This had all the makings of a trap game. Or it would have, if we all didn't remember a stunning loss to the Browns on Thursday Night Football in 2009. After both teams scored on their opening drives, you settled in for a back-and-forth struggle for a win in the standings. Little did you know it would be the last scoring you'd see until Antonio Brown changed the headlines from "William Gay preserves the win" to "Steelers' offense shuts down the Browns." Jump for the recap.
There's so many different storylines to talk about after this game. It's funny, because everybody (myself included) expected this to be a stinker of a game.
Ben Roethlisberger injured his ankle in the 2nd quarter and it looked like his season may be over. But in typical Roethlisberger fashion, he was somehow back on the field to start the 2nd half after x-rays were negative. He couldn't step into throws or scramble, but he found a way to help the Steelers scratch out enough offense to hold off the Browns and get a win.
Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown for a 79-yard TD pass that sealed the game with 2:52 left to go in the 4th quarter. It was a beautiful catch and run by Brown, who completely turned around and then outran the Browns secondary.
It was a great play that would have never happened if it wasn't for an even bigger one by William Gay. The oft-maligned Steelers corner continued to play big in clutch moments when he intercepted a Colt McCoy pass in the endzone with the Browns threatening to take the league with under 4:00 to play. Gay knocked a ball down in the endzone earlier as well. Another huge night for him.
Coming into the game, Cleveland's rush defense was ranked 30th in the league in DVOA and the Steelers did a great job of pounding away at them, especially after Roethlisberger's injury. The tandem of Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman went well over a combined 100 yards, though Mendenhall and the running game failed to score on four straight attempts from the 1-yard line in the 3rd quarter.
It was another "ugly win" for Pittsburgh, but given Roethlisberger's injury, it was great to see the Steelers come back and grind out their 10th win of the year.
A few other notes:
-B- Heath Miller had two catches on the night. He's now tied with Steeler great Elbie Nickel for the lead in all-time catches by a Pittsburgh tight end with 329. The Steelers tried a couple of times to get the ball to Miller a third time, but one catch was nulified by a holding penalty on Chris Kemoeatu and another pass Miller's way ended up being Roethlisberger's lone interception on the night. I was hoping he would get the record tonight, as the Steelers are away next week.
-B- Speaking of Kemoeatu, he saw a lot of action tonight after Maurkice Pouncey left with an injury. It was a horrendous showing for 68. I'm not sure the Steelers can continue to play him. Too many penalties.
-B- James Harrison was flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit on McCoy in the 4th quarter and it was deserving. Harrison is going to get a huge fine too, I'm sure.
-B- Troy Polamalu had a typical Polamalu game. He misread a few coverages, but he also intercepted McCoy on a great read early on in the game. It was his first of the season.
-B- Steve McLendon is a heck of a football player. His mentor, Chris Hoke, must be proud.
Tough times at Heinz Field right now. Ben Roethlisberger appears to have injured his left ankle after getting sacked by the Browns' Scott Paxson in the 2nd quarter. The lower part of Roethlisberger's leg was rolled up on by Paxson and bent in a way that it isn not supposed to.
Roethlisberger walked off the field with assistance and wasn't putting much, if any, weight on his left leg. Backup QB Charlie Batch replaced him.
Video of the hit has found it's way online as well...
Alex Flanagan from NFL Network reports that Roethlisberger had x-rays taken on his ankle and they came back negative. The Steelers still don't know the extent of the injury though. Probably won't for a few days. She also reports that Hines Ward is the Steelers backup QB in the 2nd half.
Now this is remarkable. Roethlisberger is playing in the 2nd half...after that. He's back!
-B- First off, if you are in Pittsburgh, you should be trying to go to the game tonight. The combination of a Thursday night kickoff, Pens/Flyers and a 'poor' matchup against the Browns has ticket prices around $60 lower than average. Our boys at TiqIQ can hook you up with some solid deals on E-Tickets.
-B- Mike Mayock on Colt McCoy:
"I think the thing I've been frustrated with and it's not really just about Colt, it's more about what's happening offensively, is that by my notes, 55 of the 70 throws have been within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Eight of them were between 11 and 20 and seven were 20 or more. I think it's really hard to evaluate a quarterback when he's not making the downfield throws."
Mayock also points out that McCoy is lacking a true deep threat, which makes it that much harder on him to throw the ball down field. The Steelers have Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown. Torrey Smith is a potential star in Baltimore. And the Bengals have AJ Green.
Interetingly enough, one of McCoy's favorite guys to throw to downfield is a familiar name to a lot of Steeler fans: Penn State grad Jordan Norwood.
-B- Here's a pretty far out there thread on if the Steelers should pursue Cleveland's Peyton Hillis as a replacement for Rashard Mendenhall in the offseason. You probably already know my thoughts on that.
-B- Good tidbit: McCoy is 0-7 in his career agains the AFC North.
-B- Cleveland's defense is around league average in pass defense DVOA (14th), but are 30th against the run. The Steelers haven't had a 100 yard rusher in several weeks (though, to be fair, Mendenhall hasn't had to do a ton of work lately either.) Tonight might be a good night to really establish a running game and get some momentum going on the ground. Nobody would be surprised if this one gets out of hand early so I'd suggest starting Mendy on all of your fantasy teams.
-B- Not only is Sidney Crosby back on the shelf, but LB LaMarr Woodley is out for tomorrow's game against the Browns. Woodley reinjured his hamstring during his return last week. Hopefully one more week off will do the trick. Emmanuel Sanders, Jonathan Dwyer, Chris Carter and Arnaz Battle have been ruled out as well.
