<b>IRVING, Texas -</b> The euphoria of a big 24-20 win over Dallas was killed by the news that…
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the right line to steal.
At least that's how I feel about the up of Ben Roethlisberger's play yesterday and the down of Casey Hampton's injury.
Perhaps the reaction is premature, but I'll assume the worst and trust Bill Cowher's initial prognosis that Hampton is out for the year. What a blow! The run defense was on the verge of shaky as it was, and Hampton was the major reason it was still on the plus side of shaky.
Coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, and an overweight one at that, Hampton reported to training camp in surprisingly good shape. He appeared to have lost even more weight in recent weeks and was playing at a Pro Bowl level, his all-time best. The rest of the defense seemed to be slipping, but most of its greatest lapses had occurred in the nickel or dime alignment without Hampton. His loss could be devastating.
Chris Hoke is waiting in the wings and he's coming off the best preseason of his four-year career. He led the Steelers in preseason sacks and two games ago crushed Jeff Garcia, albeit a half step late. Can Hoke stand up at the point of attack for a full game? He's a little small for me to give an enthusiastic response, but he does have a great motor. He's the kind of guy who could come through. Kelly Gregg did, didn't he. So this will be interesting to watch. Dick LeBeau can also slide Kimo von Oelhoffen over to play the nose in a pinch with Travis Kirschke moving to Kimo's spot at end. It'll probably become part of the rotation, because Hoke's going to get tired.
Chad Scott's injury isn't as potentially devastating, but it won't help. The fall-off to Willie Williams is pretty steep. Scott wasn't the best, but he wasn't the worst either. I expect Cowher to keep second-round draft pick Ricardo Colclough at his position in the dime while taking practice reps at both the dime and left corner. If and when it becomes obvious that Williams is a liability, Colclough will be thrust into the starting lineup. The bye's coming at a good time.
OK, so the injuries Sunday were killers. But whatever happens the rest of the season won't really matter, at least to me. That's the way I feel right now about Roethlisberger. It dawned on me -- as he operated coolly against a team reportedly at a playoff pitch, and playing very, very well in front of a frenzied crowd -- that he IS Dan Marino. This team has a big-BIG-time quarterback for the foreseeable future. That is major. That renders everything else -- even a season-ending injury to the glue of the run defense, and, frankly, the leader in the secondary - trivial.
And that brings me to Plaxico Burress. He made a fine, diving, one-handed catch and came back very nicely for a touchdown pass. He's blocking his butt off, probably playing the most consistent stretch of football in his five years with the Steelers. His contract is up after the season. Do you look for a true "A" receiver? Not the B+ Hines Ward variety; not the B Burress variety; but an "A" receiver for Ben in the decade to come? Or do you recognize Burress' height and wonder if he and Ben might be giants who can play the game at a higher plane?
I just don't think you tie the future up in Burress. Granted, he's playing fine football. But I saw the end of his second contract and it is Keyshawn Johnson, a tall guy, now slowed over the years, with average hands who every now and then will catch a scoring pass in a losing effort and make a lot of noise. I just see Burress at the peak of his physical skills and don't believe he'll ever become an "A" threat.
Think big for Ben. Think beyond the immediate ruptures. Put something together that is special. It's been done before. It can be done again.
Following Week 5, Browns - Steelers:
Mornings don't get much better than this. All facets of the team are humming, they're 4-1 (well, maybe the Ravens losing last night would've made for a better morning) and my man, Plaxico Burress, has shown everyone I was right all along about him. He's a superstar! I told you so.
No, seriously, Burress backers can enjoy their time in the sun. The bar has been lowered for playmaking wide receivers around here, or maybe I'm just missing it. So enjoy your day Burress fans and most of the Pittsburgh media that has joined the Michigan State PR staff at the Tribune-Review and WDVE.
The Browns obviously came into the game looking to stop the run and make rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger beat them. He did. Thank you Browns, and thank you for passing on him in the draft last April. Wouldn't want an Ohio kid running your team when you have Jeff Garcia. Of course, Garcia is only 34 years old, so Browns fans can expect to enjoy several more months of his fine quarterbacking play while Steelers fans go through the growing pains with the Ohio kid.
