Commentary

Steelers are team to beat in AFC

Pittsburgh's offense picked New England apart and made a statement

Originally Published: October 31, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- It was more than just another October game. To their credit, the Pittsburgh Steelers' players admitted as much.

They had heard the never-ending hype, how the New England Patriots owned them, how the Patriots were in their heads, how Tom Brady was perfect and Bill Belichick a genius and their offense simply unstoppable.

The Steelers tried not to listen, but they couldn't tune out all of the noise. It is hard to shut it out completely. Tweet this. Talk that. In 2011, it never stops. The news cycle isn't a cycle. It's every second. And everyone has an opinion.

Despite getting slightly irritated by all the hype, the Steelers players knew it was merited. Only the Patriots have won more Super Bowls this century than Pittsburgh. Three for the Pats to two for the Steelers. Real recognizes real.

[+] Enlarge Mike Tomlin
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMike Tomlin and the Steelers are building confidence, but they know there's still work to be done.

So yes, this Oct. 30 game was a little bigger than normal. This was 5-1 New England against 5-2 Pittsburgh, at Heinz Field, in a game that just might decide which team has home-field advantage through the playoffs.

When it was over, after the Steelers won 25-17 in a game that was only that close because of Pittsburgh's inability to score touchdowns in the red zone, the gauntlet had been thrown down: The Steelers are the team to beat in the AFC.

They are in control. Take care of business over the next two months, while veterans get healthy and the youngsters continue to jell, and guess what? The path to the Super Bowl will go through Pittsburgh, just the way the Steelers like it.

"Obviously, we play better at home it seems, so that is important to us," said Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark. "We're fighting for seeds, and that's what we want to do going into the playoffs."

The Steelers are 4-0 at home this season, but that wasn't what Clark was talking about. Clark has been with Pittsburgh since 2006, and in that time the Steelers are 2-0 in AFC title games at Heinz Field. They beat Baltimore in 2008 and then the Jets this past January. Home-field advantage matters.

So does having a good defense. Pittsburgh has that, too. At this point, New England doesn't. The Steelers might be old, but they can still cover and they can still hit and they can still make plays.

Surely Belichick is aware of his team's deficiencies, particularly against the pass, because the Steelers were. Their offensive plan going into the game was to spread the ball around and be patient, because they knew New England wasn't going to blitz them much. They didn't have to take shots down the field. They could gain yards in chunks underneath and methodically move the ball downfield.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, 39 of Ben Roethlisberger's 50 attempts were for 10 or fewer yards. He completed 79.5 percent of those throws, including two for touchdowns and 18 for first downs.

Roethlisberger kept the chains moving, and kept Brady on the sideline. The Steelers' best defense was a ball-hawking offense.

[+] EnlargeRoethlisberger
Jason Bridge/US PresswireBen Roethlisberger dissected the Patriots underneath and owned third down.

Pittsburgh had the football almost twice as long as the Patriots. It started in the first quarter, when the Steelers controlled the football for 13 minutes, 36 seconds, and it never stopped. Roethlisberger killed the Patriots with tight end Heath Miller. Big Ben was money on third down, converting 10 of 16 opportunities.

The Steelers outgained New England 427 to 213 yards and ran 28 more offensive plays. The only place the Steelers struggled at all was in turning red zone appearances into touchdowns, instead of field goals. If they had done that, the game would have been over a lot earlier.

After splitting their first four games, the Steelers now have won four straight and will host Baltimore on Sunday night in Week 9.

The Steelers are a different team than the one that lost the season opener to the Ravens, 35-7. They are not peaking, but they are coming together. In another week, they might have James Farrior, James Harrison and Hines Ward back from injuries. Anything can happen between now and February, but they like where they are with the best record in the AFC at the midway point.

"I think we're really doing a great job stacking wins," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who had two sacks to bring his season total to nine before injuring a hamstring. "This was a big challenge for us, going against an elite quarterback like Tom Brady, and I think we definitely answered that.

"[But] it's all about how you finish and not how you're playing right now. You say you're back when you're playing in the big game at the end of the year."

That is the goal. It is all about reaching the Super Bowl. The Steelers got there last year, losing to Green Bay. Just about the entire team came back.

There is a lot of football still to be played, but the Steelers took a big step toward their goal in Week 8. They weren't overplaying the win, but they understood that now they stand in front of New England, which had won six of the previous seven against the Steelers entering the game. Their records are the same, and if they are that way at the end of the regular season, Pittsburgh holds the tiebreaker advantage.

