Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Steel Curtain Edition

The Pittsburgh Steelers spotted the Washington Redskins a 6-0 lead and then their defense bludgeoned Washington into submission in a 23-6 victory. The Steelers improved to 6-2 and they now not only own first place in the AFC North but they also have the second best record in the entire AFC, trailing only the 8-0 Tennessee Titans. The Steelers have the second best defense in the AFC, allowing only 116 points, 13 more than the Titans have given up. Pittsburgh's starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed just 5 of 17 passes for 50 yards and one interception but he scored a touchdown on a one yard quarterback sneak to put Pittsburgh up 10-6 just before halftime. Roethlisberger reinjured his already balky right shoulder on that play and did not return to action in the second half but the Steelers did not miss a beat as backup quarterback Byron Leftwich went 7-10 for 129 yards and a touchdown, including a big 50 yard completion to Nate Washington that set up a Willie Parker touchdown run on the opening drive of the third quarter. The Steelers held NFL rushing leader Clinton Portis to 51 yards on 13 carries; he had rushed for at least 120 yards while averaging at least five yards per attempt in each of his previous five games, a feat matched by only Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson. Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell has had four games this season with a passer rating of over 100 but Pittsburgh harassed him into his worst game of the season by far, intercepting two of his passes, sacking him seven times and limiting him to a pitiful 4.8 yards per attempt average.

The team stats don't really tell the complete story of this game: Washington gained 221 yards of total offense--just three fewer than the Steelers did--but nearly a fourth of that total came on a meaningless drive in the final minutes that ended in a Campbell interception. A better indicator of Pittsburgh's dominance is Washington's 3-15 third down conversion ratio. It is also worth noting that both of Washington's scores--two early field goals--came after "drives" in which the Redskins did not make a single first down; Washington recovered an onside kick on the first play of the game but could not advance the ball and then a bit later the Redskins intercepted Roethlisberger but again could not gain any ground.

Portis summed things up best: "We were hoping to go out and play our football, play smash-mouth football. Instead, we got smashed."

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

*Dallas, widely considered to be the most talented team in the NFL before the season began, fell to 5-4 after losing 35-14 to the New York Giants. Brad Johnson, starting at quarterback for the Cowboys in place of the injured Tony Romo, was benched after he completed just 5 of 11 passes for 71 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His first interception almost certainly would have been a touchdown if he had thrown an accurate pass to Terrell Owens on a slant pattern; instead, Corey Webster picked off Johnson's errant throw and returned it 57 yards. The Giants scored a touchdown on the resulting drive to go up 14-0. Johnson was the starting quarterback for Tampa Bay's Super Bowl championship team in 2002; he had 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions that year, leading the league by having just 1.3 % of his pass attempts picked off, but now he is a 40 year old veteran who has already been intercepted five times in just three games as Romo's substitute. The blame here lies not so much with Johnson but rather with whoever in the Cowboys' organization failed to sign an adequate backup quarterback; few starting quarterbacks play all 16 games, so it is imperative to have a backup who can at least be reasonably effective in spot duty. Clearly, Johnson is not capable of filling that job at this stage of his career.

After the game, members of the media tried to goad Owens into making inflammatory comments but he simply replied, "My opinion doesn't matter. I can say it all day. I can give you my opinion right now but all y'all are going to do is bash me on my opinion." Fox Sports' Terry Bradshaw said, "I've got to applaud Terrell Owens. He's done an excellent job of being very, very judicious with his words." Jimmy Johnson added, "I do feel bad for him because they (the media) try to bait him into saying something that's controversial."Even Tom Jackson--a frequent critic of Owens--begrudgingly conceded during Monday Night Countdown that Owens has displayed a lot of maturity with his comments to the media this season.

*The Cleveland Browns squandered a 27-13 second half lead at home versus the Baltimore Ravens and suffered a 37-27 loss that probably ended their playoff hopes. Quarterback Derek Anderson hardly distinguished himself (17-33, 219 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) but he was also victimized by a dropped Braylon Edwards pass on a perfect throw that should have resulted in a long touchdown. The signature memory from this game will no doubt be Anderson's errant screen pass that Terrell Suggs intecepted and ran back for a game-clinching touchdown with 2:43 remaining.

The Browns have already announced that second year man Brady Quinn will start get his first regular season start at quarterback on Thursday night versus Denver. Quinn has looked good in limited preseason action the past couple years but who knows how well that will translate into regular season play; I fear that the Browns may be rushing him into the fray too soon and without a good enough supporting cast around him, two conditions that doomed 1999 number one overall first pick Tim Couch, who possibly could have been a good NFL player in a different circumstance. ESPN's Trent Dilfer, who won a Super Bowl ring as a starting quarterback for Baltimore and briefly played in Cleveland, declared that the Browns' decision reflects the "many layers of dysfunction" in the team's organization, starting at the very top with owner Randy Lerner. Dilfer said, "Number one, it is known that you do not bench a quarterback when you are on a bad football team. You bench a quarterback when it is a good football team and the quarterback is holding you back. This is a bad football team. More importantly, I played in Cleveland for a year and I was shell shocked how this organization at the very highest level is so influenced by public opinion. They listen to the talk radio. The owner for the Cleveland Browns makes knee jerk decisions to fill seats and you cannot be successful in the National Football League now or long term if you are basing your decisions about what the public wants."

The Browns made an exciting run in the latter part of last season but I fear that my initial concerns about Romeo Crennel's coaching and Phil Savage's decision making in the front office were in fact quite well founded; after the Browns lost their home opener 34-7 versus Pittsburgh last season, I wrote, "Savage and Crennel need to put a better product on the field quickly or owner Randy Lerner needs to send their Keystone Kops routine packing and bring in a real football administration that will generate wins instead of excuses." The Browns seemed to show some signs of progress but now it looks like that was just a mirage that masked the reality that the Browns are a disorganized, dysfunctional, losing organization.

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