Maybe they should skip hotels from now on.
Flying in the morning of the game proved a minor distraction for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who rose above travel issues, crooked referees, and mounting injuries to defeat the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants 24-20. One of the great things about NFL football is every season is like a summer blockbuster. Sixteen games don’t seem like a lot but it’s still long enough to pack a year’s worth of ups and downs into four months.
Not too long ago, we were wondering if this was going to be another lost year for the Black and Gold. The team was 2-3 with division rival Cincy, the Redskins and their Ultimate Weapon (TM) at QB and the defending champs looming on deck. Here we are on the other side of that slate riding a three game winning streak to up our record to 5-3 with the worst team in football up next on Monday Night.
And that’s not even the most amazing part. What’s even more remarkable is how the Steelers are getting it done.
Jonathan Dwyer had back-to-back 100 yard games but was sidelined by an sore calf. Nominal starter Rashard Mendenhall joined him on the pine for the third straight week. This left Isaac Redman next man up. All he did was rumble for 147 yards against a tough Giants defense.
Then there was the much-maligned return game. For the first time all season, long returns weren’t wiped out by yellow hankies (probably because Mike Tomlin has finally started benching the repeat offenders). Antonio Brown has been the Steelers punt returner for a couple years now, making the Pro Bowl last year thanks to his special teams play. Early in the game, AB left with a sprained ankle so Emmanuel Sanders took his place on punts. All he did was bust one 63 yards which didn’t lead to a score but flipped field position contributing greatly to the eventual game winning drive.
Antonio Brown is undoubtedly the Steelers top receiver. With him out, the offense barely missed a beat. Seeing his first significant playing time this year, Jerricho Cotchery made 4 catches, several on key third downs. Sanders only caught two balls but they were both huge receptions, one a beautiful catch in the back of the end zone for the Steelers’ first TD and the other a 16 yarder on third down to effectively ice the game with two minutes left.
The turning point of the game came early in the fourth quarter. Down 10, Mike Wallace took a short slant and outran the entire Big Blue D for a 51 TD. Other than the deep bomb against the Titans, it was Wallace’s first real game-changing play this year. The catch-and-run was, dare I say, Fitzgerald-esque.
After a three and out by the Giants, Sanders ripped off his 63 yarder to set the Steelers up at the NY 13. After going nowhere fast, they lined up for a short field goal. Rookie Drew Butler flipped the ball over his shoulder but Stonecold Shaun Suisham couldn’t elude an unblocked defender for the 1st down. The suddenly resurgent Steelers defense forced a three and out and the resulting great field position set up a sweet drive with some big catches from Heath and the Cotch Rocket that eventually culminated in iRed’s game-winning 1 yard TD.
People are going to say this is the latest example of Tomlin’s reckless decision-making but I liked the fake FG try. It showed faith in the defense. Given how they’ve played the past few weeks, there is no reason not to have faith in that unit.
Going back to our early season worries, nothing concerned us more than the state of the Steelers D. They looked, to use a cliche, old, slow, and done. Since then, they’ve seemingly risen from the ashes. They still don’t generate enough Splash Plays, which is obviously a concern, although Ike Taylor did come down with an early INT to set up their first TD and they just missed two more picks and a late fumble recovery by James Harrison. Regardless of the sacks and turnovers, though, they just smother teams with a fast hard-hitting style that is getting better by the week.
The scoreboard gives the Giants 20 points but only 6 of those belong to the Steelers’ D. NY’s first score came after the refs basically did everything in their power to give them a TD. First, they called a horrible 40+ yard pass interference on Keenan Lewis when he barely touched the receiver. Then, after the Steelers made three great stops at the goal line, they called a ridiculous personal foul on Ryan Clark. The Ike Taylor Mystery Pass Interference was our frontrunner for Horrible Call of the Year but this game gave us TWO legit candidates for that title. The Clark hit was one, as he struck the receiver in the ribs with his shoulder pads a split second after the ball was thrown. Nothing illegal whatsoever.
Our other contender was an even more monumentally stupid call which put the Giants ahead before halftime. Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass and was hit as his arm was moving forward. The ball was clearly in his hand and the ball was clearly going forward, yet the corrupt zebras called it a fumble which was returned for a TD. At worst they should have called Tuck Rule since the ball was still in the cocked position when it came out. But instead they made a call so bad the Lingerie Football ref was probably sitting at home laughing.
