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Raiders-Steelers pregame stretch...
November 20, 2010 - Ray Eckenrode
BLEEDING BLACK AND GOLD
Playoff equation: Four wins, healed wounds
At some point after last season, the Steelers braintrust decided to take a calculated risk for this 2010 season. They knew they had a large number of quality players nearing the end of their careers, especially on defense. Many of these players had contributed heavily to two Super Bowl victories. Rather than leave that era behind and embark on a youth movement, they decided to keep that core intact and take one more run at the Super Bowl. Players like Casey Hampton, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Hines Ward were given votes of confidence. Other veterans, like Larry Foote and Antwan Randle El, were brought back for a one-year swan song. The message was clear: Forget the future, let’s win another one NOW!
And for four weeks, despite their star quarterback’s knuckleheadedness, that risk looked like it was going to pay off. The veteran warriors, healthy and hungry, were clearly the best team in the NFL in September. But it’s a long season and October and November brought another trend. One by one, the weight of all those battles in the trenches or hits over the middle began to take their toll -- a sprained neck here, a twisted knee there, a torn triceps, a bum hammy, a concussion. Soon, the extent of the risk the Steelers had taken was evident. Lining up to start the second half against the New England Patriots and looking up at a big deficit on the scoreboard, no fewer than seven Steelers regulars were on the sidelines – and the Steelers were hammered by one of the youngest teams in the NFL.
At 6-3, Pittsburgh has a fine line to walk in the final seven games. They need to win four to get into the postseason, but if they can’t get healthier by January, there’s no sense in being in the postseason. The good news (maybe) when looking at the Steelers’ schedule is that two of the worst teams in the NFL, Buffalo and Carolina, are in the offing. Let’s assume (and it’s a dangerous assumption given what happened last year but let’s do it anyway) those two games are Ws. That means Pittsburgh needs two wins out of these games: Raiders, at Ravens, Bengals, Jets, at Browns. Considering all this: How big is this weekend’s game? Rhetorical. It’s H-U-G-E.
The foot of the matter
Jeff Reed was NOT going to be the Steelers kicker next season but even in that context his release last week makes absolutely no sense from a football point of view.
After watching literally dozens of visiting kickers struggle in the muck and wind of December, why would you go out and sign a guy who a) has never kicked at Heinz Field, and b) wasn’t good enough to make one of the 31 other rosters in the league?
Even given his struggles and psychoses, Reed was still clearly the best option for the Steelers. That’s not to say Shaun Suisham can’t go out and make his first 10 kicks. But if he does, it will be dumb luck after a dumb decision.
Offenses continue to overwhelm
In the four weeks since Roger Goodell made the midseason change of rules, er, points of emphasis, on violent hits, we've had:
-- The highest scoring weekend in the league in 25 years (Week 7).
-- The highest number of 300-yard quarterbacks on a single weekend EVER (Week 10).
Yet there are plenty of short-sighted apologists out there who ignore these big-picture, wide-ranging TRENDS and point to small-picture, individual INSTANCES to explain how the game really hasn't and won't be changed.
We're not going to argue any more. You all keep believing what you want. We'll let history be the judge.
With the NFL pondering a cutting edge future and likely globalization (after the lockout of 2011, of course), the geniuses at Nike came up with some concept sketches for Oregon-izing all 32 NFL team’s uniforms. Below is a link to see the Pittsburgh Nike Combat sketch (sorry, our license to hyperlink has been revoked by Wheeling web mafia). Keep in mind, this is a Nike concept, designed to create buzz, and not something the NFL has commissioned. If you want to see any other teams, just go to Google images and search for “Nike combat (team name)” and it should pop right up.
Steelers Nike combat uni: http://lulzimg.com/i8/e6c2a1a4.png
We might not be able to pick the winner of any individual game, but we can smell a trend a mile away. Just as we were telling you early in the year that the Steelers weren’t THAT good (even as the national media christened them Super Bowl favorites), we’re telling you right now the Steelers are STILL good (as the national media bails from the Pittsburgh bandwagon). Bear in mind, though, that the Steelers team that lost five straight games last year against some of the dregs of the NFL, was still good. So we’ll say it again: This game is H-U-G-E, from a psyche perspective, from a momentum perspective, from a playoff perspective.
There’s been talk in Pittsburgh this week about the need for Ben Roethlisberger to re-establish himself as a team leader. With the injury depleted defense struggling, that’d be nice. But is the kinder, gentler #7 up to the task? We’ll see. There’s been talk about moving away from the run and letting Roethlisberger air it out. As a large-scale philosophy, that would be a mistake, but if you focus that effort on first down, where the Steelers have been way too run-heavy (running, mostly unsuccessfully, on six of the first eight first downs against the Patriots while the game was still in the balance), it would fix a lot of problems with the offense. The only kind of passes we need to see more of in the Steelers attack are traditional screen passes, you know, the kind that go for 15 or 20 yards when they’re set up and executed properly, the kind that are very unlike the wide receiver screens Bruce Arians uses that are good for three yards a pop. But we digress … and we don’t want to give away too much of the material for our interview as Steelers OC anyway. On to the game.
The Raiders are not the slouches of the past few years. Richard Seymour and Tom Cable have helped bring a tough, new attitude to the team and the Steelers got a sneak preview of that when Oakland spanked them last December. The Raiders rank ahead of the Steelers in both total offense and total defense so if you’re thinking this is going to be a cakewalk, you can stop thinking that now.
This game will hinge on two factors:
+ Whether the Steelers offense can be creative enough on first down to develop an offensive flow and keep the Raiders pass rushers off Roethlisberger. (Steve Young made a great observation before the Bengals game, predicting that if the Steelers quarterback threw in rhythm (plant foot hits the ground, the ball comes out) 10 times his team would win. He did it 11 times.)
+ Whether the Steelers defense can pressure Jason Campbell … but not to the point he leaves the game because that would mean Steeler Killer Bruce Gradkowski would enter. We’re looking at you, LaMarr Woodley, with your Dean Wormer-esque sack total in Pittsburgh’s three losses: Zero point zero.
Add it all up, divide by two, multiply by the square root of Pi and you’ve got … the longest explanation of a pick in “15 Minutes” history … Steelers 27, Raiders (+7) 23.
Last week: Pittsburgh -4.5 INCORRECT
Season straight up: 3-6, .333
Season vs. spread: 2-7, .222
Note: In five years of picking games on this blog, we’ve never been below .500 in either category this late in the season until this year. Truly pitiful.