Monday, November 28, 2011

Week 12: Steelers 13, Chiefs 9

Steelers win, for real

So who survives cutdown day? 

What? That wasn't a preseason game on Sunday? The Steelers actually get credit for a regular-season win after that performance?

Weslye Saunders. Ryan Mundy. Keenan Lewis. Jason Worilds. Those names normally remind us of August in Latrobe, not November in Kansas City.

Yet Saunders scored the game's only touchdown and Worilds had the Steelers' only sack, both career firsts, and Lewis and Mundy made their first career interceptions.

The truth is these guys are more than just practice fodder and special teams soldiers. Damn good thing, too, because most of the Steelers' household-name guys took the night off. 

The Steelers, leading by four points with four minutes left, were once again setting an "American Idol" stage for an unknown quarterback to hit the big time. Who can forget Curtis Painter, even though he's still no one's idol, tying the game in the final two minutes in Indianapolis? Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert came oh-so-close with his Hail Mary in Week 6.

Combine all those skeletons in the closet of the Steelers' defense with the vivid memory of Joe Flacco's winning drive three Sunday nights ago, and it seemed there was no way the Steelers were going to stop Tyler Palko with four minutes to go and 70 yards to defend. 

Then Lewis intercepted Palko with 38 seconds left to save the Steelers' ass. He also had a key pass breakup on a ball thrown to Steve Breaston that would have given the Chiefs a first down at the Steelers' 40 with two minutes left.

Mundy Night Football 

Until Sunday night, perhaps the most memorable moment of Lewis' career came during a 2010 preseason game when Mike Tomlin grabbed the front of his collar and chewed him out  like some bad-ass high school principal talking to a punk in the hallway. Lewis has come a long way since then. Now he's got a huge interception to show for all that progress.

Speaking of interceptions, if I would have told you that the Steelers would be 8-3 heading into December and Mundy would have more interceptions than Troy Polamalu, you would have thought I was so full of shit that my eyes were brown.

The Steelers played 56 minutes of the game without Polamalu, who was done after introducing his head to the knee of tackle-turned-receiver Steve Maneri. This is the second time this season Polamalu has left a game with "concussion-like symptoms." Isn't that a little bit like saying a woman has "pregnant-like" symptoms?

The fact is Polamalu has had so many concussions that one of these days he'll probably give himself another one shooting a Head & Shoulders commercial. That's how sensitive that noggin is.

Mundy might not fly all over the field like Polamalu, but he did lead the Steelers with seven tackles and he was where he had to be to get that pick, which gave the Steelers the ball on the Chiefs' 24 on a night when a long touchdown drive just wasn't happening. The second-quarter turnover led to Ben Roethlisberger's 2-yard pass to Saunders, the Steelers' backup tight end, and a 10-3 Steelers lead. Good for Saunders, although "WES-LEEEEEEE!" doesn't have the same ring to it as "HEEEEEEAAAAATH!"

Steelers get their take 

Like Mundy, Worilds showed he was more than just a warm body filling in for one of the cornerstones of the Steelers defense. He provided the Steelers with their only sack Sunday, which forced the Chiefs to punt late in the third quarter.

That was all well and good, but boy do the Steelers need LaMarr Woodley back. Any  quarterback not named Tyler Palko would have sliced and diced a defense with a puny pass rush like that. Hell, Tyler Perry probably would have done a better job.

Even on offense, the Steelers were bailed out by guys we don't expect much from. Hines Ward, who everyone figured would be buying announcer's suits during the bye week, tied for the team lead with four catches. He needs just 15 to reach 1,000 for his career.

Shaun Suisham made both of his field goal attempts, including a 49-yarder outdoors on a cold night to give the Steelers a 13-6 halftime lead. He's made 18 of his 23 field goal attempts this season, including 11 of his last 12. All that said, he's still not the guy I want kicking a 45-yard field goal with three seconds left and the Steelers down by two in a playoff game. He's getting there, though.

The Steelers would not have won without Suisham's field goals. They also would not have won without forcing four turnovers, the most they have forced in a game since Week 2 last season in Tennessee, when they forced seven. By forcing those four turnovers and turning it over just twice, they spared us my weekly turnover tally, because while their 10 takeaways and minus-8 turnover margin are still pretty pathetic, those stats are no longer of historic proportions.

An interception by Ike Taylor, not the first of his career although it seemed like it, and a fumble recovery by Brett Keisel accounted for the other Steelers takeaways. They needed all four of those turnovers to serve as a masking agent for everything that's wrong with this team.

The Chiefs gained just 90 yards on 34 carries, less than three yards a carry. But the Steelers' run defense seems to have a soft underbelly. They just don't seem to be stopping the run like they used to.

The Steelers offense was shut out in the second half for the third time this season. It didn't help that they were just 3 for 11 on third down. Rashard Mendenhall had his first bad game since Arizona, rushing for 57 yards on 17 carries, an average of 3.4 yards per carry.

How did this team beat the Patriots?

For the Steelers to win the AFC North, they're going to have to run the table and hope for one more Ravens loss. Or if they lose one, they'll need two Ravens losses. Right now, the Steelers don't look like a team that can run the table. If they play the way they did Sunday, there's at least a couple more losses down the road.

But like they did in Indianapolis and at home against Jacksonville, they played well enough to beat the team they played Sunday.

That's all that really matters.

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