Week 15 Recap: Big Ben Saves Christmas

On Sunday, the NFL’s fourth best defense faced off against the league’s number two rated unit.   So naturally what resulted was a crazy wide-open game where both teams combined for a shade under 1,000 yards of total offense.   Defense?  We don’t need no stinkin’ defense.   And when the smoke cleared, the Pittsburgh Steelers had ended their five game losing streak with a heartstopping 37-36 victory over the Green Bay Packers.

The tone was set early.  On the Steelers very first play from scrimmage, Ben Roethlisberger rolled right and unleashed a 60 yard TD bomb to rookie Mike Wallace.  The pass was slightly underthrown but DB Jarrett Bush never looked back for the ball allowing Wallace to make a great catch.  I’m sure nobody was happier than offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has been doggedly trying to hit this play all year.   By the way, Bush is apparently GB’s version of Will.i.am Gay because the Steelers tortured him all day.

Of course, the thrill of that play was bittersweet.   Once Arians got a taste of passing success, the Flying Circus was off and running.   On our next drive, Ben followed a 28 yarder to Heath Miller with three consecutive misfires.   Green Bay took the ball at their 17 and provided some fireworks of their own.   Aaron Rodgers fired a gorgeous pass over the middle to Donald Driver, who broke free of a feeble tackling attempt by useless Tyrone Carter and outran the rest of our secondary for an 83 yard TD.

The Steelers answered right back with a nice drive mixing Rashard Mendenhall runs with short play action passing.   They were also aided by Green Bay’s sloppy play, as the most penalized team in the NFL got flagged twice on this drive.  A 12 yard catch-and-run by Santonio Holmes set them up with a 1st and goal from the 2.  Mendenhall scored a Bettis-esque  TD by bouncing off hits and bulling over four different Packers to put the Black and Gold up 14-7.

On their next possession, the Steelers caught a huge break.  Rookie LB Clay Matthews blew by LT Max Starks and crashed into Ben just as he was preparing to throw.  Everybody from the Fox commentators to Ben himself seemed to think it was a fumble.   I don’t usually agree with Aikman and Buck since their hatred of the Steelers is ridiculously obvious but even I thought it was a fumble.  However, the only opinion that matters is the ref’s and he called it an incomplete pass.

Starks was horrific yesterday.  Matthews ran right around him like a $10 million human pylon.  I don’t like when people jump down his throat because LT is a very difficult position and he’s been a solid performer but this is the second straight game where he’s crapped the bed.  This week he was beaten for at least two of GB’s five sacks, contributed to a couple others, allowed all kinds of QB pressure, and was penalized three times for good measure.

Anyway, the non-fumble non-sack still forced a punt.  Rodgers zipped yet another pass down the middle for a 49 yard gain.  I would like to blame somebody for this travesty but I don’t have my copy of the playbook handy and lord knows I don’t want to blame Ryan Clark for something he wasn’t responsible for.   Let’s just say both Carter and Clark whiffed on making a tackle and were bailed out by, I can’t believe I’m typing this, Willie Gay.  Gay’s hustle was very important because GB sputtered and then Mason Crosby shanked his FG attempt wide right.

Things quieted down for a couple series until a sack of Ben and a good punt return set GB up at mid-field.  Rodgers completed a bunch of short passes over to Gay’s side which brought them to the Steelers 14.   From shotgun, GB spread the defense across the field which allowed Rodgers to scramble untouched into the end zone.  The Steelers answered right back when Ben hit Heath for another 28 yarder then followed with a pass to Santonio for 33 more.  Once again, a sack set the Steelers back in the red zone.   But they still managed to score on a nice looking screen pass to underutilized Mewelde Moore.

And this was just halftime!

The third quarter was relatively quiet.  The Steelers had the only notable drive thanks to a pair of screens to Mendy, who was awesome catching the ball out the backfield to the tune of 6 catches for 75 yards.   Where has this been all year, Arians?!?!   Mendy followed a 25 yarder with an apparent 14 yard TD.  However, the Football Gods got revenge for the non-fumble non-sack by flagging Miller for a bogus offensive pass interference penalty which negated the score.   The Steelers settled for a Skippy Reed FG which sent them into the fourth quarter up 24-14.

