Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Good News and Bad News: Steelers at 49ers

The hated Ravens lost and the Steelers qualified for the playoffs before they even played a snap on Monday night.  There's your good news.  That's the whole list.

As far as semi-good news is concerned, LaMarr Woodley didn't suffer a setback and Mewelde Moore was the only person that was seriously hurt.  Ben Roethlisberger doesn't count for that list because he was already hurt.

For the bad news section, it's complicated (and probably lengthy).  San Francisco came out and really kicked the Steelers butts.  That's the long and the short of it.  I knew they were a great team, but I had no idea they were as deep and as talented as they are.  I undervalued Alex Smith.  I underestimated how smart their players and coaches are.  I knew they were disciplined and they worked hard, but I was not aware of the fact that an alarming number of players on that team have a very high football IQ.  Having said that, they still play Marty Ball and they will still get destroyed by the Saints or Packers, provided Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are healthy.

For a semi-silver lining in the bad news, it's not like the 49ers gave other teams in the league a blueprint for how to beat the Steelers.  Most folks already know how to do that, it's just incredibly difficult to do.  Contain Roethlisberger, win the turnover battle, avoid costly penalties, and stop the run.  But, the thing is that San Francisco completely outplayed the Steelers.  "Play significantly better than the other team" is a blueprint for beating any team in the NFL, so no secrets were lost on Monday Night Football.

You could complain about the blackouts or the officiating -- honestly, I think there were some questionable calls that went in the 49ers favor -- but I don't play that game and I'm not into analyzing "what ifs" as I prefer to take a look at what happened instead of what could've maybe happened had things gone much differently than how they actually did.  Maybe, if he had two good ankles, Roethlisberger hangs in for another half second for Mike Wallace to clear and he throws a touchdown instead of an interception.  Maybe he's able to step up in the pocket, force the linebacker to move up, and deliver a more catchable ball to Heath Miller on the second interception.  Maybe he does something to escape pressure and doesn't fumble the ball.  Maybe he's focused on the clock instead of the intense, throbbing pain in his left ankle at the end of the first half and that drive ends in a field goal.  If all the calls go in the Steelers favor and Ben's healthy, maybe the final score is more like 38-17 for the good guys.

But, as I see it, the 49ers probably would've won even if Roethlisberger is healthy.  Given that this team is headed to the postseason, it's more than a little disconcerting that they can't seem to beat playoff teams.  This season, the Steelers are 1-4 against playoff teams (beat the Patriots, lost to Houston, lost to San Francisco, and lost to the freakin' hated Ravens two freakin' times).  That's no good.  That would be categorized as bad news.  In three of those losses -- the opener at Baltimore, at Houston, and at San Francisco -- they played like total crap on the road.  So, just because they won the Super Bowl as a #6 seed before doesn't necessarily mean they'll do it again.

This team is going to the playoffs.  OK?  They're going to the playoffs.  How they do when they get there remains to be seen.  All is not lost because they blew an opportunity for pole position on the #1 seed.  First of all, there's the small matter of the fact that they'd still need to beat St. Louis and Cleveland.  Second of all, they had the #1 seed in 2001 and 2004 and they didn't make it to the Super Bowl.  The last two Super Bowl runs, they were the #2 seed.  Not getting the #1 seed doesn't destroy the season.  Erratic play and Ben Roethlisberger's ankle, on the other hand, could very well destroy the season.

Really, the key issue is Roethlisberger's ankle.  Erratic play is difficult to predict or control, because it's erratic.  This team will go as far as Roethlisberger takes them.  The Steelers aren't a Peyton Manning situation, but I can say this: This is a nine win team without #7 and I can't see them making a deep playoff run if he isn't healthy.

That means that, if you're Mike Tomlin, you have to make a decision: Either sit Roethlisberger and hope he gets better or play him and hope he can "walk it off" over the course of the next couple weeks.  My preference would be for the former, but I think Tomlin will go for the latter.  He's let Roethlisberger go out there the last two games when it was clear the man could barely walk.  I'm not sure if that irrationality is linked to respect for Roethlisberger, a belief that Ben at 15% is better than Batch or Dixon, or the fact that Tomlin tends to side with his players on most things.  Maybe it's all three.

If I was Mike Tomlin... how cool would it be to be Mike Tomlin?  Do you think he wakes up every morning, goes to the mirror, and says, "Who's the head coach of one of the most popular, stable, and successful franchises in the NFL?  Who's the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl?  YOU ARE!  Yes you are!"  Or does he look in the mirror and say, "It's a process.  We're going to continue to... uh... evaluate how awesome I am.  It's week to week."  Am I the only one that thinks about stuff like this?  Yes?  OK, let's move on.

My decision would be to start Dennis Dixon for the last two games of the season.  I may as well ask for a pony while I'm at it, so let's just say start Charlie Batch for the first game, he gets hurt, then Dixon plays a game and three quarters.  At home against the Rams and at Cleveland are extremely winnable games.  I think they win those games without Roethlisberger.  Maybe Baltimore honks away another road game (they're 3-4 on the road) and Ben gets another week to rest.  High ankle sprains are weird.  Kendrell Bell missed most of a season with one, Adrian Peterson missed two games, but then again he could be an alien.  Maybe resting the injury will just make him rusty and won't help it heal enough so that he's whole again.  Maybe playing through it is a better call.  I don't believe that playing through it is a better call, but I've been wrong before.

Let's assume that Roethlisberger plays through the injury.  This makes me very nervous.  I think the Steelers can win the next two games with a 15% healthy Roethlisberger, an 85% healthy Batch (is he ever really healthy?), or Dennis Dixon.  What worries me is that fact that the 49ers defenders were extraordinarily gentile with Ben on Monday night.  They didn't take a shot at him, even if it was within the rules.  They sacked him gently.  When it became evident that the Steelers needed to pass on every down, San Francisco -- smartly and in a sportsmanlike manner -- didn't big blitz and try to tee off on Roethlisberger.

I would hope that the Rams and Browns would pay him the same courtesy, but I doubt it.  I especially doubt it for the Cleveland game.  It's in Cleveland, the Browns defenders are probably still mad about the Colt McCoy fiasco, and they still consider the game to be a rivalry.  Both teams have nothing to lose.  It's possible that the 49er defenders took it easy on Ben because they didn't want to draw a costly roughing the passer penalty.  It looked like they were just being nice, but that's possible.  The Rams and Browns have nothing to lose.  There's a distinct possibility that they take a shot at Roethlisberger when they have a chance, or even if they don't have a chance within the rules.

I've had ankle problems and I've walked them off.  I understand that it's different for me than it is for a professional athlete that needs to do all kinds of athletic things day to day.  My big problem is that I think that, in one of these next two games (most likely at Cleveland), someone is going to take a serious shot at Roethlisberger that will end his season.  Anything that ends his season ends the Steelers season.

And, selfishly, I would like to be able to enjoy the last two games of the season without wincing every time Roethlisberger drops back to pass or throws a pass or gets hit after he throws.

At this point, the Steelers are in the playoffs regardless.  I guess we'll see what they have in store for us and Ben Roethlisberger.  It's a process.  We take it week-to-week.

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