I hope everybody had a great Christmas.
The Pittsburgh Steelers surely did. First, the Black and Gold shut out the hapless St. Louis Rams 27-0. About a half an hour later, the New York Giants put the finishing touches on a crucial late-season victory over inter-city rival New York Jets. As satisfying as it is to watch that arrogant blowhard Rex Ryan stick his
wife’s foot in his mouth, the G-Men did the Steelers a huge favor. With the Jets’ loss, the Cincinnati Bengals now control their own destiny. Win next week and they’re in the playoffs for only the third time in twenty-five years. And who might they be playing in the season finale?
The Baltimore Ravens.
Of course, everything would be moot if not for a fantastic workman-like effort by the Steelers. Granted the Rams were starting their third string quarterback and are utterly terrible on both sides of the ball but if we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s to never take any opponent lightly. The Steelers, playing with their own back-up quarterback protected by an offensive line in a total shambles, finally mounted a rushing attack that has been absent all year. Rashard Mendenhall had his best game in almost two seasons, piling up 116 yards on 18 carries. The Steelers’ running game was so effective, they dressed three running backs and all three scored a touchdown. Redzone Redman continued his fine season while rookie John Clay, activated from the practice squad due to injuries to Mewelde Moore and Jon Dwyer, gave us a glimpse of what we saw in the preseason, busting a beautiful 10 yard TD run on the first and only carry of his career.
While the return of Stiller Football carried the day, I can’t disregard the job done by Charlie Batch. The past couple years, I’ve been dismissive of Charlie when it came to choosing a back-up for Big Ben. Never again. He may not have the big arm of a Byron Leftwich or the pizzazz of a Dennis Dixon but Chaz is the ultimate gamer. I will never doubt Charlie Batch again.
His final numbers (15/22 for 208 yards and 1 INT) aren’t sexy but when compared to the Caleb Hanies and Tyler Palkos of the world, they’re positively Brady-esque. There was a play in the first quarter where three Rams converged from all angles, Batch somehow managed to duck, dodge and weave away from danger, then got the ball to Mendy for a 35 yard gain. Later on, Chaz hit Mike Wallace with a beautiful 47 yard bomb that the Flash brought down a foot short of the goal line. I hate to say it but Charlie might even throw a better deep ball than Ben does.
And it wasn’t like Batch didn’t have any obstacles of his own to overcome. The patchwork offensive line, already missing Maurkice Pouncey, lost back-up center Doug Legursky early on to a shoulder injury. Trai Essex, who was given a rare game ball by Mike Tomlin for epitomizing the Tomlinism of “Next Man Up,” was forced into his first NFL action at center. And he did a pretty good job, not botching any snaps or having any issues with protection. With Essex moving over from guard, that meant Chris Kemoeatu had to take his place. Lo and behold, it was a Christmakkuh Miracle as Kemo didn’t get called once for holding. To make things even more chaotic, rookie RT Marcus Gilbert “failed to display an acceptable level of professionalism” (Tomlinspeak for missed a meeting), earning him a benching. Jonathan Scott took his place and held Rams sack leader Chris Long off the stat sheet. In fact, St. Louis did not register a single sack all afternoon.
While the offense was surprisingly effective, the defensive leaders stepped up. Troy Polamalu and James Harrison were a two man wrecking crew. The defensive line, which I praised in my game preview, had a bad day handling All-Pro stud running back Stephen Jackson. He repeatedly gashed them to the tune of 24 carries for 103 yards. The D has now allowed three 100-yd runners this year, where they’ve allowed four in the past 7 years COMBINED. Thankfully, the inept Rams coaching staff, which would dial up passes or rotate Jackson out in favor of Cadillac Williams at crucial moments, seemed hellbent on shooting themselves in the foot. Troy finally saw enough and kept coming on run blitzes, which eventually stopped the bleeding. The aerial attack never got off the ground as Kellen Clemens completed only 9 of 24 passes, primarily thanks to a dominating performance from Harrison. There was one play where Silverback literally THREW the offensive lineman five yards backward into Clemens. Harrison was coming so hard on every play, it was almost like he was seeing the Ginger Dictator’s smug face behind every horn-rimmed helmet.
St. Louis only mounted one decent drive, early in the fourth quarter, where Jackson pounded the defense relentlessly until Troy threw him for a three yard loss on a big 3rd and 4 just outside the red zone. Kicker Josh Brown, who earlier missed on a Hail Mary 52 yarder, shanked a 33 yard gimme. The Steelers were up 13-0 at that point and a touchdown might have given the Rams life. After that, it seemed they knew this wasn’t their day and the Steelers went on to score touchdowns on two consecutive drives. With the game firmly out of reach, Bruce Arians made an effort to feed the ball to Hines Ward, who had four catches to inch within five of the magical 1,000 catch plateau. You could hear the crowd buzzing with anticipation as Hines caught each ball (the Countdown sign was a nice touch) but unfortunately they simply ran out of snaps. It would’ve been nice for Hines to get the record at home but with next week’s game at Cleveland likely to be a glorified home game, let’s hope he at least makes it wearing the Black and Gold.
And it’s on to next week, which promises to go down to the wire in terms of seeding. I’ve said all along the Steelers probably need that first round bye to have a realistic chance at earning another shot at the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl. I’m not sure how we’ll handle the quarterback situation, since the Steelers probably don’t want Ben to go three weeks without seeing game action (if we earn the bye) but don’t want to risk him aggravating his injury (if we don’t). If this week has taught us anything, it’s that we should never doubt Charlie Batch. I’m confident Chaz could lead us to victory over the pitiful Brownies. Let’s just hope the Bengals hold up their end of the bargain.
Do something right for a change, Cincinnati!