It is done.
Is it really, really done?
First…a few thoughts on the season.
Back in October, Mike Tomlin was my front runner for Coach of the Year. I picked the Cardinals to be a powerhouse in 2007. It didn’t happen. I looked to the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys this season. This season, I knew the Cardinals were rough in the desert, but didn’t see them coming until they beat the Carolina Panthers. I remember telling a friend, “What the hell is wrong with the Cardinals? If I can name 10 guys on your defense, you should be KILLING people!!” If you love Seminole football and watch as much college football as I have (and you’re a Michigan grad), names like Dockett, Watson, Dansby, Rolle, Cromartie (even Rodgers-Cromartie) are familiar. As familiar as I was with those names (I had also seen the blizzard debacle in New England.), I had no idea the Cardinals had turned the corner. Back in my world I thought the difficulty of the Steeler’s schedule would catch up with them. With the twins, I don’t watch as many games as I used to. I saw the Marijuana Bowl when Santonio Holmes was suspended vs. the New York Giants. I saw Tip Gate when Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu dropped interceptions vs. Peyton Manning and the Colts. I saw Jason Campbell throw his first two interceptions of the season vs. the Steelers on a Monday night. I saw bits and pieces of a team that always seemed to be on national television. I was used to the Steelers playing at 1:00 on Sunday afternoon. It happened four times all season. In three of those games, the Steelers scored 38, 38 and 31 points. The other was game was that lost Sunday in Tennessee when everyone showed up except for the QB.
Every week was the Game of the Year. In Week 2, every one wanted to know if the 2007 Cleveland Browns (winners of 10 games) were the real deal. Would Derek Anderson continue his rise? The Browns were blown out in Week 1 vs. the Cowboys, but gave a hint of what they could do in losing a nailbiter to the Steelers, 10-6. In Week 3, the Steelers played the big national TV game vs. the Eagles and Donovan McNabb. That game was a disaster. The 15-6 loss was punctuated by the line surrendering nine sacks. In Week 4, it was the Ravens. Brutal game on Monday night. Jacksonville – the team that beat the Steelers twice at the end of last season was up next in Week 5. That came went down to the wire…tough, physical game for both teams. Week 6 provided a brief reprieve. After that, the schedule went to another level — Cincinnati (the same Bengals that took the Giants to overtime, beat the Eagles and scared the Cowboys), Giants, Redskins, Colts, Chargers, Bengals, Patriots, Cowboys, Ravens, and Titans. Most of those games were national games of the week played at 4:00 on Sunday afternoon or Monday night or Sunday night or Thursday night. There was a surreal intensity to the Pittsburgh Steelers schedule this season.
It seems like they caught up with their schedule.
The Steelers had a strange year with the officials. Earlier this season, the NFL sent representatives to Pittsburgh to discuss the physicality of their play. The team had been involved in a number of big hits and the league had already issued fines. Troy Polamalu expressed his concern that the his craft had become a “pansy league.” Hines Ward was in the spotlight for his jarring hit on Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers, and on several of the Baltimore Ravens. James Harrison and free safety Ryan Clark also drew scrutiny for hits. Clark’s hit on Wes Welker in New England and later on Willis McGahee in the AFC Championship Game would define this physical season. When the league made the trip out to Pittsburgh, none of the Steelers were of the mind that they were receiving favorable treatment from the NFL. That feeling would emerge later. There may have been something to it. The Steelers might argue, however, that if all the holding calls on James Harrison were called that should have been, games might never conclude on time. They might put forth the same argument on behalf of Casey Hampton. As it is, the team paid some fines and some calls went their way and some did not. (Al Michaels was definitely of the mind that Super Bowl XLIII looked a great deal like Super Bowl XL with the number of whistles favoring the Black and Gold.)
Teams that win more games tend to make just a few more plays in each game to win. Winning teams have players that get to the critical spot. They are just a little quicker or stronger. They have slightly better leverage. They make that critical tackle or catch that elusive pass. It’s a game of inches — and that is often the difference between an 8 or 9 win team and a 12 or 13 win team. Inches, fractions, finger tips and toe taps. During the season, there were times when this team wasn’t getting those inches. They didn’t make the interceptions vs. the Colts. They let the balls hit the ground and Peyton Manning got his bearings. He passed for three touchdowns and escaped with a win. They didn’t make the tackles vs. the Giants. James Farrior missed Kevin Boss on 3rd and 8. Boss converted the downs, preserved a drive and the Giants escaped with a win. They didn’t have too many easy wins. Houston, Cincinnati, New England, the finale vs. the lame duck Browns. Most of the games were close. As close as a razor’s edge…
All throughout this season, the Steelers struggled to get those inches and fingertips and toe taps. Maybe things changed in the San Diego Charger game when Troy Polamalu got his hands underneath an errant pass from Phil Rivers. Maybe it was this play?
Back in August, I remember setting my Auto-Draft for my Fantasy Football League. I took Santonio Holmes in the 5th round or something like that. I wanted to hate him (something about Ohio State and having UM defensive backs for lunch), but I saw that gaudy yards per catch average. I thought he’d have a better regular season than he did, but his post-season made up for it. I’d never autodrafted before, but I figured my strategy could pay dividends with a little luck. I finished in 2nd place and had a sub-par showing in our semi-final. I lost that matchup because I violated a fundamental rule. I went away from my power players late in the season. One thing that I did well was play Santonio Holmes against the Ravens. He always scores against the Ravens…not usually…always. Ray Lewis talked about the Ravens inability to stop him during an NFL.com interview before the Super Bowl. Holmes is a big play receiver. He gets open. He catches the ball. He gets yards after the catch. Holmes may not be Larry Fitzgerald, but on Sunday night, he didn’t need to be. He just needed to be himself, and that was more than enough.
