pop psychology and it ain't magic—so maybe Goose and his ilk should scale back their Tolkien consumption between now and next Sunday.
You're going to read plenty of articles about how Pittsburgh's defense controlled the line of scrimmage against the Seahawks, and that's certainly the case. But I guess I'm less impressed by that, given that Seattle starts two rookies up front and features the ineffective Marshawn Lynch toting the rock (3.9 yards per carry on his career, 1.8 on Sunday).
What impressed me about the defense was the play of the cornerbacks, especially Ike Taylor and William Gay. Uncharacteristically, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau rarely brought the blitz, opting instead to rush three to five guys and drop everyone else into coverage. Basically, he was saying, "Okay, Tarvaris Jackson. [Le Beau swivels around in his leather chair, stroking a long-haired cat nestled in his lap. His face is lit only by the light from his cigar, and the smoke curls to the ceiling.] Try to beat us. It will...amuuuuuse me." Jackson, of course, was largely inefficient, and couldn't work the ball down the field (5.5 YPA).
Gay and Taylor's coverage was exceptional. Jackson had to pull it down and scramble on three occasions, and it seemed like each of the corners was jarring the ball loose from a Seattle receiver, or at least wrapping them up immediately and preventing yards after the catch (YAC). Thanks to Pittsburgh's dominance up front and the terrific play of Gay and Taylor (safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu weren't bad, either!), the Seahawks had only eight first downs, 164 total yards, and two conversions on 3rd down.
That's all for now. Check back throughout the week as we continue to cover all things Pittsburgh sports. For more on the Steelers, check out Behind the Steel Curtain.