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Week 11 Recap: Saved By The Bell

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Thank goodness for byes because I don’t think my blood pressure can take another week of this.

After playing the first two and a half quarters like a bunch of extras on the Walking Dead, the Pittsburgh Steelers rallied late to edge the Tennessee Titans 27-24. For a long stretch, it appeared we were headed for yet another instance of the Steelers losing to a bad team as has become all too common during the Mike Tomlin era. If you stuck around for ESPN’s post-game show, well, you were treated to the glorious sight of Ray Lewis losing every last bit of his street cred by wearing an Elmer Fudd hat. You also got a chance to see Steve Young react with extreme exasperation over the Steelers’ annoying habit of playing down to their competition.

Try watching this team week in and week out, Steve.

The game started well enough with the Steelers marching down the field behind Le’Veon Bell. Unfortunately, they – stop me if you’ve heard this before – had to settle for a field goal after bogging down at the Tennessee 30. On the Titans very first play, rookie QB Zach Mettenberger stared down his receiver and Willie Gay jumped the route for a Pick Six. That would be the last highlight for the Black and Gold until late in the third quarter. As soon as you thought maybe we’d see them cruise to an easy victory, everything fell apart.

Tennessee answered with a touchdown of their own on their very next possession. The key play was a 23 yard pass play where nobody bothered to cover Kendall Wright near our goal line. The teams traded field goals then it was incompetence a go go until late in the half. Ben Roethlisberger, who struggled for the second week in a row, made an unbelievably dumb decision to try and force the ball to Antonio Brown in the end zone. AB was bracketed in double coverage so when Ben lollipopped the throw it was an easy pick for Tennessee.

Having dodged that bullet, one assumed Ken Whisenhunt would be content to go into halftime down 13-10. Clearly the Steelers D thought that because Gay bit on a fake thinking they were going for a quick safe crossing screen. Instead, our old friend Nate Washington took off down the field where Mettenberger hit him for an 80 yard TD bomb. Just like that a three point lead became a four point deficit. The Titans extended their lead to 11 midway through the third quarter when Mettenberger hit TE Chase Coffman with his second touchdown pass of the night.

That TD had the effect of smelling salts on a woozy fighter as the Steelers finally snapped to life immediately afterwards. It helped that Todd Haley finally realized what I wrote in my Know Thy Enemy preview five days ago – Tennessee can’t stop the run. Le’Veon Bell did indeed get the running game back on track to the tune of 33 carries for 204 yards. That’s a 6 yard average which is all the more impressive when you realize that stat isn’t padded by breaking one long gainer (his longest run was only 27 yards).

We joke about “Stiller Football” but that fourth quarter was about as close to old school Steelers as you’re likely to see. The offensive line – no doubt spurred on by former Titans head coach Mike Munchak – just straight up mauled Tennessee down the stretch. Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Ramon Foster were opening up gaping holes which Bell would blast through for 6-8 yards every carry. It was truly a thing of beauty.

Bell scored the team’s first offensive touchdown on a tough run up the middle. The amazing thing about Bell – one of them, anyway – is his ability to get absolutely whacked yet pop right up and carry the ball on the next play. This was truly a national showcase for our young back as after his performance I think I can safely skip the “emerging” part when I call him an “emerging superstar.” After the touchdown, Bell did most of the heavy lifting on the next drive, too, although that one was capped by a sweet out route TD catch by AB.

And, hey, no douchebag Tennessee fan tried to steal the ball away from a Steeler fan in the stands. Of course, it helps that the crowd was probably about 60/40 Steeler Nation anyway.

While I’m sure Tomlin’s weekly comment on this game will be some version of all’s well that ends well, fact is it was a pretty lousy performance from nearly all involved. I love how every time the offense sputters or fails, some dipshit Yinzers on twitter start back up on the Fire Todd Haley bandwagon. As if the offensive coordinator is the only factor at play and criticizing or holding Ben accountable for the slightest mistake is somehow sacrilegious to the cause. 

Fact is, Ben had an extremely poor game. He was sacked five times but at least three of those were his own doing from holding the ball way way too long. Guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning don’t go entire games without getting sacked because their O lines are far superior to ours – it’s that they either get rid of the ball quick or throw it away. I’m not saying Ben needs to learn to throw it away, that ship sailed years ago. I’m just not going to get on Munchak or Haley or the line when they give him 4-5 seconds to make a throw and he dances around instead. Then there were the two big missed plays which would’ve went for TDs – most notable being Bryant wide open on a go route that Ben underthrew badly. Yes, he made some plays (the TD to AB, a big third down scramble to help set up the Bell TD) but between the sacks, the missed throws, and that bonehead INT there’s no arguing Ben bears a great deal of blame for the team’s sputtering offense.

I don’t know who to blame for the team’s putrid defense, however. Troy Polamalu being hurt certainly explains why Mike Mitchell has suddenly regressed. Mitchell turned it on once he finally got used to playing with Troy but now that Will Allen is out there, Mitchell is constantly out of position again. The defense made the stops they had to but after giving up a 67 yarder to Michael Vick last week and an 80 yarder this one, their tendency to give up the big play has become slightly alarming. They did a pretty good job against the run but it doesn’t much matter when you’re giving away 20 yard completions like Kit Kats on Halloween. Getting Troy and Ike Taylor back will help the secondary although it won’t help a ton if they don’t start getting pressure on opposing QBs. Mettenberger not only wasn’t sacked, he was barely pressured until late in the game. Maybe the week off will rejuvenate some of the old legs on D.

The week off will surely rejuvenate those of us getting prematurely grey hair from all the agita this team causes. With the win, ugly as it was, the Steelers are in a virtual tie with Cincinnati for first place in the AFC North with two games head-to-head still remaining. Unlike last year where the Black and Gold needed to win out and get a lot of help, this year their destiny is more or less under their control. Let’s hope for once they do things the easy way.