Monday, September 27, 2010

Jolly good fun

Steelers 38, Buccaneers 13

By Mike Batista

The Steelers' September Sweatfest Tour took them from the heat of Tennessee last week to the heat of Tampa Bay on Sunday.

If Tennessee had been a House of Horrors for the Steelers before they punched the Titans in the mouth last week, Raymond James Stadium has been a Fun House for the franchise over the past decade.

The Steelers' last two visits to the home of the Jolly Roger included a Super Bowl victory two years ago and an electrifying Monday-night mugging of the Super Bowl-champions-to-be Buccaneers in 2002.

On Sunday, the Steelers returned to their favorite Florida getaway and came back with more cherished memories for the scrapbook.

Charlie Batch will be able to tell his grandkids (and I wouldn't be surprised if he actually was a grandfather) about the game he had Sunday. In his first start since the meaningless regular-season finale in 2007, Batch completed 12 of 17 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns. It was one of the best games of his workmanlike, 13-year career.

Batch overcame an interception on his first throw with TD passes to Mike Wallace for 46 and 41 yards.

In between those touchdowns, Batch highlighted a drive by scrambling 24 yards to the Bucs' 24. Then, as if to prove he didn't need an oxygen mask after the longest run of his career, the 35-year-old Batch threw 21 yards to Heath Miller on the next play, setting up Rashard Mendenhall's 3-yard touchdown run and a 14-6 Steelers lead.

Playing behind an offensive line that had Max Starks back at left tackle and Doug (The Big) Legursky replacing injured Trai Essex at right guard, Batch wasn't sacked. It was the Steelers' first sack-free game since their Week 12 loss in Baltimore last season. Of course, they were protecting lightning-quick Dennis Dixon in that game. While Batch obviously doesn't have the mobility of Dixon, "slippery" might be a good word to describe his presence in the pocket.

Batch's third TD pass came with 19 seconds left in the first half, a 9-yard connection with Hines Ward to give the Steelers a 28-6 lead.

When watching the game at Public House, a Steelers bar in Manhattan, I saw Batch going into the locker room before the end of the half. I thought maybe he was hurt, but was relieved to find out he apparently just wanted to get an extra minute or two out of the brutal Florida sun.

You know things are going well for the Steelers when you worry about Charlie Batch going into the locker room.

Batch isn't the only Steeler who had a once-in-a-lifetime game.

Brett Keisel, a 285-pound defensive end, 315 pounds if you count the beard, opened the fourth quarter by intercepting a tipped pass and returning it 79 yards for a touchdown and a 38-6 Steelers lead.

The Steelers entered the game with an NFL-high eight forced turnovers and added two on Sunday. This is what was missing last season. Turnovers aren't just window dressing for a defense, they are a necessary element of winning. In the vast majority of NFL victories, the winning offense gets to work with a short field at least once or twice. Making teams punt the ball away is nice, but it's too passive of an approach for a championship defense.

Ryan Clark grabbed the Steelers' other turnover Sunday, recovering a fumble that was forced by James Farrior. It set up Wallace's second touchdown.

Troy Polamalu, who had an interception in each of the first two games, had an interception Sunday, too. It just didn't count.

Polamalu got off work early in the fourth quarter with the game well in hand when Bucs' quarterback Josh Freeman threw the ball out of bounds. Polamalu, with his helmet off and the Head & Shoulders locks in full regalia, caught the ball.

Not that the Steelers needed to provide any other form of entertainment for their fans on this afternoon, but Polamalu's off-duty catch added a few laughs to the show.

Along with the surprises of a clean game by the O-Line, Old Man Batch's scramble and Diesel Keisel's ramble, there was also the standard fare of Dancing With Rashard, and for once Mendenhall's steps were not just fancy but also functional.

Three plays before Batch's run, another 35-year-old figured prominently when Bucs' cornerback Ronde Barber tried to close in on Mendenhall. The running back spun his way into a different route, avoiding any contact with Barber, and completed a 15-yard run.

Mendenhall ran for 143 yards on 19 carries with a touchdown, a big reason why the Steelers finally found a way to put some real points on the board without Ben Roethlisberger, who will be back in the locker room a week from today.

More games like that will be expected from Mendenhall long after Roethlisberger comes back. Batch's body of work in Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is nearly complete. After almost being cut before the start of the season, Sunday's performance was an Abe Vigoda-like resurrection of his distinguished seven-year career as the Steelers' backup quarterback.

All he has to do is mind the store on offense for another week. If the Steelers can beat the Ravens at home on Sunday, it will give them their first 4-0 start since 1979. Regardless of the outcome, another game as the starter (and I think we'll be spared any hemming and hawing this week about who will start) will enhance Batch's role as sideline counselor to Roethlisberger.

If Roethlisberger hadn't already learned his lesson, hopefully he learned it Sunday. Like the one kid who couldn't go on the class trip, he missed out on a fun day for the Steelers.

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