Just a few random thoughts that I had during the game and after the game:
- Element of Surprise. The Steelers offense seemed to be as surprised as I was that the Packers chose to defer on the kickoff. I certainly thought the Packers would want to put their powerful offense on the field to make a statement. The Steelers went 3-and-out on the first drive; four-and-out on the second…then interception (pick six), field goal, interception. Five possessions, 2 turnovers, 3 points. After this miserable beginning, the Steelers scored 3 touchdowns on their next 6 possessions.
- Pre-Snap Reads. I don’t think Roethlisberger did a good job making pre-snap reads or going through his progressions until the second half. In the first half, Roethlisberger was 13-21 for 143 yards with 2 interceptions. The second interception was a nightmare. The Steelers went 5 wide with an empty backfield. The Packers countered with their 2-4-5 look. Green Bay had 9 defenders within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and 2 deep safeties. I was hoping the Steelers would call timeout to get a running back on the field. It didn’t happen. Roethlisberger seemed to have pre-determined that the ball was going to Mike Wallace — no matter what. As soon as Wallace cleared Sam Shields on a cross, Roethlisberger ripped it. Jarrett Bush was waiting for the ball. This particular alignment is designed to take away the short and intermediate middle. A.J. Hawk had the underneath routes covered and Bush had the intermediate middle. The correct read was over the top to Heath Miller, one-on-one against Nick Collins. Easy for me to say.
- Legursky Locks Down Raji. B.J. Raji was a non-factor in this game. I hardly recall hearing his name called. This came as no surprise. Legursky is a strong, physical, and fundamentally sound player.
- Chris Kemoeatu’s Big Plays. Chris Kemoeatu was a HUGE factor in yesterday’s game. The Steelers right guard has a reputation for solid play, but also for overly aggressive nastiness that draws penalties. He drew one penalty for illegally blocking B.J. Raji in the back. Most importantly, however, he was beaten by Packers DE Howard Green on a bull rush in the first quarter. Green powered through Kemoeatu, hit Roethlisberger and forced an underthrow which led to Nick Collins’ interception and touchdown return. If that wasn’t bad enough, Kemoeatu was on the bench (presumably due to a minor injury) on the play where Rashard Mendenhall fumbled. At the snap, I noticed that Ramon Foster was in at left guard and yelled, “WTF!!!!” The Steelers tried a counter by pulling Legursky to the right: Ryan Pickett and Clay Matthews ate it up. Both were unblocked and tore into Mendenhall before he ever got going.
- Bracketing Heath Miller. The Packers took away Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite pass target. Shannon Sharpe, host of NFL Network’s Playbook and a former Green Bay Packer, said this would be a decisive area of the game. It was. Miller was held to 2 catches for 12 yards. He lost 3 yards on one of his receptions. Roethlisberger missed a wide-open Miller at least once. Miller was effective, however, in the running game. He routinely executed great blocks at the point of attack against Clay Matthews and others. He was also flagged for one holding penalty, which I thought was a terrible call. It was the first play of the drive on which Roethlisberger was intercepted by Bush. I don’t know that the call had any bearing on the game. As a blocker, I’d give Miller an A. As a receiver — not so much.
- Turning Point. For me, there were several critical junctures in the game. I believe the game boiled down to the failure of the Steelers OFFENSE to make plays. Rashard Mendenhall only had 14 carries. The pace and flow of the game was such that it was hard for him to get more carries. He was also forced to leave the game when he suffered a knock in the nether regions on his collision with the camera man. Ouch! The Steelers closed the gap to 21-17 in the 3rd quarter after Mendenhall’s 8-yard touchdown run. The defense forced the Packers to PUNT on three consecutive possessions. This is where the Steelers offense failed to finish the job — and the Packers defense won the game.
- Steelers Offense Stalls. On the first of these critical drives, Rashard Mendenhall was on the bench. I think he took a knee to the stuff. In his absence, Roethlisberger continued to struggle in the passing game and the playcalling was a bit too conservative. The Packers aggressively attacked short stuff because the Steelers were not attacking deep and Roethlisberger was missing on deep passes. Mike Wallace could have put the ball in the Red Zone had the throw been on target. On the second drive, Mendenhall was back, but the Steelers tried to get cute and they threw an incompletion on 3rd and 2 from their own 21 yard line. On the third drive, Mendenhall fumbled and the Packers rode that momentum to a 28-17 lead. He never carried the ball again — no Steelers did.
