Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Week 6: Steelers 17, Jaguars 13

Steelers are good, true or false?

The halfway point of the 2011 NFL season is approaching. That means the Steelers are taking their midterm exams.

On Sunday, they passed the True-False portion of the exam.


Here's a tip, kids. Most True-False tests have more true answers than false answers. So you probably can pass if you put down "True" for everything. It also helps if you know how to make the letter that looks like both a "T" and an "F." 

It was with the same half-assed effort that the Steelers won Sunday's game over the Jaguars.

To fully restore their status as Super Bowl contenders, the Steelers (4-2) needed a convincing victory over the one-win Jaguars. But the Jaguars had a chance to win this game until the very last second. Thankfully, Blaine Gabbert's lame-assed Hail Mary found nothing but black shirts in the end zone.

The Steelers will take the multiple-choice portion of their midterms Sunday at Arizona. In the same way that multiple choice can be tricky (all of the above, none of the above, some of the above), weird shit tends to happen to the Steelers in Arizona. Although the game will be at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Steelers won't be able to take this test online. They have to show up.

Then the material goes from tricky to tough. The next phase of midterms will be essay questions, which the Steelers will have to answer in two weeks when the Patriots visit Heinz Field. That's going to require a lot of studying. The good news is that Bill Belichick will be proctoring the test, and he thinks cheating is OK.

Then, the Steelers will go from the classroom to the schoolyard for the last part of the exam -- the bully test. The Ravens bloodied the Steelers' nose in the season opener, and visit Heinz Field Nov. 6. To pass that part of the exam, the Steelers will have to win the fight with the bully, which is really all you need to learn in school to be ready for the real world.

What this midterm exam analogy means is that the Steelers have one more week to get their shit together before the Patriots and Ravens come to town.

Give and take

The Steelers nearly let a 17-0 lead slip away, at home, against a team with a rookie quarterback that had scored just five touchdowns heading into the game.

We can choose to be alarmed at all that, or we can choose to be encouraged that the Steelers have forced just two turnovers this season yet somehow are 4-2.

You know the only other team in the history of the NFL with just two takeaways in its first six games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com? This year's Dolphins, who dropped to 0-5 Monday night.

At least the Steelers didn't turn the ball over Sunday. They've had just five giveaways since their seven-turnover debacle in Baltimore, Still, their turnover differential remains at minus-10. Only the 1960 Giants (4-1-1, minus-10) and the 1960 Bears (3-2-1, minus-11) had winning records with a turnover ratio of minus-10 or worse through six games, according to Pro-Football-Reference.

Another interception or two could have turned a loss into a win in Houston and made Sunday's win a little bit easier. 

We can bellyache about how bad the Steelers' offense was in the second half Sunday or how the defense wasn't able to stop the run. But just one takeaway could have given the Steelers a short field to work with and maybe another score. That would have made the offense look better with more points on the scoreboard and it would have made the defense look better with fewer rushing yards for the Jaguars, who ran for 133 yards at a 4.4-yard-per-carry clip.

Turnovers aren't just window dressing for a defense, folks. They're a necessary tool for winning. Trying to win without getting turnovers on defense is like trying to bang nails into a wall with a baseball bat. Eventually you're going to need that hammer.

The Steelers' defense has to start taking the ball away at some point, right? The law of averages almost dictates it. In a way, it's comforting to think that winning should be easier when those takeaways start catching up to the giveaways.

But what if the turnovers don't come? Is the inability to grab fumbles and pickoffs a sign of the Steelers' age on defense? What makes this more confounding is the fact that Troy Polamalu has been healthy, despite Sunday's scare, and playing well. But he's usually good for an interception or two by this point in the season. He is 30 now. Are the hands the first thing to go?

One encouraging sign is that the Steelers had a similar shortage of sacks earlier in the season. Through the first four games, they had just seven. They've had eight in the last two games, including two Sunday by Brett Keisel. By the way, let's not underestimate how much he was missed in Indianapolis and Houston.

Sacks and turnovers have been signatures of the Steelers' defense since Bill Cowher rejuvenated the franchise nearly two decades ago. It took a while for the Steelers to get to the quarterback this season, but eventually they did. Hopefully one of these sacks will knock a ball loose and open the floodgates for turnovers.

Familiar script

There have been times this season when I didn't think I'd write the following words: The Steelers would not have won Sunday's game without Rashard Mendenhall.

Seeing the running game function without him last week seemed to spark Mendenhall the same way as his benching early in the 2009 season. He ran the ball 23 times for 146 yards and a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead. Mendenhall's 68-yard run set up a Shaun Suisham field goal and a 17-0 Steelers lead in the second quarter.

In between those scores was a 28-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace and a 48-yard completion to Wallace. The second of those receptions marked the fifth straight game in which Wallace has caught a pass of at least 40 yards, the longest such streak since Terrell Owens did it in 2004. If that streak doesn't end Sunday, something tells me the Patriots will end it in two weeks.

Alas, that bomb to Wallace, which put the ball on the Jacksonville 31, didn't lead to any points. The drive ended with Suisham missing a 46-yard field goal. Suisham has made just seven of his 11 field goal attempts this season. Am I the only one who's nervous about this?

The trajectory of Sunday's game was eerily similar to the AFC championship game in January. The Steelers build a big lead in the first half. The opponent gets a field goal to gain a little momentum before halftime. The Steelers go scoreless in the second half and have to hang on for dear life to get the win. 

It's one thing to win in this fashion when a trip to the Super Bowl is at stake. It's quite another when the other team has no shot at getting to the Super Bowl. Or even the playoffs.

If they play like that on Sunday, the Steelers will flunk out of University of Phoenix Stadium.

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