Following yesterday’s rapturous 31-24 win over the Ravens at Heinz Field in the AFC Divisional playoffs, it is time to declare 2010 another very successful season for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers advance to next Sunday’s AFC Championship game against either the Patriots or Jets, marking the franchise’s league-high 15th trip to the NFL Final Four in the Super Bowl era and an amazing eighth appearance in a conference final in the past 17 years.
In all cases it should be a deemed a successful season when a team advances to the NCAA Division I men’s or women’s basketball Final Four, and the same standard holds true in professional football.
Pittsburgh’s 2010 season is even more impressive when you consider the adversity the team has had to overcome, including a) superstar quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s four-game suspension for buying an alcoholic drink for an adult under the age of 21; b) the good P.R. but bad football managerial move of trading Santonio Holmes; and c) rampant injuries to a veteran roster, including losing both starting tackles (Willie Colon and Max Starks), a position where the Steelers had the worst depth in the NFL on its roster entering the summer.
Moreover, while it was not the matchup this team needed in the divisional plaoffs to improve its Super Bowl chances, few things in life are more enjoyable than beating the Ravens in the postseason, particularly when it involves watching the Ravens self-destruct in a game they appeared to destined to win at halftime.
As for potential opponents next week, I only give the Steelers a 20 percent chance to beat New England, but give this squad a 60 percent shot of winning at home versus the Jets. Yes, the Jets beat the Steelers, 22-17, earlier this year at Heinz Field, but Pittsburgh was without Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller in that game, and their absences were the difference between winning and losing.
And does anyone actually believe a squad quarterbacked by Mark Sanchez would win a playoff game on the road against a great defensive team with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback? I sure do not.
In contrast, just pop in the tape of Tom Brady and New England’s dismantling of the Steelers at Heinz Field earlier this year and it is hard to fathom the Steelers winning next week at New England. The beauty, however, is that Pittsburgh would not be dominated so profoundly in a rematch (even with the game at New England) and that the Steelers can be very aggressive on both sides of the ball, since they will be decisive underdogs.
However, to have any chance of advancing to the Super Bowl this year the Steelers’ must shore up their special teams, which nearly cost them the game against the Ravens, even though Pittsburgh was clearly the better team. They must also play smarter football (someone please read this to Chris Kemoeatu) after nearly being undone by 9 penalties for 93 yards against Baltimore.
Dick LeBeau is the architect of the 3-4 defense and may be the best defensive coordinator in NFL history. But Tom Brady has been his kryptonite, posting a 6-1 record as a starter against the Steelers, and regularly carving up LeBeau’s zone schemes.
Assuming New England is the opponent next week, the Steelers will have to blitz far more often against the Patriots and dare them to throw deep against man coverage, something LeBeau is reluctant to do because his No. 2-4 cornerbacks are not very good, particularly downfield.
Two points of optimism for that game, though: 1) Jonathan Scott was in his first start at left tackle for the Steelers in that game and despite being abused by the Ravens all day yesterday, he is a much better player now, and the Patriots do not have a pass rusher near the level of Terrell Suggs.
2) the Steelers’ rookie wide receiver duo of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown have become more intricate parts of the offense each game and will have a clear speed advantage over the Patriots No. 2-4 cornerbacks, who are also pretty weak.
Regardless, all I am thinking today is: Go J-E-T-S, because no Steelers fan with any common sense would prefer going to New England next week versus playing the Jets at home.