"I'm liking where this team is going, it's just a matter of staying humble, keeping it together and not overexaggerating or over-celebrating because we won," Ward told me on his way out of the stadium.

Ward didn't play on Sunday, but he has played enough of these games during his 14-year career in Pittsburgh. He knows what they mean, and what they don't.

"It was a great win," Ward said, "but I've been on teams where we've beat the Patriots before, and they came back and handed it to us pretty good in the AFC Championship Game. So you can't overreact. We won't overreact. It was a great win for us. We're going to celebrate and enjoy and then get ready for Baltimore."

INSTANT REPLAY

What I learned from Week 8:

[+] EnlargeEli Manning, Kevin Glibride and Tom Coughlin
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireEli Manning and his coaches got a pretty big win over the Dolphins in Week 8.

The Giants' win over Miami was huge. How huge? Tom Coughlin called it, "A huge win, a huge win. Huge." I'd add this: Huge, huge and huge.

It wasn't that the Giants averted losing to an oh-fer team. It's that New York was able to take a two-game lead in the NFC East over the Cowboys, Eagles and fading Redskins. Considering their murderous upcoming schedule (at New England, at San Francisco, Philadelphia at home, at New Orleans, Green Bay at home, at Dallas) the Giants are going to need as big of a cushion as they can get.

Whatever Andy Reid's formula is, it works. After crushing Dallas 34-7 on Sunday night, the Eagles are now 13-0 coming out of a bye in the Reid era. It is a remarkable statistic.

Reid has always given his players a full week off for the bye. He wants them to get away, to recharge, to get healthy, to forget about football for a while. Reid lets his coaching staff take a long weekend, and even he gets out of town.

It has worked in the past, and it worked Sunday. The Eagles jumped all over Dallas. They led 24-0 in the second quarter, and 34-0 early in the fourth quarter. It is a big win for a talented team that will try to claw its way back to .500 next Monday night against Chicago.

Baltimore shouldn't get too excited. That was a nice comeback by the Ravens in their 30-27 win over Arizona, but they should not have fallen into a 21-point hole in the first place. If Baltimore is going to be an elite team, it is going to have to find a way to protect quarterback Joe Flacco better. When he gets pressured, he is ordinary at best.

When he has time to find Anquan Boldin, Flacco can be very good. Flacco targeted Boldin 12 times against Arizona, and Boldin made his old team pay with seven catches for 145 yards, including a beautiful one-handed grab in man coverage.

There is a lot to like in Cincinnati. The Bengals have a good young quarterback and receiver, in particular. Did you see the play on which Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for a touchdown in the second quarter? Dalton went play-action, stepped up in the pocket and then hit Green, who had slipped behind the Seattle safety with a double move, into the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Bengals a 17-3 lead.

A rookie out of Georgia, the 6-foot-4 Green had four catches for 63 yards against the Seahawks. He is averaging 15.6 yards per catch this season.

Frank Gore is having fun. You can just tell. Under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, Gore is averaging the most carries per game (20.0) of his seven-year San Francisco career. In the last four games alone, Gore has averaged 131.8 rushing yards and scored four touchdowns.

Gore hasn't rushed for 1,000 yards in a season since 2009, but he is on pace for 1,542 yards this season, which would be the second most of his career. Gore knows he's going to get the ball, and he is making the most of it.

And then there were two. With St. Louis showing a pulse in beating New Orleans, there now are two remaining winless teams: Miami and Indianapolis. Who will get the No. 1 overall pick? The Dolphins' schedule is tougher, with their remaining opponents a combined 35-27.

The Colts' remaining opponents are 29-31, including 2-6 Jacksonville (twice) and 2-6 Carolina. All three of Indianapolis' upcoming games against Atlanta, Jacksonville and Carolina are at home. There has to be a win in there somewhere.

SLEEPING IN THE OFFICE

Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:

[+] EnlargeWashington's John Beck
Rafael Suanes/US PRESSWIREJohn Beck hasn't been the answer for the Redskins, and things appear to be getting worse.

Things seem to be unraveling in Washington. After starting the season 3-1, the Redskins have lost three straight since their bye week, including 23-0 to Buffalo on Sunday in Toronto. Mike Shanahan doesn't seem to have any answers.

Shanahan doesn't have a legitimate starting quarterback, or one even waiting in the wings. John Beck is now 0-6 as a starter. The Redskins had no run game (26 rushing yards) and their pass protection was so bad that Buffalo just teed off on Beck, with eight different players collecting a total of nine sacks.