Despite playing two opponents, the Giants and the refs, the Steelers D still managed to put together a tremendous defensive effort. They completely shut down the Giants in the second half, allowing only two measly field goals, one of which came after a Big Ben INT deep in his own end.
After the first month the season, we had a lot of questions. Questions about the offensive line. Questions about the defense. Questions about Todd Haley‘s offense. Here we are at the mid-point of the season and those questions don’t seem so pressing any more. The O-line is mauling people, protecting Ben while gashing people on the ground. The defense is shutting down good offenses for long stretches. And the Haley O is ruthlessly efficient with Ben hitting a bunch of different receivers and a new hero stepping up seemingly every drive. I don’t know where the season is going to end up but 5-3 and clicking in all three phases?
I’ll take it.
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As of this writing, the match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants is slated to kick-off in MetLife Stadium Sunday afternoon as scheduled. Not to get all soap boxy on yinz but that’s kind of insane. While MetLife has a generator, word is the surrounding area is still without public transportation. The New York/New Jersey area is only now beginning to dig their way out of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy. To play a football game amongst such chaos is nuts.
To further the craziness, word out of NY is many Giants players have been living at the Giant’s training complex because their homes have been amongst those without power. From our side, the Steelers’ team hotel is also powerless so the team has made the call to forgo flying in the night before and will instead fly in on Sunday morning, go directly to the stadium, play the game and head home. Craziness.
Okay, hopping off the box now. So what might we see when this game kicks off?
STEELERS DEFENSE vs GIANTS OFFENSE
In my piece about Eli Manning this morning, I called him Elite Eli. The joke is in reference to the always obnoxious NY media who asked Eli before last season if he considered himself an elite QB and he said yes. They snickered at the answer but the laughing stopped when he led the team to a second Super Bowl victory with a second epic last second comeback victory of the Patriots. Eli had his ups and downs his first few seasons in the league but he has definitely blossomed in to a truly elite QB.
For proof, you need not look any further than the focus of the Giants offense. Much like here in Pittsburgh, in Eli’s early years the offense relied on a strong running game and a conservative passing game. The past couple years, the running attack has dropped off considerably while the Giants put the game in Eli’s hands. And he’s responded. Last year was Manning’s third straight 4,000+ yard game (in fact, he was less than a 100 yards short of 5,000) season.
Manning is on pace to surpass that mark yet again this year. What’s more, he’s doing it with a constantly rotating cast of receivers. He isn’t much like his brother Peyton except in one regard. They both have the knack of making any receiver look like a superstar. The 2007 Champion Giants featured Plaxico Burress and Amani Toome. The 2011 G-Men starred Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz. Manningham is gone but the passing game keeps on rolling with Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. Domenik Hixon has more than replaced Manningham while Cowboys castoff TE Martellus Bennent has emerged as a red zone threat.
The Giants are a passing team. As such, they feature a duo of backs toting the rock. Ahmed Bradshaw is the nominal starter but he’s battled injury this season. Back-up Andre Brown has notched a 100 yard game in his absence. David Wilson is the change of pace back. All three are capable of catching balls out of the backfield, as is perhaps the best fullback in the league, former Pitt star Henry Hynoski.
The Steelers must must must control Eli Manning if they have any hopes of winning this game. The good news is Ryan Clark has practiced normally and would seem clear to play on Sunday after leaving the Washington game with a concussion. Clark has been a dominant force for a secondary that is statistically ranked first in the NFL. Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis have quietly strung together a couple strong games and it’ll be imperative they bring their A game to New Jersey.
The Giants boast perhaps the best O line in football. The passing game is so effective because Eli is seldom touched. LaMarr Woodley‘s hammy has been acting up and even if he plays, his effectiveness will be limited. No matter, the Steelers haven’t been getting the to QB much even with him and James Harrison finally on the field together anyway. The team doesn’t need to sack Eli or pick off his passes (although that would be nice) but they can’t let him set up a hammock and take a nap in the pocket either. If they can at least rush him a little, it would go a long way to disrupting their offense.
