The Pittsburgh Steelers won their tenth straight home opener, soundly thrashing the New York Jets 27-10. As LaMarr Woodley promised, yesterday’s win ensured the Steelers would avoid starting the season an always disastrous 0-2. What’s more, the Ravens somehow managed to lose to the Eagles despite Vick and company committing four turnovers. This leaves all three of last year’s playoff teams from the AFC North knotted together at 1-1.
The first quarter of yesterday’s game was a carbon copy of almost every Steelers game you’ve seen the past three years. The offense drives looked unstoppable between the 20s only to stumble around the red zone and have to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. The defense started slow, giving up a long drive and early touchdown on their opponent’s first drive of the game. New year, same old Steelers.
Taken by itself, you would’ve thought we were in for a long afternoon based on that first quarter. Ben Roethlisberger led a nice 53 yard drive off the opening kickoff only for it to come to a screeching halt after Isaac Redman was thrown for a loss followed by a costly sack. Mark Sanchez responded by leading the Jets on a 8 play 95 yard drive where Ike Taylor had two brutal plays (a pass interference and getting caught flatfooted on Santonio Holmes‘ 14 yard TD) and Keenan Lewis got torched for a 45 gain. The Steelers retaliated with another 50 yard drive which fizzled out thanks to two ill-conceived run plays. The drive ended and second quarter began with another Shaun Suisham field goal.
At this point, something strange happened. Almost like a switch was flipped on the Steelers sideline. The final three quarters were about as complete a game as the Black and Gold have played in long time. To borrow a Tomlinism, they dominated in all three phases.
Some are crediting the defense’s change in fortune to Lawrence Timmons. On the Jets next drive, Sanchez scrambled away from damage and Timmons absolutely annihilated him. He was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit, which it was but only because that cowardly Sanchez tried to curl up in the fetal position when he saw LT about to lower the boom. Whatever the case, it was 15 yards well spent because Sanchez went 0 for his next 6 to close out the half and was totally discombobulated the rest of the game.
Although blaming the Jets’ surge of ineptitude on Sanchez getting whacked upside his head is selling the Steelers D way short. Many of his passes were right on target, only the tight coverage was too much for the receivers to deal with. Ike Taylor was awesome after his early struggles, shutting ‘Tone out the rest of the afternoon. Ryan Clark, who I’ve mentioned being overrated, made me eat my words by being a force all afternoon. He made a tremendous play in coverage to break up a deep pass to Stephen Hill and was laying guys out all over the field. His presence really does make a huge difference in their secondary.
Then we have LaMarr Woodley. In writing about the Steelers D last week, I repeatedly mentioned that Woodley just hasn’t been getting the job done when James Harrison hasn’t been in the line-up. Well, he definitely brought it yesterday. The stat sheet shows he only recorded one sack but he was all over Sanchez like a Twilight-obsessed teenage girl. His partner on the inside, Timmons, also had a very active game. With the D-line remaining stout at the point of attack, it really freed up the linebackers (and occasionally Clark or Ryan Mundy) to bring heat on Sanchez.
On the other side of the ball, Ben did what Ben does and it was magnificent. The Jets recorded three sacks but would have had about seven against any ordinary quarterback. Time after time they would crash in on Ben and time after time he’d break free of their clutches and make something out of nothing. It was an amazing performance.
Todd Haley took the shackles off a little more this week and the results were promising. I sort of see what Haley is trying to do and it’s really quite brilliant (if it works). I make no secret of the fact I endorse Bruce Arians’ more wide open style of offense although one of the major drawbacks was the team would often score very quickly, giving the D no time to rest and giving the other team too much time with the ball. Haley has every intention of using his talented corps of receivers but at the same time he’s keenly interested in dominating time of possession. The mix skewed too heavily towards ball control last week. This week, it was just right.
The Steelers first TD came on an 11 play 61 yard drive which featured 7 passes, two big ones going to Emmanuel Sanders and the capper going to Heath Miller. The second TD was a 37 yard bomb to Mike Wallace which demonstrated why he’s the best receiver we’ve had in thirty years. Ben underthrew the pass, as usual, but Wallace has finally realized he always does that and slammed on the breaks and came back for it while the DB ran right past him. Even then, Wallace had to make a terrific acrobatic catch along the sideline of the end zone to stay in bounds. The game sealing score came on an epic 14 play drive which consumed 10 minutes, the longest drive by the Steelers in over five years.
Time of possession + Big Play Potential = Offensive Excellence.
That final score was converted by Redzone, who bounced off four Jets en route to the end zone. He and Jon Dwyer split the carries evenly, 12 each, and while neither had an impressive day statistically speaking (28 yards for Dwyer, 25 for Redman) they both got stronger as the game went on. In the first half, the running game was totally ineffective. By the fourth quarter, however, they were bowling over would-be tacklers and coming within one broken tackle of busting one loose. Neither are great backs but as a tandem they get the job done.
And that’s the bottom line on yesterday’s victory. Were there things the Steelers still need to work on? Absolutely. Did they look about a billion times better than last week? Absolutely. But there’s still plenty of time left in the season to iron out the wrinkles. They got the job done yesterday. That’s good enough for now.