Big Ben Growing Up

September 17, 2007

Time after time, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to throw, looked downfield, and instead dumped off to a running back or receiver running a shorter route. When the dust had settled, he hit nine different players with passes including four receivers, three running backs and two tight ends. The result was an 11-for-16 third down conversion rate that helped the Steelers pile up 420 yards of offense.

Facing a Buffalo Bills defense decimated by injuries, particularly in the secondary, it would have been not only tempting, but understandable, if Roethlisberger would have licked his chops and hurled a series of passes through the late summer sunshine at Heinz Field Sunday. Instead, he took what the Bills gave him and the result was an easy Steelers win. Buffalo tried to compensate for their injuries with a soft defensive approach, almost daring the Steelers to dink their way down the field. And that’s exactly what Big Ben and the throwback uniformed Steelers did.

There was one exception. On their second possession Roethlisberger reached back and unleashed the powerful arm. The pass was intercepted at the Bill’s 11 yard line by the free safety Jim Leonhard, who was filling in for the injured Ko Simpson. That play went back on the shelf for use at another time.

Roethlisberger has had better days statistically. I’m not sure he’s had a better day mentally. Despite the temptations to attack a secondary and linebacking group missing half of it’s starters, he accepted short passes when he would rather have thrown long, he didn’t jeapordize field goal position to gamble on touchdown attempts, and he played perhaps the smartest game of his career. Ben has always been big, but now he seems to be growing up too…as a quarterback. And that should make a lot of Steeler fans happy.

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Are the Browns That Bad?

September 9, 2007

I can’t ever remember a football play where there were four seperate penalties all against the same team. Not even in grade school football. But that’s how the Cleveland Browns ended their first series of the 2007 season, with four seperate infractions on a punt. Which is just one of the reasons the obvious question after the Steelers opening win on the lakefront is: “Are the Browns really that bad?” More important to us, how good are the Steelers? As they said on the TV postgame show, we’ll know more when they actually play an NFL team. Ouch. Almost makes you feel sorry for the Browns. Almost.
At halftime it was hard to feel too good about the Steeler’s offense. They had five first half possessions start in Cleveland territory and didn’t take advantage of that like they should have. Ben Roethlisberger was victimized by some drops but still threw 9 straight incompletions after building a 17-0 lead. And they only converted on 1 of 8 3rd downs. But when they started the second half with two prolonged touchdown drives, and then added a long field goal drive, a lot of those early warts disappeared. Willie Parker got his hundred yards, Roethlisberger threw a career high 4 touchdown passes and more important, no interceptions. Two of those touchdowns and 5 of his 12 completions went to tight ends, as promised. When the dust settled on the final Cleveland mistake, things looked pretty good offensively overall.
On defense, the Steelers had a goal of improving their pass rush, especially with some more speed at linebacker. It’s part of why their first two draft picks were linebackers and why they let Joey Porter go. The result was terrific quarterback pressure all day, pressure that produced 6 sacks by 6 different players for a team that had only 39 all last year. Half of those sacks came from linebackers.
The Steelers also wanted to improve their lowly special teams. New punter Dan Sepulvada had a good day, getting 4 of his 6 kicks inside the 20 with one 45 yarder when he needed a long one. None of the six were returned. New returner Allen Rossum did nothing special but he didn’t fumble either.
All-in-all the Steelers looked pretty good in the areas they were most concerned about. No, the Browns aren’t the best team they’ll play this year, in fact they aren’t the best team they’ll play this month. But it’s hard to nitpick about such a dominating opening win. Beating Cleveland has meant little in recent years. But losing to them means a lot. In fact the Steelers missed the playoffs each of the last 3 times they lost to the Browns. But also remember they won their opener last year, and promptly lost 4 of the next 5. All it is is an encouraging start, because you do have to beat the teams that you should, before you can beat the teams that you could.

Just One More Test For Tomlin

September 5, 2007

I may be a bit biased, but it sure looks like new Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is destined for greatness in the NFL. The fact that he referred to me as “JB” at his first weekly press conference is a big factor as to why! All kidding aside, since he was hired way back in January, Tomlin has done just about everything to convince me he’s ready to be a leader of men in sports’ most competitive league. He’s organized, he’s poised, he appears to have earned the respect of his players, and he’s confident. But, as everyone knows, NFL coaches are measured by one thing and one thing only: winning. Win or lose, the season opener at Cleveland won’t say one way or another what kind of coach Tomlin is. But I’ll be interested to see how he manages the game, what his demeanor on the sidelines will be, and how he will react if the Steelers run into some trouble early. My guess? He’ll handle everything just fine! Make no mistake about it, the Mike Tomlin era is here, ready or not!