Baltimore Raven defensive end Travor Pryce offered free advice to the Arizona Cardinals which they apparently decided not to take. Much was made of the fact that Cardinal coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm coached the Steelers and were possessed of inside knowledge that might decide the game. Pryce, a former Denver Bronco and two-time Super Bowl champion, has amassed 83.5 sacks in his career. He advised the Cardinals not to rush Roethlisberger. It was the same advice that most experts gave to the Steelers concerning the savvy Kurt Warner. If and when someone reviews game tape for the Cardinals, they may wish they’d taken Trevor Pryce’s advice. It was free. Ben Roethlisberger completed 10 of 10 passes for 181 yards and no picks when the Cardinals sent five or more rushers. (It occurred to me that the Ravens may also be the reason why Karlos Dansby was flagged for Roughing the Passer in the 3rd quarter. It wasn’t much of a penalty, but it probably had higher visibility because of Jim Leonhard’s hit on Roethlisberger in the AFC Championship Game that was not whistled.)
The Steelers defensive approach to Kurt Warner was fundamentally sound. They rarely blitzed. They used a base defense on early downs and precluded the Cardinals from being balanced. (It is amazing to me how many people continue to compare the Eagles and Steelers approaches to defense by labeling both teams as heavy blitz teams. The Eagles are. The Steelers are not. This season, the Steelers typically did not send more than four or five defenders after the QB. The issue was that offensives seldom knew which four or five were coming. To the extent that a “blitz” refers to sending unconventional attackers it is fine, but the use of the word can obscure the facts.) Clearly, there were one or two plays the team did not perform as intended, but the strategy was effective. At halftime, Larry Fitzgerald had only one catch. Bill Belichick used a similar approach in his Super Bowl victory over the Warner-led St. Louis Rams. The Patriots priority was to make sure tackles after passes and limit yards after the catch. The Steelers struggled with limiting yards after the catch on several 3rd and 4th quarter plays: for Boldin, Breaston, Urban, Arrington and Fitzgerald. The Cardinals made solid adjustments at half time. Belichick and LeBeau know that when a veteran QB has receivers as accomplished as Fitzgerald and Boldin, you cannot realistically expect to shut them down for an entire game. The Steelers did it for 3 quarters. Had the Steelers run game been more effective (2.8 ypc), the Cardinals might never have come off the mat. The Cardinals entered the 4th quarter with less than 200 total yards and a mere 7 points. There is no shame in not being able to hold down this team for 60 minutes. Or this one:
LaMarr Woodley played a tremendous game. He used speed and power and tenacity against Cardinals right tackle Levi Brown. He pressured Kurt Warner, he put his hands on the ball and he was solid against the run. I thought he was the third most dominant defensive player on the field behind James Harrison and Darnell Dockett. LaMarr Woodley also blocked Tim Hightower on two separate occasions during Harrison’s 100-yard run back. He was not the only blocker on that play (Lawrence Timmons was special on that play as well.), but Woodley’s block was critical in allowing Harrison to score. Harrison gave Mike Gandy fits all night long. He drew holding penalties — and the refs missed a few more. Dockett beat double teams. He pressured and sacked Roethlisberger. He was grabbed and held, but he persevered. He was the best Cardinal on the field other than Fitzgerald (late).
The Cardinals got back in the game because they were able to keep the Steelers offense from scoring touchdowns in the Red Zone. Teams that fail to get 7 usually live to regret it. I remember being concerned that Willie Parker had only 8 carries at halftime. Bruce Arians, Steelers offensive coordinator, made an effort to get Parker more touches. Parker had 7 carries on the first drive of the 2nd half. The drive consumed more than 8 minutes, but yielded only 3 points. I thought and hoped the Steelers would pull some pages from their win over San Diego. I hoped they would simply double down on Darnell Dockett and run right at him. That was the approach against the Chargers enormous tackle Jamal Williams. That was not the approach tonite. I thought the Steelers tried to be too cute in running the ball. They made run plays that required quickness and finesse – a strong suit of the Cardinals. Roethlisberger was tackled around the ankles by Gabe Watson on a draw. Gary Russell was stuffed by Dockett on a counter run out of the pro set. The Steelers even pulled Chris Kemoatu on the play that Willie Parker almost surrendered a safety.
Once the Cardinals were able to stop the run, the finally got their passing game untracked. They stormed back with 16 points in the fourth quarter. But…
What if I had more than 9 carries?
In a post-game locker room conversation, Kurt Warner said he felt as if his team might have scored to soon. Mike Tomlin said that if the Cardinals had to score, that a big quick strike was ideal. If you watched the Steelers this season vs. San Diego or Dallas or Baltimore, you probably were not surprised by the Steelers’ final drive. If you’d been watching the team since 2004, you could have remembered games at Jacksonville, at San Diego, vs. Cincinnati or Cleveland or at the Giants. Surely you’d seen it before. If not 17 times (the most in the league over the past few years), you’d probably seen it once. I remember thinking to myself, “If these guys can drive 92 yards against the Ravens in Baltimore, they damn well better score a touchdown here.” On the game’s final drive, Roethlisberger’s ability to outrun Darnell Dockett and make a play to Santonio Holmes was pure magic. The other plays were just what we’ve seen all year long. The offense did just enough to win the game. They did what they do. The defense did what they do for 3 quarters and when they faltered for one of the few times all season, the rest of the team was there to carry the load. The defense regained its form in time to shut the door on a wonderful Arizona team that we can only hope will return as strong as they were this season.
Is it really?
Congrats to the 2008 Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s been a wonderfully bumpy ride!