STEELERS OFFENSE vs GIANTS DEFENSE
This is a bad match-up for the Steelers. Our offensive line struggles against teams with good defensive lines and the Giants have perhaps the best D-line in football. Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul are arguably the most dangerous front four since the glory days of the Steel Curtain. Yes, they’re that good. They’re so good, I didn’t even mention a guy like Linval Joseph, who rotates at DT and has more sacks than anybody on the Steelers.
Our o-line has done fantastic work the past few weeks. Marcus Gilbert is likely out another week which I wouldn’t ordinarily care about because Mike Adams has done a fantastic job in his absence. I would rather have an experienced guy in there against that d-line but it’s not like Gilbert is a 10 year vet. The o-line, who are always a little fired up thanks to hotheads like Willie Colon and Maurkice Pouncey, have extra motivation this week after Justin Tuck told ESPN that they’ve only played well because they’ve gotten away with a ton of holding. Hey, as Jesse Ventura once wisely said, “it’s only cheating if you get caught.”
Ben Roethlisberger may be thanking the stars for the dink and dunk offense come game time. The best way to combat a hellacious pass rush is to get the ball out quick. Todd Haley’s offense is nothing if not quick. Mike Wallace has been chirping to the media about the lack of long bombs but those of us who remember Bruce Arians insanely dialing up deep ball after deep ball while Ben takes hit after hit prefer this method. Besides, the best defense is a ball control offense.
The Giants don’t have a great secondary. Some point to their 11 interceptions but when you play turnover machines like Michael Vick and Tony Romo (who’s gifted them 6 of the 11), the numbers will be skewed. There will be plays to be made against a secondary that’s in the bottom half of the league in yards given up.
Who will run the ball for the Steelers is a little murky. Jonathan Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall have been limited at practice. I suspect the starter will be a game time decision. Either way, Mike Tomlin will likely deactivate one or the other and then blame their injury. Isaac Redman seems good to go so he’ll likely back-up whomever starts.
This game isn’t a make or break week for the Steelers. At the same time, this team really needs a signature win over a quality opponent. The past couple weeks we’ve seen an upswing in their play as they’ve done a good job against some capable opposition. But this week we face not only a playoff caliber team but a championship level club. A win this week will firmly establish the Steelers belong in that conversation as well.
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If you’ve been a football fan for more than a handful of years, you’ve probably heard of the fabled “Quarterback Class of 1983.” The NFL was a different animal back in 1983. Quarterbacks were always important but they didn’t usually carry as much of the offense back then as they do today. That’s why teams could win a Super Bowl with an average signal caller like Mark Rypien or Jeff Hostetler.
So one can imagine how crazy it must have seemed back in ’83 when six QBs were taken in the first round. The first overall pick, John Elway, was selected by the Colts but he didn’t want to go there. He subsequently was traded to the Broncos were he went on to win two Super Bowls over a Hall of Fame career. The final QB picked was Pittsburgh’s own Dan Marino, who never won the big one (and was passed over by his hometown team due to rumored drug use) although is still considered among the best QBs ever. The remaining four picks varied from another HOFer (Jim Kelly) to a total dud (Todd Blackledge).
Despite the media’s attempts to attach the fabled tagline to other drafts, the last truly remarkable QB class was back in 2004. And the parallels are downright spooky. First overall pick Eli Manning was taken by the San Diego Chargers but didn’t want to go there. He was swapped to the Giants for the fourth overall pick, quarterback Phillip Rivers. The eleventh player chosen was a QB by the name of Ben Roethlisberger. JP Losman was also taken in the first round but we’ll forget about him and pretend Matt Schaub, taken in the 3rd round, was part of that class instead.
Big Ben has always felt disrespected by the fact teams slotted him as the third option behind Rivers and Manning. That chip on his shoulder enabled him to come out the gate strong, winning a Super Bowl in only his second season. By 2007, Ben was an established star and perhaps the most clutch QB in football. Eli struggled mightily his first couple years, the insane NY media even throwing around the B-word (bust) a few times. But in ’07, Eli silenced his critics (and won my never-ending admiration) by leading his Giants to a Super Bowl victory over the undefeated New England Patriots.