Seriously, I'm trying to get serious here, and when I watched Garcia run for his life on every pass attempt, I realized the Steelers' 2003 line had moved to Cleveland this year. That performance was worse than any Browns' line I watched from last year. Joaquin Gonzalez is the evil twin of Oliver Ross I suspect. But the point was driven home to me after the game when I asked Alan Faneca if he was surprised Roethlisberger won his third straight start. Faneca said, "We all won our third straight start." He knew what I was getting at, and told me he was kidding, but I realized he was right. The Steelers' offensive line was magnificent Sunday. It was evident on Duce Staley's 25-yard touchdown run. Of course, that's not to take anything away from Staley's hard running, but the line performed at a high level and was probably the key to the game.
Roethlisberger, of course, is stunning. And I like the way he's being coached. QB coach Mark Whipple told us a while ago that he wasn't going to mess around with Roethlisberger's mechanics. Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is also just letting the big rookie play. Whisenhunt said he's keeping close to 25 percent of the offense out of the game plan and he has no plans to bring it to full capacity over the bye. He just wants Ben to play, and that he is.
Defensively, the hitting was ferocious. The linebackers led the way. Larry Foote played very well, professionally chaotic. I thought he was going to hurt the Steelers on Sunday against Lee Suggs, but Foote played well, as did James Farrior, who probably lost at least two sacks because Garcia understands how to run out of the tackle box and ground the ball without being penalized. The Steelers probably would've had eight sacks if anyone else was quarterbacking. Joey Porter played well and Clark Haggans just toyed with Gonzalez all day. Haggans probably could've intercepted that fumbled shotgun snap with another step.
Ricardo Colclough, the rookie second-round pick, had a great kickoff return and blanketed deep threat Andre Davis when he was called upon. Colclough is going to be a solid cornerback for years here. Chad Scott was burned once, but otherwise had a decent game. He's bridging the gap nicely until Colclough's ready. The player of the game, though, was Deshea Townsend. Coordinator Dick LeBeau blitzed Townsend often in the Browns' final series, and Townsend came through after a fine day of coverage.
Negatives? Ah, if I had to pick one it'd be Jerome Bettis, who couldn't kill much time, and I wasn't too pleased with the playcalling late in the fourth quarter, but that's just nitpicking. Bettis, really, had no place to run since the Browns knew he was going to get the ball, but that's like apologizing for Burress not getting open against double coverage. Your expensive playmakers are supposed to do it the hard way. But I digress. It's a day for the Burress apologists to dream of a big payday for their hero. It's an even better day for Steelers fans overall. First place, superstar rookie quarterback, quieted Cleveland. It doesn't get much better. Have a great week. Meet you at Vinny's place.
Following Week 4, Bengals - Steelers:
The hero of Sunday's game was Troy Polamalu, and of course Marvin Lewis for not starting Jon Kitna at quarterback, but that's a whole 'nother story.
No, today the hero is Polamalu, the little safety with the wild hair who runs recklessly around the field and leads the team in tackles. But Sunday he read a key pass play, made a great catch on the interception, refused to go down in spite of the urging of teammates and then bowled over his former college roommate -- Carson Palmer -- at the goal line. In the locker room, he repeatedly called it "a blessing" and I had to search my memory banks for whether he ever praised "the Lord" or Jesus in particular and I couldn't remember. He's a spiritual guy, but I like the way he does it, by calling it "a blessing" instead of an invisible man upstairs. Before the game he was asked what it would be like to intercept his old roommate and he said "it would be a blessing." And that's my feelings exactly on how good fortune is reciprocated. As I left the stadium, I picked up a shiny penny and considered it "a blessing." The security man said it's the first drop of a flood of such blessings I can expect. I'll have to talk to Troy about expecting riches. Doesn't seem right, but I think his play yesterday opened the door for him.
Enough spirituality, time to rip. Let's see, Chad Scott seems a likely target. He would've been Kitna's, that's for sure. It appeared as if Scott's legs were shot yesterday. On one play, he didn't bite on a pump fake, but was still beaten deep by Cliff Russell, who was on the practice squad last week. Scott was called for a bad pass interference penalty, but the worst part of the play was his legs. This is somewhat surprising since the man who normally takes the wrath of Steelers fans nationwide has actually played pretty well this season. But he done got old, I'd say. Good thing the Bengals didn't force the issue with Chad Johnson over on that side more often.