- TAKE A SHOT!!! On the play on which Rashard Mendenhall fumbled, the Steelers were facing a 2nd and 3 from the Green Bay Packers 33 yard line. The Steelers had taken possession of the ball at the Packers 41 after a re-kick and a nice return by Antonio Brown. I certainly understood that the Steelers wanted to do a bit of ground and pound…to reinforce the momentum…to be physical…and to simply do what they just did by running it in, but I didn’t like the decision to run a counter on 2nd and 3. First of all, philosophically, I hate running wide on short yardage. Second of all, there is no better down and distance situation in all of football than 2nd and short from deep inside your opponent’s territory. The Packers would have had to defend the ENTIRE field. It was a perfect time to take a shot. First down was a perfect time to take a shot. Mendenhall gained 8 yards on first down. I was sure they would look deep to Miller or Ward or Wallace. I had the routes all figured out in my head. I was actually standing…calling out the play. When they ran the ball on a counter with Kemo on the bench, I had a sense of DOOM that was fulfilled in gut wrenching fashion. Mendenhall coughed it up on a play that, to my mind, should never have been run. Pittsburgh was in a heavy formation. The Packers should have been forced to deal with the pass here. The Steelers true POWER POSITION on that play would have been to THROW the ball downfield. This was markedly different than their decisions to get cute and throw on 3rd and 2. Huge difference. The Steelers didn’t play to the pressure of the moment. In two big situations, they played counter to the pressure and put a greater burden on the offense than on the defense.
- Packers Punt 4 Times in 3rd Quarter. Chronicles of the game will not likely recall that the Steelers defense was playing lights out for much of this time. Packers receivers did drop a couple of balls during this stage, but the Packers offense was not effective through the air or on the ground until Mendenhall’s fumble at the end of the quarter. In the third quarter, the Packers ran 13 plays for all of 36 yards. And, the Steelers STILL could not take the lead. That was the game.
- Block that Kick. When the Steelers lined up with Shaun Suisham to try a 52-yarder, I was thinking, “Wow. This is going to get blocked and returned for a touchdown. This is bad.” As it turned out, Suisham missed the kick. The Packers went 3-and-out when they took possession and the Steelers tried again. On the play before the field goal attempt, Roethlisberger was sacked by rookie Frank Zombo. I was talking shit about Zombo right before the play. I should have known then. Zombo was solid all game long. The Steelers were on the 34 yard line of the Packers. If you have 2 plays to get 13 yards from the Packers 34, you’ve gotta go for it. They didn’t go for it. I thought this was the only time where Mike Tomlin pulled in the reigns. This move did not cause the team to lose, but a more aggressive tack here could have paid huge dividends.
“That was a terrible decision by me in hindsight,” Tomlin admitted. “That wasn’t even close.”
- Ike Taylor is an Outstanding Cover Corner. Greg Jennings scored 2 touchdowns — away from Ike Taylor. He beat Ike Taylor on one significant play, but it was Aaron Rodgers’ precision pass that was Taylor’s undoing on that 31 yard pass on 3rd and 10. Rodgers’ completion extended the drive. Instead of punting for the 5th time in the 2nd half, the Packers marched 75 yards on 10 plays and limited the Steelers to one final possession. After Jennings’ catch, the Packers were in a great position to run down the clock and force the Steelers to drive for a touchdown. For most of the game, however, Taylor was the equal of Jennings wherever they matched up on the field. Taylor doesn’t make interceptions, but he is an underrated performer on this high profile defense.
- Steelers Secondary Blues. The Steelers defensive backs had one pass defensed for the game. If the Packers didn’t drop as many balls as they did, the damage could have been far worse. William Gay is still a nightmare matchup for the Steelers in man coverage — but he was matched up with Jordy Nelson on the first score of the game. Pittsburgh simply has to get better cover corners if they expect to beat high octane teams like New England, New Orleans, and Green Bay in the next few years. The Packers intercepted 2 balls and deflected five. Big difference.
- Brian Bulaga and Chad Clifton. Both players were solid yesterday. Harrison and Woodley were able to get some pressure and some hits on Rodgers. The Steelers had more sacks, hits, and knockdowns than most people probably thought possible, but overall, Bulaga and Clifton did the job. Neither Harrison nor Woodley were able to dominate the game either through sacking Rodgers or by killing drives with holding penalties. Woodley, Harrison and Ziggy Hood combined to get 7 hits on Rodgers. It was a decent effort, but not a dominant effort.
- Trai Essex. What was Trai doing at left tackle, of all places, on the final two plays of the Steelers final drive? Jonathan Scott lost his shoe! Great!!
- Take What’s There. On the final drive of the game, Roethlisberger passed up wide open check downs that would have moved the chains in order to force the ball down to Mike Wallace. Sometimes, you have to take what’s there…not what you want. Aaron Rodgers took what was there. I thought that the Steelers would win the game, given their 6 point deficit, the time remaining, and their capacity to deliver in big moments. Plays were there to be made. The Packers made them…the Steelers did not.
- All in All. The Pittsburgh Steelers had a tremendous season. Coming off of last season’s 9-7 fiasco, it was hard to believe this team could compete for a Super Bowl. I thought they’d finish 3rd in the AFC North and begin the serious task of rebuilding an aging defense. Last year, I wrote an extensive 10-point piece on what was wrong with the team. The Steelers addressed almost every single issue on the list — in one season. In the final analysis, all that can be said is that the Steelers owners, coaches, and coordinators put the players in a position to win a winnable game. That’s all you can ask for.