Eli’s MVP performance in XLII was a comeback for the ages. Ben answered that with an epic comeback of his own the next season, winning his second Super Bowl with a legendary last second drive against the Arizona Cardinals. Both QBs firmly established themselves as elite signal callers with Ben’s second ring the only thing separating their resumes. After Ben flubbed his third shot at a Lombardi Trophy, Eli evened the ring count last season with another comeback against the Patriots.
It’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the two at this point. Ben has long been called the most clutch QB in football but I dare anybody to find a player who has led more big comebacks the past three seasons than Eli Manning. Ben has never beaten the Patriots in a meaningful (ie playoff) game. Eli has done it twice. Ben has appeared in one more Super Bowl but Eli was MVP of both of his. Yeah, Ben should’ve been MVP of XLIII but he was little more than a spectator in the first one.
Some people are calling Sunday’s game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants the tiebreak. That’s silly. I’m sure Ben dusted off that chip and Eli, who is said to be a quietly fierce competitor, wants to win just as badly. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another regular season game.
No, there’s only one way to end the argument. One true War to Settle the Score. That would be in the Super Bowl. Let’s hope some day, some way, the stars align so we’re treated to Big Ben vs Elite Eli, winner take all for the biggest prize in the sport. Until then, Sunday will just have to do.
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I don’t know the age of my average reader but you youngsters out there don’t realize how lucky you are. When I first starting watching football in the mid-80s, pretty much every Super Bowl was a one-sided ass whuppin’. The past decade or so we’ve seen an uninterrupted string of extremely competitive games. The game has finally lived up to all the hype.
Super Bowl XLVI easily continued the streak of excellent finales. While I don’t necessarily agree with the talking heads proclaiming yesterday’s game every bit the equal of Super Bowl XLII, it was still a more than entertaining finish to the 2011 season. The prior match-up between the New England Patriots and New York Giants had the unforgettable weight of the Patriots quest for perfection going for it. And the game was a series of punches and counter-punches culminating with David Tyree’s unbelievable helmet-catch. Yesterday’s game was much more a game between equals with the game coming down to the team that made the fewest mistakes.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t any memorable moments. Mario Manningham’s toe-tapping sideline catch to get the Giants out of the shadow of their own end zone on the game winning drive was reminiscent of Lynn Swann’s acrobatic heroics in Super Bowl X. And Wes Welker’s crushing drop, which may very well have cost the Pats the game and inspired an obscenity laced tirade from Gisele Bundchen, will be played over-and-over alongside footage of Larry Brown picking off Neil O’Donnell and Scott Norwood going wide right. However, the majority of the game was a rather nondescript affair with both offenses moving the ball at will only to be undone by penalties or drops. The ferocious Giant defense that beat the bejeezus out of Aaron Rodgers didn’t really show up until late in the 3rd quarter while the inept Patriots defense barely showed up at all.
Eli Manning established once and for all he’s among the elite quarterbacks in the league. Pittsburgh Steelers fans aren’t going to like to hear this (I anxiously await hearing blowhard Mark Madden’s passionate defense of his mancrush) but Eli has clearly become the best QB taken in the class of ’04. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger has appeared in more Super Bowls but he only played well in one of them. Eli Manning has been MVP of both the Super Bowls he’s won. What’s more, he’s won both with clutch last minute drives against what is undoubtedly the team of the decade. Take nothing away from Big Ben, who is one of the top five QBs in the NFL and one of the most clutch, but let’s give Eli his due. He’s beaten the team which Ben and the Steelers have never beaten in the playoffs TWICE on the grandest stage of them all.
At the end of the day, the better team won. The Patriots were once again denied joining the San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana and the Super Steelers as the only teams to win four Super Bowls with more or less the same core. Madonna got to relive those days when she was culturally relevant by prancing around in Thor’s helmet and watching Richard Simmons break dance on a high wire. Although, sad as it is to say, watching a creepy old lady booty-popping was still more entertaining than last year’s day-glo Mr. Roboto act with the Black Eyed Peas. And, most importantly, we got to see a lot of funny commercials, my favorite being the Doritos dog.
And, really, what more can you ask of your Super Bowl Sunday?