Face it, the Bengals are awful. So are the Dolphins. So are the Raiders. The Browns coming up? Awful. The Cowboys? Awful, but well-coached. The Steelers could go into the break 5-1 with their young secondary and quarterback improving all the while. Things are breaking nicely for this team.
Would you rather have Palmer, the No. 1 pick in the entire 2003 draft? Or would you rather have the No. 11 of this year's draft, Ben Roethlisberger? I think I know your answer. Mine would certainly be Roethlisberger, and I'm sure the city of Cincinnati was expressing collective regret yesterday over letting one of their own get away, particularly to the hated Steelers.
Should I continue my barrage on Plaxico Burress? I mean, catch the tough ball one of these times. The refs, particularly in a big game, aren't going to leave his complaints lingering in their heads and making phantom calls that turn games around. But I'll give Burress credit for this: He played his butt off yesterday. With the exception of the timeout the Steelers had to burn because Burress was arguing with the ref and was late returning to the huddle, he was a force of nature, particularly in the run game. He and Hines Ward, not to mention Jerame Tuman and Dan Kreider, were blocking ferociously yesterday.
Speaking of blocking, the line played very well, particularly Marvel Smith and Oliver Ross. The former hasn't shown any signs of neck problems and the latter has made huge strides over last season. I know Duane Clemons won't be lining up across Ross every week, but last year Ross couldn't handle Clemons.
The college player that impressed me the most -- and I'm concentrating on running backs this fall -- was Minnesota's Laurence Maroney, who clearly outshone his more celebrated running mate Marion Barber III. Minnesota, in fact, impressed me greatly. Now, I know they were only playing Penn State (why not go for 2 after a fourth-quarter touchdown in a 16-0 game?) but Minnesota showed great team speed and of course the dynamic running game. The only comparable pair of backs in the nation, I think, is at Auburn, where I rank Ronnie Brown a better pro back than the Cadillac Williams. Minnesota and Auburn are nice underdog picks for the national title game.
Have a great week.
Following Week 3, Dolphins - Steelers:
That first cup of coffee is going down a lot easier this week, and not because the Steelers played so well, but because they won a game on the road against a tough defense in difficult weather with a rookie quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger receives my first game star for the way he handled the football without turning it over (after the first possession) in a monsoon. He was poised, moved around well and delivered in the clutch. Now, he had some slack since Miami was virtually no threat to score, so Roethlisberger could take a conservative approach. That won't make the grade in a month or so, but for now it's certainly something positive upon which to build.
The second star goes to Hines Ward, who got lost (at least with the media outlet I worked for last night) in the stunning wake of Plaxico Burress making a couple of catches and drifting right, as any first-year player would've done, to help out a right-rolling Roethlisberger on one of the game's key third downs. But I did not come to rip the overrated Burress again. Instead, I'm praising Ward, who flirted with a third consecutive 100-yard game, provided the best offensive highlight with his hurdle of a would-be tackler, and made the two best catches of the game, one for the only touchdown.
The third star goes to special teams coach Ike Taylor's blocked punt. It didn't turn into points, but may help Ike crawl out of Cowher's dog house.
Since there are only three stars to hand out, that leaves a hard-hitting defensive unit to find its own scraps. Deshea Townsend.
I was also pleased with the conservative offensive play calling with the rookie QB in the stormy weather. There was no need to become greedy with Miami's awful offense being held at bay. The decision to run mud puppy Verron Haynes a little more also paid off. It was a nice in-game read by the coaching staff. Now, heaving the ball on the first play of the game was bone-headed but the play-calling improved exponentially as the game went on.
Let's not forget about the job Marvel Smith did on Jason Taylor. Sometimes when you don't notice an offensive tackle you tend to overlook the performance, but when you don't hear from Taylor most of the game you know someone's doing a great job. Keydrick Vincent and Oliver Ross also played well.
On the down side, Larry Foote was also pushed around a little bit, but this is just nitpicking. As for Burress, please try to run after a catch. And Antwaan Randle El chickened out on a high pass. He would've been crushed by the waiting safety, who missed his chance for the ball, too, by worrying about the tackle. Perhaps Randy's discretion may turn out to be the right decision in the long run, but it was a chance for him to make a serious play and begin the process of replacing Burress and giving the Steelers true playmaking threats on both sides of the field.
