Week 1 Recap: Stiller Football Lives!

PITTSBURGH - SEPTEMBER 12: Rashard Mendenhall of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs past Erik Coleman of the Atlanta Falcons for a 50-yard game winning touchdown in overtime during the NFL season opener game on September 12, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

It’s deja vu all over again.

The Pittsburgh Steelers managed to pull out a gutwrenching 15-9 win in overtime against the Atlanta Falcons yesterday.  The game was very much a throwback to days gone by when the defense played lights out while the offense had to struggle to cover for the obvious inexperience of the man behind center.  If the team we’ve been watching recently are the New Steelers, then what we saw yesterday could best be described as Stillers Classic.  Although that contest was by no means a classic in any sense of the word.

The past couple years, the Black and Gold have fallen into this rut of making stupid mistakes while figuring Ben Roethlisberger will eventually put on his cape and save the day.  With Dennis Dixon starting, you couldn’t rely on your quarterback to make the big game-changing play.   Somebody else had to step up and take the pressure off him.  With a few exceptions, it was almost a case of too little, too late.

Things started off well.  The Steelers opening drive was an old-school seven minute clock-milker.  Mixing Rashard Mendenhall runs with short safe passes, the team moved 42 yards on 11 plays.   Issac Redman, it should be noted, converted two short yardage situations into first downs on this drive and two more later in the game.  It looks like the team has FINALLY found a back who can get those tough conversions.   The drive stalled at the Atlanta 36 which led to a Skippy Reed 52 yard FG, the longest FG ever at Heinz Field.

The rest of the quarter was a puntfest as neither team could get much of anything going.  The Steelers did a great job at run defense as Atlanta’s Michael Turner (42 yards on 11 carries) was a non-factor.  I’ve been tough on Lawrence Timmons, who was lousy at run defense last season, but he played a tremendous game, arguably the best linebacker on the field yesterday.  He shot gaps, covered tight ends, and made several key stops in short yardage.   Casey Hampton left the game with a groin injury and the Steelers played most of the day with Chris Hoke and Nick Eason in his place which makes the run D even more impressive.

Conversely, Mendenhall was a steady pounder, gaining 70 yards on 21 carries before breaking off the 50 yarder in OT which iced the game.

While the Steelers’ running game was returning to Stillers Football, the passing game continually stymied anything they were about to accomplish.   Early in the second quarter, a 17 yard catch by Heath Miller followed by a 21 yard effort by Hines Ward set the team up at the Atlanta 39.  A terrible throw on an out-pattern to Miller was intercepted by Atlanta to end that drive.

Dixon repeated this pattern throughout the game.  He could’ve easily had two or three additional picks.  While he made some nice throws, particularly a 52 yard bomb to Mike Wallace in the third quarter,  he seemed nervous or uneasy because instead of putting touch on many of his passes, he was gunning everything.  It cost the team several first downs where he had wide open receivers and he’d just fire it at their shoetops.  Also, any pattern with the receiver cutting toward the sidelines which required Dix putting some finesse on the ball to get it over the defender was a disaster waiting to happen.  Instead of lofting it into the receiver’s hands, the ball would come out in a straight line where a defender could easily make a play on it.  Against a more skilled ball-hawking secondary, he would’ve had a really bad game.

Atlanta abandoned the run in the second half and basically went to a no-huddle all-passing offense.  The change in philosophy paid immediate dividends as they finally moved the ball effectively.  Our secondary didn’t play too badly (with one exception I’ll note later) with Bryant McFadden a welcome sight back there.  On this drive, he gave up a 14 yarder to Roddy White where he clung to the Rowdy One like noxious fumes cling to Cleveland.  Sometimes, you just have to tip your hat to the receiver.  The other big play was a 20 yarder to Tony Gonzalez, his 1,000 career catch, where James Farrior was covering.   Most of the big passing plays the Falcons converted were on linebackers covering which is an obvious mismatch, especially against the slow-footed Farrior.

The Steelers answered on their first drive of the second half.  The aforementioned bomb to Wallace got them into Atlanta territory.  A sack took them out of FG range.   But Dixon fired high to Hines over the middle and Hines made a fantastic catch where he batted the ball upwards, caught it on his way to the turf, then had the presence of mind to get up and run because he hadn’t been touched by the astonished Atlanta corner.   This 17 yard effort set up a Skippy boot to tie the game.

