Many art aficionados find the Mona Lisa breathtaking and argue it is da Vinci’s finest work. To me, it’s a simple mugshot drawing of a homely looking French gal.
Many football fans probably thought the Steelers’ 19-11 win at Tennessee today was ugly football. To me, that was a work of art, painted by the master known as Dick LeBeau, whose defense forced seven Titan turnovers, probably sent Vince Young back into a depression (if not the bench), and held Chris Johnson, the best running back in the NFL, to a measly 34 yards rushing on 16 carries, which tied for Johnson’s second lowest rushing total of his stellar career.
All any rational Steelers fan could ask for in the first two games without superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was a split against playoff-caliber opponents Atlanta and Tennessee. But now the Steelers sit alone atop the AFC North standings at 2-0, primarily thanks to LeBeau and a defense that looks as dominating as it did throughout the 2008 Super Bowl championship season.
Some more random postgame thoughts by position and without the benefit of breaking down the gametape:
Secondary: As long as Troy Polamalu stays healthy, this team can compete with anyone. Bryant McFadden did not play well in his one season at Arizona, but he is a nice fit for LeBeau’s scheme and his return provides a major upgrade over William Gay as the Steelers’ No. 2 CB. The Titans had neither the quarterback or receivers to exploit the Pittsburgh corners. The cerebral and steady Ryan Clark remains underappreciated at free safety.
Linebackers: I have never been a big Lawrence Timmons fan. I still say his best position is as a 4-3 coverage outside linebacker and that the Steelers should never spend a top-half of the first-round pick on a 3-4 ILB. But Timmons has rivaled Polamalu as the team’s best defensive player over the first two games. If he continues to play like this, Timmons could be the team MVP, selected to his first Pro Bowl, and will shut up all critics of his selection, including me. He is as fast in pursuit as any linebacker in the NFL.
It was also nice to see the Steelers finally utilize their considerable depth at inside linebacker, as both Larry Foote and Keyaron Fox saw action on defense. Foote, who plays no special teams and signed a $9.3 million, 3-year contract to return to Pittsburgh in the offseason, saw no playing time in week No. 1. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have surpassed Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene as the best 3-4 OLB due in Steelers history and rival Jack Ham and Andy Russell as the best OLB duo in team history. They are simply superb every week.
Defensive Line: The Steelers are now 16-2 when super-sub Chris Hoke starts for an injured Casey Hampton, and the Steelers did not miss their Pro Bowl nose tackle today. The team’s ability to bottle up Johnson would not have been possible without another stout performance by a rotation of six defensive linemen.
Special Teams: Head coach Mike Tomlin and new special teams coach Al Everest won the game with the reverse on the opening kickoff that resulted in an 89-yard TD by rookie Antonio Brown. But almost as pleasing has been the increase in both distance and hang time of kickoffs by Jeff Reed, which has helped the suspect special-teams coverage units.
Will Allen made the correct decision in stepping forward in trying to catch the final onside kick, which he somehow then dropped. Still, the Titans had the element of surprise based on the late shift and numbers on their side, so it was the prudent move. He just has to catch the kick. Antonio Brown should return all kicks and punts unless the Steelers are backed up near their goal line and need to fair catch. Antwaan Randle El’s days as punt returner should be over, with Mewelde Moore serving as the fair-catch specialist.
Quarterback: Charlie Batch is a better passer than Dennis Dixon. I am not sure who I want to start next week, assuming Dixon is available and healthy. I would rather have Dixon starting against a team with a great pass rush so long as Max Starks remains sidelined. However, the Steelers may be better off with Batch if the line is healthy and he should be in the game if the Steelers need to drive 80 yards through the air in 90 seconds.
Running Backs: Stats can be misleading. Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman both ran very well and hard today. I love all that Moore brings to the team, but he should only be a third-down back at this point.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: There were probably many Pop Warner offenses in the 1950s that used their wide outs more than the Steelers did today.
Offensive Line: Lord help us. Jonathan Scott was a part-time starter at tackle for the Bills last year. However, any Steelers fans wondering how they were able to ink Scott to a 1-year, veteran-minimum contract found out today. That was the worst performance by a Steelers tackle since Todd Fordham suited up for Pittsburgh in 2003, and I have seen many bad offensive tackle performances since.
What’s worse is that Tony Hills was not any better. I could not understand why the Steelers did not have Heath Miller or Hines Ward chip whoever Scott faced if not just outright double-team his opponent. But when Scott and Hills were in the game together at tackle, the Steelers were best served to run three straight times for little/no yardage, which is exactly what they did in compiling a measly 127 yards of total offense. Who cares?
When Trai Essex left the game with what looked like possibly a serious injury, the Steelers offense became much worse. Doug Legursky can line up at guard in the NFL, but he cannot play the position. Ramon Foster, who started four games for the Steelers in 2009, would replace Essex if he is out next week but was not on the active roster for today.
Even if Essex returns, the Steelers may want to let Foster get some work at center in practice, because he needs to be on the game-day roster. Moreover, the Steelers are probably better off playing Max Starks in a walking boot next Sunday against Tampa than starting Scott again at left tackle, especially if the fragile, aged Charlie Batch starts at QB.
Overall, though, enjoy this win and the fact that Pittsburgh sits alone atop the AFC North standings despite having its franchise quarterback on the sideline and mostly playing a veteran QB Sunday against the Titans, who most Steelers insiders did not even think would be on the team’s roster just three weeks ago.