Ugh.  A fourth quarter lead.   I remember once upon a time when a fourth quarter lead was money in the bank.   Then again, half the banks in this country failed this year so maybe that’s still an appropriate comparison.  In any case, I hate fourth quarter leads nowadays because all they do is give the Origami Curtain an opportunity to torture Steeler Nation in new and unexpected ways.

It started with a 13 play 70 yard TD drive where GB converted on FIVE third downs.  Once again, not to assign blame or point fingers but the TE scored over the middle when Clark got all turned around and couldn’t make a play.  The Steelers answered with some Ben to Hines love.   A 29 yard catch-and-run set up a 34 yard FG.  The Pack answered by unleashing a photon torpedo to Jordy LaForge Nelson for 27 yards.  On the next play, GB, who only ran the ball 8 times ALL GAME (and we thought Arians was bad), gashed the defense for a 24 yard rushing TD from Ryan Grant.  I don’t know what happened there but it looked like a Black Hole opened up in the middle of the field.  More Ben-Hines love in the form of a 54 yard bomb resulted in a 43 yard Skippy boot.  That’s not a gimme at Heinz Field, folks.  That kick pulled the Steelers back ahead 30-28.

At this point, Mike Tomlin made one of the most boneheaded coaching decisions in Steelers history.   Channeling his Inner Belichick, he called for an ONSIDE KICK up by two with four minutes left against one of the best offenses in the league.  Is he daring the Steelers to fire him?   Why not just grab Pam Oliver’s mic and shout, “My defense sucks!” while you’re at it?

Predictably, the attempt failed when Ike Taylor didn’t let it roll the necessary ten yards.  Green Bay took advantage of the short field to take a 34-30 lead on a 24 yard TD pass.   Rookie Joe Burnett, who rotated with Ike and Gay regularly all game, slipped making a cut and James Jones walked in for the score.   The Packers then converted a 2 point conversion (somebody must’ve had money on the game) to take a six point lead with two minutes left.

And that’s when Big Ben turned back the clock to the glory days of 2008.  In a comeback for the ages, Ben coolly led the team down the field.  He was aided by some fantastic catches by his receivers.  Heath caught a 22 yarder along the sidelines while Santonio had a huge 32 yard reception on fourth down.  The Steelers got a break when a pick was erased by a GB penalty.

Still, this was the Ben Roethlisberger Show and Big Ben did not disappoint.  In his finest game ever, he completed 29/46 passes for 503 yards.   Most impressively, he tossed three TDs against zero INTS.   This was a new Steeler record for passing yardage and one of the best performances by any NFL QB in the past decade.  With this game, Ben has silenced all his doubters and established that he belongs right up there with Drew Brees and Tom Brady among the league’s best signal callers.

Anyway, a frantic last minute drive, aided by numerous GB penalties, ended up with the Steelers on the Packer 19.  Two incomplete passes wound the clock down to 3 seconds left in the game.   In a play that looked eerily similar to the one which brought Pittsburgh their sixth Lombardi Trophy, Roethlisberger threw a pinpoint accurate pass to Mike Wallace, who dragged his toes while falling out of bounds.  An extra point later and the Steelers pulled off a Chrismukkah miracle.

Now, I’m as excited by this win as anybody but let’s keep our emotions realistic when using the p-word (playoffs).  It feels great to see the team play like champions but there were a lot of breakdowns yesterday.  They managed to overcome them because they finally showed some heart and intensity for a change.  It was a great win, albeit one where Big Ben almost superhumanly took the team and single-handedly saved them from the embarassment of another blown lead and a sixth consecutive loss (not to mention saving Tomlin from a riot).   But a win is a win and that may be the best Christmas present any of us could have asked for.

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