Late in the third, Max Starks had his ankle rolled up on and left the game on the cart.   He couldn’t put any weight on the foot which is never a good sign.  Jonathan Scott replaced him at left tackle.  All in all, the line played surpringly well.  Don’t misunderstand, if not for Dix’s mobility, there would’ve been another three or four sacks to go with the three official ones.  But they run blocked well and the pass protection was decent enough.  It seemed to me that Dixon was yelled at to STAY IN THE POCKET because he had room to scramble on several occasions and instead stood his ground looking to make a play.  No doubt that is Bruce Arians‘ idiotic influence since he has no idea how to use a multi-dimensional weapon like DD.    Slash 2.0 only ran twice for 4 yards which is like having a Camaro in your garage and then refusing to drive it more than 35 miles per hour.

Early in the fourth, the Steelers had a chance to make one of those game-changing plays you need when starting an inexperienced quarterback.   Matt Ryan threw a poor ball to Tony G and hit Willie Gay right in the hands.   Of course, Will.i.am couldn’t hang on to it.   The Falcons were deep in their own territory and a turnover there would’ve been a major turning point.   It’s those moments where you need players to step up and make big plays.

After the punt, Hines stepped up and showed why he’s one of the greatest Steelers of all-time.   He caught a 24 yard pass on 3rd and 8 and on the very next play added another 25 yards with a run-and-catch.  Ward, who finished with 6 catches for 108 yards, is one of those guys who rises to the occasion.  If not for his heroic efforts, this game would’ve ended very very differently.  Anyway, the drive stalled at the Atlanta 20 but they still pulled ahead with a, you guessed it, Skippy FG.

Matty Ice answered with a 13 play 73 yard drive of their own.  Rowdy Roddy converted another 18 yarder on B-Mac and then Tony G blew down the middle for a 15 yard catch.   The D stiffened up in the red zone and forced the tying FG.

Then came a comedy of errors as the Steelers blew two chances to win the game in regulation.   With 3:24 on the clock, Hines made a nice 12 yard catch.   After a short completion to Heath, they called a time out at their 44 yard line.  Facing 2nd and 5 with two time outs and the two minute warning remaining (remember you’re playing with your second string LT), Arians dialed up a boneheaded pass play.   Dixon had no chance and was sacked for a ten yard loss.  That drive was doomed and the Steelers punted.

Troy Polamalu, who was all over the field, took matters into his own hands on the Falcons first play.   He dropped a good five yards off White, baiting Ryan to throw at his favorite target.  When he did, Troy honed in like a missile, jumping the route and then making a tremendous toe-dragging interception.  And he didn’t mess up the hair!

Three runs set up the game winning field goal by the ever reliable Jeff Reed and…

UGH.  Skippy shanked it wide right.  And this is what I’m talking about.   Your team needs to make plays and bail out your inexperienced quarterback in games like this.   Hines stepped up.  Troy stepped up.   But while the defense played well, there were only two sacks and no fumbles caused by our linebackers.   Gay muffed a gift-wrapped INT.  Subtract the bomb Wallace caught and the receivers accounted for 62 measly yards.  Nobody made any spectacular individual efforts.  And special teams, which need to be perfect in tight games, missed two makeable FGs.

Atlanta won the toss but two costly penalties ruined their opening drive.   First, a nice run back on the kickoff was nullified by holding.   Then James Harrison was hauled down by their offensive lineman setting them back another 10 yards.  After a punt, the Steelers took possession at their 50 yard line.   On their first play of overtime, Mendenhall burst off-tackle, stumbled a bit at the second level but maintained his balance and without breaking stride blew down the sideline for a 50 yard touchdown.

Dennis Dixon:  Two career starts, two overtimes.  Only he wound up on the right side of the outcome this time.  Hopefully with the butterflies out of his stomach, he can relax in the coming weeks and play a little more polished game.   While his final line of 18/26 for 236 yards isn’t horrible, I know he’s capable of playing better than we saw yesterday.  Next week will provide a much stiffer test against a very good Tennesee Titans defense.

In the meantime, the Steelers may never make things easy but they sure provide plenty of excitement.

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