So that was weird. The defending Super Bowl champs, struggling with injuries and consistency, won a huge game at home on national television. The Steelers, it turned out, were just part of the Halloween sideshow.
And before I get to the hows and whys, it’s worth pointing out that the Saints, despite what happened last week against the Browns, can be an extremely dangerous team — on both sides of the ball. It’s easy to say Pittsburgh was out-coached (and I think they were), but New Orleans also made plays, something the Steelers struggled to do.
Most games come down to a handful of plays. On Sunday night, three things (all different than Ted’s three weaknesses) stuck out:
1) To recap: Tomlin will waste a first-quarter challenge on a Lance Moore fumble that even my wife saw and said, “He was down when his arm hit the ground, right?” (Yes, yes he was.) But on what looked like a Rashard Mendenhall touchdown during that stupefying goal line series? He just stands there.
Look, I’m fine with Tomlin’s notion of “imposing your will” in the “we only need one yard” situations, but if you have no intentions of challenging the Mendenhall play how about just cut out the cute play-calling and have Ben run a QB sneak three times in a row? Collinsworth couldn’t quit talking about Maurkice Pouncey’s awesomeness. Just a thought: awesome guys, in general, are capable of picking up one yard.
Finally: no clue what that fourth-and-4 was all about. None. I wasn’t completely against going for it, but next time it might be worth calling a play that doesn’t have two receivers occupying the same space as the ball arrives. Just spit-balling here.
2) Skippy Fail. Gretz mentioned it earlier in the season and it took me roughly three minutes to buy his argument: Yes, kickers miss kicks. But if Jeffy is supposed to be the guy who can handle Heinz Field and all that comes with converting kicks there, we can’t give him a free pass every time he lines up and honks a field goal from beyond 45 yards. Anybody can do that. And the Steelers certainly aren’t going to pay somebody a premium for it.
You can argue that Tomlin shouldn’t have let Reed even attempt a 51-yarder with enough time on the clock to give Brees and the Saints a chance to score. That’s a fine point and one I won’t protest vehemently, but I’ll just say this: Skippy has to make those kicks. If you’re a franchise kicker and you’re indoors, you make 51 yarders. Also: last week, Tomlin mismanaged the end of the first half and admitted that he should have given Jeff a chance. Perhaps that had something to do with his decision Sunday night. Whatever, here’s the bottom line: Jeff has to convert. That’s all there is to it.
3) Heath Miller fumbles. Here’s a glimpse into the life of Ryan Wilson watching a typical Steelers offensive play: “DON’T FUMBLE.” I do that 60 or so times a game. And while I was thinking it during Miller’s catch and run, it was in the back of my mind because, for the most part, Heath doesn’t fumble. Well, he did. Ball game. Shit happens.
Those three plays cost the Steelers at least 13 points, and possibly 17 (Rashard’s TD, Skippy’s 3 and either 3 or 7 if the Steelers had scored after Heath’s catch). The final score: New Orleans: 20 Pittsburgh 10.
This isn’t to say that the Steelers would have won easily had the three outcomes above turned out differently, but they certainly wouldn’t have lost by 10 points. Unlike Ted’s take that there are roster issues holding this team back, I’d point to mental mistakes. In general, those are a lot easier to fix.
Plus, as JJ mentioned on the last podcast, if the Steelers are going to lose, this was the weekend to do it. I’m not excusing it, and it pains me to even write those words, but practically speaking, dropping a game to an NFC opponent shouldn’t mean jack for Pittsburgh’s postseason hopes.
Some other random thoughts from Sunday night:
* IKE. Seriously, you throw that pass to Ike 1,000 times, you’d have 1,000 incompletions. Still can’t believe he hauled that in. Nice play, and I thought he had one of his best all-around games in a long time.
* I know Ted was upset with B-Mac, but I love the guy. On the touchdown pass to Marques Colston, the camera showed Sean Payton calling the play into Brees and you could read his lips: “Marques Colston blah blah blah play call blah blah blah.” Payton repeated it. I yelled at B-Mac: “It’s going to Marques!” Didn’t matter. Brees dropped back, looked right, saw B-Mac in single coverage, pitch, catch, touchdown.
That aside, I didn’t have a problem with how McFadden played. He tackles well and keeps plays in front of him. You know, exactly what Dick LeBeau likes his cornerbacks to do. Frankly, clock management and how to utilize replay challenges are much bigger issues on this team.
In fact, I thought the defense as a whole played well. The game plan was to rush three or four and drop everybody else into coverage. Let Brees dink and dunk his way down the field. Save a couple instances, the plan worked.
* I lived in DC when Gregg Williams was the Redskins defensive coordinator. Huge douche. But I give him credit: the Saints were down three good cornerbacks and still managed to wreak havoc all night. Well done, dude.
On the other hand, I have no idea why the Steelers offense didn’t adjust. Williams loves to blitz. And I don’t mean bringing five guys once a series. I’m talking eight guys, and the more trouble the offense has picking up the extra rushers, the more often Williams brings them. It’s a debilitating cycle, particularly when Pittsburgh’s offense seemed incapable of doing anything about it. Some free advice: DON’T RUN 15-YARD ROUTES. A few people mentioned it in the game thread, but how about somebody mix in a slant?
And I’m sure you all know what this means now, right? Open season on Bruce Arians. BA bothers me a lot less than some of you, but there’s no defending Sunday night’s game plan, especially the inexplicable decision to continue to run the ball on first down. Look, I get it: establish the run. (Even if you don’t agree with the philosophy, if Pittsburgh wants to utilize Mendenhall, fine. No problem.) But 2nd and 8 or longer made Williams’ job a lot easier. The Saints basically had to stop the run on first down (which they did with very little trouble) and blitz Ben silly on 2nd and 3rd down (also effective).
The great irony, of course, is that we were all bitching about BA’s one-sided offensive play-calling a year ago. Lesson learned, I guess.
* Manny Sanders had another fumble but I applaud his effort. He appears to be a legit returner, something the Steelers haven’t had in, well, forever. He’s also contributing on offense.
Rookie Contributor Honorable Mention: Stevenson Sylvester knocking the crap out of Lance Moore. I love that guy.
Alright, that’s a wrap. The Steelers are 5-2 and in great shape in the AFC. As far as I’m concerned, Sunday night’s issues aren’t roster-related, just above-the-neck related. Things could be much worse.
Next up: the hapless Bengals. But first, another Steelers Lounge podcast (taping tonight!): recapping the Saints. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below.