So far, it’s been tough to question what Mike Tomlin has been doing in his first year as head coach of the Steelers. That is, until their Sunday night showdown with the Broncos in Denver. The Steelers came in as the number two ranked team in the NFL in terms of running the football. The Broncos came in dead last in the league in terms of stopping the run. Everyone figured we would see a heavy dose of Willie Parker in an attempt to run the Broncos right out of Invesco Field. But, it didn’t happen. Tomlin chose to come out passing and initially, it worked. But soon, it became apparent that Denver was ready to defend the Steelers’ aerial attack. Protection problems led to interceptions and turnovers which were really the difference in the game. Sometimes coaches are so smart they outsmart themselves. “They’re expecting us to run, so we’ll pass!” It might have better for the Steelers to stick with the run to see if the Broncos could stop it. Granted, Willie Parker did have 93 yards on 21 carries, but the Steelers never controlled the line of scrimmage and set the tone. Look, it’s just one loss and the Broncos were playing basically to keep their season alive, but the outcome may have been a big diferent if the Steelers had stuck to what they do best.

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The amount of people complaining on the talk shows and around the water cooler about the Penguins 1-2 start showed a couple of things.

One… hockey has truly arrived in a city that used to pay attention (with the exception of the most hardcore fans) only after football was finished.

And two… expectations for this young team are a bit out of whack.

The EA Sports people played an entire season on their video game and had the Pens losing to San Jose in the Stanley Cup finals. USA Today and The Sporting News projected them to win the cup. Seeing as they haven’t won a playoff series in six years, that’s a lot to expect — even with Sidney Crosby and some of the best young talent in team history.

Last year, there was magical, unexpected, dramatic improvement, but that improvement came well after the season started.

On Jan. 10, the Pens were one game over .500. When they did get hot, they won 9 games after Jan. 10 in shootouts. That is living on the edge.

Frankly if they come anywhere near the same 105 points they finished with last season, they will have done a good job. Where they really need to show improvement is in the playoffs. Anything less than winning a round or two next spring would be a disappointment. More than that would be gravy.

As for the expectations and early season teeth-gnashing by many fans and media members, you can’t win the Stanley Cup in October. And expecting them to win in the spring may be overdoing it. They still are the most exciting team in the league to watch, and they still allow too many pucks in their own net. Their two wins are perfect evidence, 6-4 over Toronto and 5-4 over Anaheim. They scored 11 goals in their two wins and just three in their two losses. Things will even out. It’s a long season. Don’t panic so early. Enjoy the ride. The time for true judgment is six months away.

But the good thing is… people are talking about them and interested already. And it’s only October.

In weather you would expect in August more than October, the Steelers and Seahawks were slugging it out in the heat at Heinz Field. Grown men stood on the Seattle sideline holding a portable awning-type structure to shield players from the sun. They looked like Swiss Guards protecting the Pope. Are you kidding? While the Seahawks stayed cool in the shade on the sideline, they wilted in the heat on the field. The Steelers rolled up their sleeves and used a patchwork lineup to really turn up the heat and dominate. Super Bowl XL rematch? Hardly. A more convincing win than 20 months ago in Detroit? Definitely.

With pro bowlers Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu out with injuries on defense, and the guy who was the MVP of Super Bowl XL, Hines Ward, missing his second straight game on offense, the Steelers were a banged up group before they started. And it got worse when Santonio Holmes pulled a hamstring during warmups. They were down to three healthy wide receivers before Ben Roethlisberger even threw a pass.No worries. Roethlisberger responded with one of the most efficient games of his career, completing 13 consecutive passes at one point, two shy of the Steelers’ all-time record. He finished with a quarterback rating of 120.8, completing 18 of 22 passes for over 200 yards.

He had help. Not enough receivers? Throw it to other guys then. And Roethlisberger did. He completed five passes to running backs, four to tight ends and nine to receivers. Cedric Wilson stepped up to the lead receiver spot and caught five balls for 69 yards while Hines Ward provided the Steelers with all the relief they needed with cups of water.

Defensively the Steelers shuffled safeties around, moving Ryan Clark from free to strong and moving Anthony Smith up to free. Chris Hoke did his usual admirable job replacing Hampton. The result? A shutout. Shaun Alexander rushed for only 25 yards. The Seahawks got one first down in the second half. And the Steelers hold the ball for over 40 minutes.

After the Steelers lost to Cardinals last week, coach Mike Tomlin said that he would never use injuries as an excuse. His team apparently took that to heart. Because considering the amount and calibre of players the Steelers were missing, a loss to Seattle would have been easily explainable. Instead, the Steelers head into the bye week 4-1 instead of 3-2. The math may disagree but there is more than a one game difference between those scenarios. And unlike Super Bowl XL, Mike Holmgren and the Seattle fans can’t blame it on the officiating. In the end, we find out it was actually the Steelers that had it made in the shade.

Cardinals Deserved To Win

October 4, 2007

All week, I’ve heard from Steeler fans who are shocked that the Black and Gold actually lost to the Arizona Cardinals. How could it be? The Cardinals? To them I say: Join me on a little reality break! The Cardinals are an up and coming football team and their head coach Ken Whisenhunt was more than a little pumped up to go up against the team who decided he wasn’t going to be Bill Cowher’s replacement. Whisenhunt did a great job of letting his players know that last Sunday’s game with the Steelers was going to be physical. And they responded! Not only did the Cards take every shot the Steelers dished out, they landed quite a few of their own. Now, we can debate forever about endzone interceptions, punt returns for touchdowns and who didn’t shake hands with who. The Cardinals played an outstanding game on Sunday, they deserved to win. Period.