Monday, November 29, 2010

Giving thanks

Steelers 19, Bills 16, OT

By Mike Batista

In the final hours of Thanksgiving weekend, the Steelers gave us one more thing to be thankful for.

This win.

Let us give thanks that Bills' receiver Stevie Johnson dropped the winning touchdown pass in overtime. He'll probably be as infamous as this Stevie is famous.

Let us give thanks that Leodis McKelvin tripped over Arthur Moats, his own blocker, on the opening kickoff of OT. Otherwise he'd have had a touchdown.

Let us give thanks that McKelvin fumbled Daniel Sepulveda's punt from the Steelers' end zone, costing the Bills 15 yards of field position. Were the Steelers lucky to dodge the upset and not follow Black Friday with a Black Sunday? Absolutely. But let's give them credit for winning despite being backed up inside their own 1-yard line during overtime. That's usually a recipe for disaster.

Speaking of recipes, let's break down this game by turkey parts, in honor of Thanksgiving:

The Leg

The leg I'm talking about here is that of Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham (pronounced SWEEZE- um). Cutting Jeff Reed seems like a smart move. For now.

To some degree, Suisham probably knew what was going through Johnson's mind Sunday. Last season, kicking for the Redskins, Suisham missed a 23-yard field goal that would have finished off the 11-0 Saints and given them their first loss. That choking legacy followed him to Pittsburgh.

Suisham made four field goals Sunday, all of them longer than 40 yards, including the 41-yard game-winner in overtime. Guaranteed the 2010 Jeff Reed would have missed at least one of those field goals.

Now let's see how Suisham kicks at Heinz Field.

The Wing

Troy Polamalu usually takes flight after an interception. His flight Sunday was more of a puddle jumper. The Bills were at the Steelers' 12 with three minutes left when Polamalu picked off a pass deflected by William Gay at the Steelers' 1. Polamalu returned it five yards to the Steelers' 6. Polamalu's fourth interception of the year temporarily preserved the Steelers' 16-13 lead.

I know it's beating a dead horse to say that Polamalu's absence last season was the main reason for the five-game losing streak that ruined the Steelers' season. It's so much of a dead horse that flies are starting to swirl around it. But the evidence just continues to mount.

Aside from his acrobatic interception, Polamalu also recovered a fumble at the Steelers' 19 on the opening drive of the second half, at least delaying the Bills' comeback. He also had a pass breakup which helped hold the Bills to a field goal on their final drive of regulation, and a key pass breakup and tackle in OT.

This game was taking on the mood of other late-November stinkers by the Steelers, like last year's loss to the Chiefs in overtime, when they were without Polamalu; the 2007 loss to the 1-8 Jets, by the same 19-16 score in overtime, by the way (even though they had Polamalu for that one) and the Thanksgiving loss to the Lions in OT. Guess what the final score of that game was.

But thanks to Polamalu, this will not be one of those years that the Steelers suffer a late-November upset that derails their season.

Keep in mind that Polamalu isn't 100 percent healthy. He's had hamstring issues, but has been able to play on Sundays by limiting himself in practice.

When Polamalu went down for good last season during the home game against the Bengals in Week 10, I was watching at The Public House, a Steelers bar in Manhattan, without the benefit of audio. A fellow Steelers fan receiving cell phone updates broke the news that Polamalu was hurt. Not what I needed to hear.

Due to schedule commitments, I watched Sunday's game at Bob Hyland's Sports Page in White Plains, just a general sports bar but not a Steelers bar in particular. So of course I couldn't hear the announcers.

I'm now so paranoid about Polamalu getting hurt that I became worried that I didn't see him on the field early in the fourth quarter when the Bills faced a third-and-10 at the Steelers' 11. The Steelers led 13-7 at the time and were in danger of losing the lead. Ike Taylor broke up a pass to Lee Evans, forcing the Bills to settle for a field goal. I was relieved when I saw Polamalu lined up on the other side of the field when they showed the replay.

After Polamalu's interception, they showed Polamalu on the sideline, and I didn't know if he was hurt or just praying. Next time Polamalu prays on the sideline, I wish he'd use a rosary so we know he's not hurt.

The Breast

I'm going to talk about the offensive line for the "Breast" portion of my column, because most of these guys have man boobs.

Problems on the offensive line are nothing new for the Steelers. Still, I'd like to dedicate this song to Max Starks and Willie Colon, who might have been seen as part of the problem before being lost for the season with injuries.

The Steelers were poised to dominate this game. They scored a touchdown on their opening drive, taking up nearly half of the first quarter. They ate up another six minutes and ended up with a field goal to take a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.

But the offensive line kept the Steelers from breaking the game open. Roethlisberger was sacked five times, and six holding penalties were called, four of them on left guard Chris Kemoeatu. The offensive linemen aren't talented enough to block straight up, so they have to cheat.

Steelers reject Kraig Urbik, chosen in the third round of the 2009 draft, started at right guard for the Bills. Does this mean the Steelers missed the boat on him? Or does it mean that the Bills are so bad he can start for them? All I know is Urbik never got called for holding on Sunday.

The Wishbone

This isn't a suggestion about the kind of offense the Steelers should run. It's a reference to the way Marcus Stroud and Moats yanked on Roethlisberger and twisted his knee after sacking him in the fourth quarter. This was after Roethlisberger apparently sprained his right foot in the first half.

Roethlisberger showed some major balls, and not in a women's bathroom kind of way, with his 18-yard run in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had blown a 13-0 lead and faced a third-and-17 at their own 29. On his bad foot, Roethlisberger slipped a sack and scrambled for the first down. Rashard Mendenhall then took advantage of the Steelers' regained momentum with a 22-yard run, his longest in a 151-yard day, that set up Suisham's longest field goal of the afternoon, a 48-yarder that gave the Steelers a 16-13 lead.

In Tuesday's press conference, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seemed optimistic Roethlisberger would be able to play Sunday in Baltimore. I'm a little worried. He wore a protective boot on Tuesday and it didn't seem likely that he'd practice Wednesday. I just hope this isn't one of those injuries that's more serious than the team is letting on. Roethlisberger needs his feet more than most quarterbacks.


Did James Harrison rough Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick? Probably. But he didn't lead with the crown of his helmet, and at the very least there should have been an offsetting penalty on Fitzpatrick's beard. ... So there's no way the Steelers can win in Baltimore after their performance Sunday in Buffalo, right? Well, things change from week to week in the NFL. Let's hope the Steelers got a wakeup call on Sunday.

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