The Redskins' defense is hemorrhaging. During this three-game slide, the Redskins have given up 1,219 total yards, including 422 to Philadelphia and 407 to Carolina. They've given up 422 rushing yards in three games, including 138 to the Bills.

Owner Daniel Snyder isn't going to be patient forever, especially because Shanahan said he thought this team was better than last year's. It sure hasn't played like it.

New Orleans didn't show up to play. Maybe a letdown against St. Louis was inevitable. Maybe, after crushing Indianapolis 62-7 in Week 7, the Saints were due for a mental holiday. There's been a lot going on, what with Sean Payton's knee surgery and his move to coaching from the press box, and that monster win last week.

Quarterback Drew Brees said the Saints had tried to guard against a mental letdown, but that's what happened against the Rams. Payton said his team looked flat. He was right. They trailed the winless Rams 24-0 midway through the third quarter, and completely blew an opportunity to extend their lead in the NFC South over Tampa Bay and Atlanta.

Now, they are 5-3, with their next two games against the 4-3 Buccaneers and the 4-3 Falcons.

"It's going to come down to blocking, tackling; it's going to come down to the turnovers," Payton said afterward. "Oftentimes it sounds like a cliché on Monday, but I'm just telling you watching it from where I saw it, it's not real complex. It's pretty simple."

Rob Ryan might want to go back to the drawing board. The son of former Philadelphia head coach Buddy Ryan is not exactly new to the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry. He should have known better than to call the Eagles the "all-hype team" in the preseason, or say that he wanted to "kick their ass."

This rivalry doesn't need more fuel. Ryan's defense got burned for 495 net yards, including 239 on the ground.

At least Ryan stood up afterward and took what was coming.

"The whole thing is I got outcoached by Reid and their staff," Ryan said. "I mean, it's ridiculous. I never gave our guys a chance. The whole [expletive] thing was on me. If I gave them any extra motivation, hell, I certainly never backed it up. I gave our guys a lousy plan. We had no chance, and it's all on me."

The CJ2K watch continues. It is becoming a weekly feature here, charting the withering production of Chris Johnson. Last week he gained 18 yards on 10 carries against Houston. This week, he gained 34 yards on 14 carries against Indianapolis.

Through the first seven games last season, Johnson had four 100-yard rushing games. Through the first seven this season, he has one. Johnson is averaging 2.8 yards per carry, an average that is dropping almost weekly. Take away his 101-yard rushing effort against Cleveland, and Johnson's yards-per-carry average drops to 2.4.

He has the big contract, but not the big numbers this season.

RANT AND RAVE

A player who will be under review today:

[+] EnlargeTim Tebow
Rich Gabrielson/Icon SMITim Tebow was snowed under by the Lions' pass rush, but it's his passing skills that draw the most criticism.

Tim Tebow didn't ask to become an icon or a verb, a trending topic or a movement, but that is what he is and as such he will be scrutinized more closely and criticized more harshly than most other players.

The Denver Broncos are trying to determine whether Tebow, the most decorated college quarterback ever during his time at Florida, can be a starting quarterback in the National Football League. Some quarterbacks can make the transition from college to the pros. Some can't. Two games is not a large enough sample for John Elway and John Fox to judge, but that might be all Tebow gets. He has been shaky at best.

Tebow played 55 awful minutes last week against Miami, then did what he does best in overseeing a back-from-the-dead rally. However, there was no rally on Sunday against Detroit, just a 45-10 loss.

Tebow's line: 18-of-39 for 172 yards, one touchdown and one interception that the Lions returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Detroit sacked Tebow seven times. He fumbled three times, with Detroit returning one for another touchdown.

Tebow's two-game total: 31-of-66 for 333 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 13 sacks. He needs to lead his receivers, not throw at them. Tebow's less-than-ideal mechanics are what they are, but if he is going to be a quarterback in this league, he needs to anticipate his throws and raise his completion percentage.

TWEET THIS

Notable tweets from around the league:

"If I had a few hundred million bucks I'd buy the Dallas Cowboys then get the hell outta the way." -- @lancearmstrong, at the end of the Cowboys' loss to Philadelphia.

"We aint done ...... I got a whole city on my back Harrisburg boy 717 ya heard" -- @CutonDime25, Eagles running back and Harrisburg, Pa., native LeSean McCoy, who gained a career-high 185 yards on 30 carries.

"While catching the ball was fun more proud of gettin Frank his yards rushing and keeping Alex clean and most importantly getting the W" -- @jstaley74, San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley, who had a 17-yard reception in the 49ers' 20-10 win over Cleveland.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.