-B- Brett Keisel on Chris Hoke:
"It's going to be different. Today, I looked over, and usually him and Aaron sit together in our defensive line meeting room. It was just strange not seeing him there."
-B- We work with the awesome guys at TiqIQ to get some pretty awesome data when it comes to Steelers tickets. Their site is great to find out the best time to buy seats, visualize sections and, in general, score some pretty good deals.
It turns out that Thursday night games offer some of the best bang for the buck. Prices for the Steelers/Browns tilt have dropped significantly recently, per this graph they passed along:
They are also partnered with the NFL and have a sick NFL TicketExchange inventory that is all E-Tickets. Lots of great opportunitues for people in Pittsburgh who want to catch the game on a whim. Get on it!
Sad news from the Steelers today: longtime defensive lineman Chris Hoke, 35, is going to have season-ending neck surgery and is likely to retire after this season. That makes him the second defensive lineman to have season and likely career-ending surgery this year after Aaron Smith bowed out several weeks ago.
Heading into this season, the Steelers were an aging team. The defense was the oldest the league had seen this century and after a season opening 35-7 stomping at the hands of the Ravens, everybody officially proclaimed the Steelers "old and slow." I'm typically one of the more optimistic Steeler fans and even I was very worried. I wrote this when previewing the Titans game: "The Steelers have shown me nothing thus far that would make me believe they could beat a half-decent NFL team."
But along the way, a funny thing is happened to the old and slow Steelers: they turned into the young and fast Steelers. The injuries and old age that everybody was so worried about early in the year have become almost a blessing in disguise. The team has been forced to play a lot of young players and they have responded very well. Injuries to once-key players like Smith and Bryant McFadden haven't hurt the team at all.
The youth movement for the Steelers has arrived. Last Sunday's win against the Bengals gives us plenty of examples:
- Rookie Cam Heyward makes a huge special teams play, blocking what would have been a tap-in field goal by Mike Nugent.
- 2nd year back Isaac Redman went into full Beast Mode on a 27-yard run.
- 2nd year WR Antonio Brown returned a punt for a TD that basically ended the game
- Lawrence Timmons, still only 25 years old, lead the team in tackles.
- Rookie Curtis Brown had two special teams tackles, a category he leads the team in.
- Undrafted rookie Weslye Saunders continues to make great blocks in the running game and had another downfield catch for 14 yards.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. The changing of the guard is happening this season for the Steelers. I thought that the current Steelers core -- the players who carried this franchise to three Super Bowls and two titles -- would define this team for a least a couple more seasons. But what has happened is the players that the Steelers have drafted the past several seasons are just too good and have to play now.
The Steelers would be a decent team with Hines Ward and McFadden still starting, but Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, William Gay and Keenan Lewis have played so well that they need to get a lot of snaps. Even when Aaron Smith was still starting at the beginning of the year, the defensive line was performing much better with Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward playing defensive end.
People often marvel at how competitive the Steelers are every season. I think 2011 is a great example of how the franchise is able to retool instead of rebuild. They are committed to building through the draft and pull in lots of talented players despite drafting late in rounds each spring. Pittsburgh has gotten excellent value out of late round picks and undrafted free agents. Antonio Brown was a 6th round pick. Steve McLendon, Redman and Saunders went undrafted. Gay was a 5th rounder.
All of these players were acquired cheaply and all are stepping up in 2011 and filling big roles on a Super Bowl contender. They've transformed the Steelers from an aging team destined to fade away from prominence into a very athletic and exciting bunch primed for success now and in the future. There's no better example in how to run an NFL team than the roster Pittsburgh has put together this season.
When Ben Roethlisberger is laughing on the sidelines, Troy Polamalu is on the bench with his feet up, and Charlie Batch is kneeling on the ball*, you know things are good. This is the time of the year when real contenders come through and the flashy flukey teams start to fall apart. Yesterday, the Steelers welcomed the Bengals into Heinz Field and showed them what championship football looks like. The Bengals are not for real. The Steelers are.
*Yes, I know Troy Polamalu is on the field for the Victory Formation. Just get in here and read the recap, will you?
After a poor offensive effort against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, the Steelers felt like they had something to prove against a Bengals defense that hadn't allowed a TD in Pittsburgh since 2009.
The Steelers didn't mess around this time. They put up 4 touchdowns in the 2nd quarter and the game was over at halftime. Rashard Mendenhall led the way with two rushing touchdowns and a brilliant 60-yard punt return by Antonio Brown made in 28-7 before the half was over.
Brown's punt return wasn't the only big special teams play, however. After the Steelers offense went three-and-out on the game's opening drive, the Bengals marched right down the field and looked ready to take the lead with a short field goal on 4th down. But 2011 first round pick Cam Heyward got a hand on Mike Nugent's 33-yard attempt. It was a huge play that helped set the tone for a dominating performance on all sides of the ball.
The "splash plays" that have been absent from the Steelers defense were back too. James Harrison had three sacks, giving him 8 for the season in the 8 games that he's played. The last of those sacks came with enough veracity to knock Andy Dalton out of the game with a hip injury. Ike Taylor intercepted the Bengals backup QB Bruce Gradkowski.
The only bad thing to come out of today's game was LaMarr Woodley tweaking his hamstring. Woodley was making his first appearance in the last three weeks, but was only able to play a couple of series on defense before watching the rest of the action from the sidelines.
Mike Tomlin was able to rest a few other starters late in this one. Roethlisberger watched the last 10 minutes from the sideline. Jonathan Dwyer was in late, spelling Mendenhall and Isaac Redman.
The Steelers have a short week as they face off against the Browns for the first time this season Thursday night at Heinz Field.