Now, the Steelers won't be able to play this conservatively against anyone else on their schedule, and it appears as if Miami will go 0-16 this season, but it was a good win for the Steelers and particularly the rookie quarterback.
Following Week 2, Ravens - Steelers:
Yes, the Steelers were whipped physically and had their hearts ripped from them by a team that wanted it more, but that's an easy way of making a general statement that absolves too many of blame. Remember the fine line? Yes, even in this ugly loss a couple of plays turned the tide, so I'm lashing out here at whomever put that game plan together, particularly offensively. It's easy to cast aspersions upon new coordinator Duce Staley, who can catch and block very well and deserves to be on the field all three downs? This is another coaching tactic. Cowher wants everyone involved; everyone with a niche; everyone happy. But Haynes missed several blocks that shut down too many third-down plays. He's also too slow for someone that small. Good utility back, but not the guy you want to lean on during the most important plays of what might have possibly been the last big game of the year. Overcoaching. That's what it was. ... On the defensive side of the ball, the nickel defense is still killing them. While it's difficult to criticize the Steelers for keeping that part of their package in, since it's early and they did win their first game, but the Steelers must make adjustments to that pass-downs defense. The Ravens' conversion of first-and-31 falls right into the nickel's lap. And Chester Taylor's huge day? Again, the nickel. It didn't work last year; not working this year. Blame Timmy Lewis if you must. Blame the players who are continually burnt without any pressure being put on the quarterback. But today, with the coaching staff on the losing end of my new Scorched Earth Policy, we blame the game plan. ... Special teams stunk, too, and for obvious reasons that I don't care to list now. I mention it only because I didn't want to leave them out of this rip job. ... Sure, the players deserve plenty of blame for this awful performance. But when you go into a game with the idea of getting the ball to Burress and Haynes, instead of the reason I was so excited -- Staley vs. Ray Lewis; Ward vs. the cackling Ravens secondary -- to watch the game, I'm going to get a little peeved. ... Cowher will continue to raise hopes around here, and he's just good enough to put a team in contention, but he's not going to win a title. It's never been done with a coach who's been in one place so long without doing so. It's obvious to him and his players that the coach has mucho stability. Cowher can try to ignore the psychological reasons why history has proven this phenomenon to be true, and he can try to break free from the complacency that is bound to set in, but recognizing the problem won't stop it. And remember, this is the best job in all of football. Please, please, please don't tell me a new coach will be too hard to find. Not in this organization, with the track record of the owners' patience here, with the great facilities, with a fine personnel department trying hard to work with the coach. It's a coach's dream organization. That means so much. It means there will be a long line of quality prospects available when this nonsense about an impassioned coach spitting all over everyone with such GREAT enthusiasm finally comes to an end. A breath of fresh air is needed here, but it won't happen for another five years minimum. That's why some day this team will enter a 40th season without a championship and everyone will wonder how in the heck it happened -- again. ... There will be brighter days ahead. The opportunity for Roethlisberger I'm sure will be good for the long run of the organization. But my gut tells me that until Cowher's gone, it will only mean small steps without reaching the ultimate goal.
Following Week 1, Raiders - Steelers:
Excuse me for saying this, or for peeing in your Wheaties, or for whatever bad start this makes for your day but I couldn't help but thinking I was watching two very mediocre teams playing yesterday. Now, I realize quarterback Clark Haggans and Aaron Smith proved the advance scouts right with outstanding performances. Look for Robert Gallery, who played some left guard and right tackle Sunday, to become the entrenched right tackle for the Raiders very soon. ... Just another clutch day at the ballyard for Hines Ward. His leaping catch of yet another bad Maddox pass on the final drive may have been the key play of the game. On the other side, One-Catch Plax was being shut down in single coverage by Denard Walker. Ol' One-Catch, I suspect, will also undergo some post-game going-over-the-middle trauma for awhile after taking a full load of Danny Clark in the head on one incompletion. ... The instant replay system failed in that the flow of the game was seriously compromised. If the natural process had been followed, the bad call on Rich Gannon's pass/fumble would've been matched by the bad call on the punt off the Raider's leg. The bad calls would've evened out and the game would've been much more aesthetically pleasing. ... Yeah, I know, a little grumpy after a win, but hopefully the players and coaches are looking at it in a similar way. This is certainly no time to be pleased with yourself, not with an upcoming chance to go two games up on the Baltimore Ravens. Have a great week.
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