Monday, October 24, 2011

Week 7: Steelers 32, Cardinals 20

Steelers play Cards right

Funny how the biggest highlight of the Steelers' win over the Cardinals Sunday was a reminder of what might have been.

The same play that fell apart and allowed the Packers to take control of Super Bowl XLV worked to perfection Sunday, allowing the Steelers to take control in their Super Bowl XLIII rematch.

In Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers were at their own 7-yard line, and Ben Roethlisberger tried to find Mike Wallace on a sideline route. But Roethlisberger's arm was hit on the play, and the Packers' Nick Collins grabbed the fluttering ball and returned it for a Pick 6 and a 14-0 Packers lead. If only Roethlisberger had released the ball cleanly, Wallace would have been gone and the game would have been tied.

On Sunday, the Steelers were at their own 5 and, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, were going to try a short pass to tight end David Johnson to get them a little breathing room.

But Roethlisberger saw that Wallace was open going down the sideline, just like he was in the Super Bowl. This time, nobody in a red shirt touched Roethlisberger before he got the ball off, and he connected with Wallace on a 95-yard touchdown pass, the longest pass play in Steelers' history.

This time, the 14-0 lead belonged to the Steelers. 

Touch of gray

Wallace was preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine three years ago when the Cardinals were giving the Steelers all they could handle in Tampa. The Cardinals wouldn't go quietly on Sunday, either. The 17-7 halftime score was discomforting. That was the halftime score of Super Bowl XLIII, and the second half of that game was a little too white-knuckle for my taste.

The lead was chopped to 17-14 Sunday when Kevin Kolb, who looks like he's permanently afflicted with bitter-beer face, threw a short pass to LaRod Stephens-Howling that turned into a 73-yard touchdown. While overall the Steelers' defense played "above the line," as Mike Tomlin would say, that play revealed another gray hair on a unit that isn't getting any younger.

Yeah, we saw the 2009 James Farrior there. Stephens-Howling couldn't have embarrassed him any more if he had pulled his pants down.

With a few more gray hairs added to the heads of their fans at this point, the Steelers regained command of the game with an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive.

Heath Miller caught two passes for 38 yards on the drive. Emmanuel "Remember Me?" Sanders caught three of his five balls on the drive, including one for 20 yards that got the Steelers to the 2. Two plays later, Roethlisberger found Sanders again for the touchdown, dodging unblocked former teammate Clark Haggans before firing the pass.

We're probably going to see Tom Brady do a lot of things next Sunday at Heinz Field, but I guarantee you we won't see him avoid a sack like Roethlisberger did on that play, because that's one thing that Roethlisberger can do that Brady can't.

A penalty yanked the Cardinals back to their own 7 on the the ensuing kickoff, and on the first play LaMarr Woodley, who already had two sacks, roamed free in the backfield and waved his arms at Kolb as if to say "Yeah, it's me again" in a schoolyard kind of way.

Woodley forced Kolb to intentionally ground the ball in the end zone, giving the Steelers a safety and a 26-14 lead.

Suisham settles down 

It's funny how the two points gained from a safety, that most emasculating of football plays, can change the complexion of a game. Now the Cardinals needed two touchdowns, not just a touchdown and a field goal.

But first, the Steelers got the ball back on the free kick, and Shaun Suisham booted a 42-yard field goal to make it 29-14. Now the Cardinals needed two touchdowns and a two-point conversion.

The Steelers could loosen their ties even more after Suisham's 39-yarder later in the fourth quarter, which made it a 32-14 and a three-score game with less than seven minutes left. The Steelers' kicker, who has been shaky this year, made all three of his field goal attempts Sunday and gave us a week off from worrying about him.

The Steelers' running game wasn't quite as impressive, gaining just 3.3 yards per carry. However, after the Cardinals scored a throwaway touchdown (and missed the 2-point conversion) to make it 32-20, Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore came out of the bullpen to close out the game.

Seriously, these guys should get some kick-ass closer's music when they step on the field, because when the Steelers are trying to protect a lead late in the game, they've proven they can run the ball, move the chains and drain the clock better than Rashard Mendenhall (13 carries, 32 yards). They combined for 27 yards in the final 3:53 as the Cardinals did not touch the ball again.

Let's not forget, too, that Antonio Brown (career-high seven catches) caught a first-down pass to keep the drive going and Sanders, who caught all his passes in the second half, twice gave the Steelers a new set of downs on the drive.

More turnover talk 

Sanders wasn't the only weapon the Steelers dusted off Sunday. The defense forced its first turnover in two weeks. Lawrence Timmons (Correction: James Farrior) tipped a Kolb pass on the opening drive and Ryan Clark intercepted it, leading to a 12-yard touchdown pass to Miller and a 7-0 Steelers lead.

While that turnover had quite a bit of impact, allowing the Steelers to score first in a game in which they never trailed, it was the Steelers' only takeaway of the game. That means I again had to comb the annals of to find other teams that had just three takeaways in the first seven games of a season.

I couldn't find any.

That's right. According to Pro Football Reference, your 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers are the only team with just three takeaways in the first seven games of a season.

The Steelers almost had a second turnover Sunday, but Troy Polamalu dropped an easy interception. Several times this season, it seems the Steelers' mane man has been just a hair away from where he's needed to be to get an interception. It was encouraging, then, to at least see Polamalu in position to make a pick Sunday.

The good news is that on the other side of the ball, the Steelers had their second straight turnover-free game, chipping away at their ghastly giveaway-takeaway ratio, which stands at minus-9.

In the last 50 years, the 2001 Dolphins, the 1983 Raiders and the 1977 Vikings are the only other teams to go 5-2 despite a turnover margin of minus-9 or worse, according to Pro Football Reference. Interestingly, the '83 Raiders won the Super Bowl despite turning the ball over 13 more times than their opponent.

So I guess you don't have to win the turnover battle to win a Super Bowl. That said, the Steelers don't beat the Patriots next week if they cough the ball up more than they snatch it away. The Patriots are too good.

The Steelers have beaten the Patriots only twice since the turn of the century, and are 5-8 against them since 1995. But all five of those wins have come in seasons in which the Steelers have at least reached the AFC championship game.

I can't wait for the week when the Steelers' defense puts together four, five or six turnovers and I no longer have to scour the Internet for historic perspective on their turnover futility.

How about next week? Because if the Steelers beat the Patriots, no number crunching will be required for us to know that they are again capable of playing well into January.

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