For as awful as the Steelers have played through eight games, it was eternally refreshing to watch them take complete control of another team and exert their gameplan. And this was yet another contest in which Pittsburgh came out sluggish, turned the ball over and immediately had to play from behind. Only "behind" was just three points, and the opposition was the Bills…a team much worse than the Steelers.
With a 3-6 record through nine games, it remains to be seen if wins such as this one will do much to change the fortunes of the 2013 squad. You'd think that with six losses, the team's destiny was set in stone. Only through these nine games, the Steelers have played just two division games, with large tilts against the Ravens and Bengals looming. And with the latter losing to the former on Sunday, Pittsburgh's current spot at the bottom of the division is really only two back in the loss column from 6-4 Cincinnati. The AFC North is pretty terrible, and the Steelers have four more games against those pathetic foes to see what happens.
My stream-of-counsciousness blogging kicks in here: I keep my music player on shuffle and as I'm writing this recap, Tool's "Schism" starts playing. That word aptly describes my thoughts on the six-loss Steelers being just two losses back of the Bengals. There's the thought process of trying to accept the disappointment already present in this season. And then there's the hope that there's only good to come. That schism is will be present throughout the fanbase as long as the rest of the AFC North stays within striking distance of Pittsburgh.
Ben: Ben started slow, what else is new? Until his 34 yard shovel pass to Le'veon Bell he had just 31 or so yards through the air. I'll mostly blame the wind, as a number of early passes seemed short as if Ben was forcing it through gusts. The opening drive featured vintage Todd Haley play-calling…Ben converted a 30-some yard third down play to Jerricho Cotchery to get the team in FG range only to have the next play designed as a pass to the RB 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage to take the team right back out of range. Following that was a rainbow down the sideline to Markus Wheaton that was picked, ending a nice, early drive. The pick could be attributed to Wheaton's route, the wind or Ben's decision to chuck it as called by Haley…any explanation could really do there. Ben settled down somewhere late in the second quarter, and hit Cotchery for a gorgeous play-action fade for a touchdown. 18 of 32 for 204 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT. In a game where the running attack showed some life and the defense stepped up, Ben could rely on vintage Steelers football to win and didn't need to fling the ball 50+ times and accumulate 400 yards and multiple TDs. 3.5 of 5 motorcycle helmets when that happens. No gaudy stats, but a win.
RBs: No back really took control of the game, but altogether they formed a pretty nice three-headed monster that would've been stellar had it been just one guy. Bell had 57 yards and a necessary TD. Dwyer contributed 38 with a nice 17-yard sprint up the middle, including two early third down conversions. And even Felix Jones added a nice nine-yard jaunt through the Bills D before basically giving his spot to Dwyer. 3 of 5 motorcycle helmets, but kicked up to 4 of 5 helmets if we factor in Manny Sanders' 25-yard end-around coming from the Wildcat. With or without that, the Steelers topped 100 yards on the ground, and that's something I'll never take for granted anymore with how few those running yards been in recent tilts.
Defense: This is the game they needed, not just as a cure-all from last week's debacle but as a show that they're still not dead yet in 2013 as a whole. I said this last week:
31 points scored, four passing TDs and a 400-yard passing day for the QB should put your team in position to win, not lose by 24…There was a time when the Steelers could win with a third of those offensive stats. Now, not so much.
They responded in a big way, making the Bills punt nine times and only allowing that one FG before a garbage end-of-game TD that the refs gave to Buffalo despite an unreal non-called false start. Here's what the D gave up in the first half, which included having to fight off a first-drive Ben interception, via CBS:
And here's the Bills' drives the entire game, via ESPN:
That's…good Steelers defense. 5 of 5 motorcycle helmets. It's only fitting to give them the full five after the zero they got last week.
Antonio Brown: He's been off and on all season, but I'd be remiss not to point out that he's leading the league in catches. I mean, Marv Albert only pointed it out about 700 times during the game. He was by far Ben's go-to-guy in the wind, catching six for 104 yards, some of those in quite big spots. He had that 40-yard catch up the middle on a first down. And another 20-some yarder while wide open on a crucial thrid down. And let's not forget the punt returns. AB catches hell for the high number of fair catches when he's back there, but when he has the room, watch out. The 24-yard return was nice-enough…the 50-yard return blew that one away. With as many punts as there were at times, those returns helped settle down the field position struggle.. 4 of 5 motorcycle helmets.
Much love as well to these guys: Lawrence Timmons' 7 solo tackles and one sack. Willie Gay's 11 total and 9 solo tackles after a bone-headed early interference. Cam Heyward with a sack as he really starts to come into his own. Shaun Suisham going three for three in the wind. And Cotchery. Man, Cotchery.
Detroit comes to Heinz next week and it'd be wise to pull for another cold, windy game to hopefully ground Megatron. And I say this as a Calvin Johnson fantasy owner. This might be the heaviest game remaining on the Steelers' schedule if you accept how terrible the division is and that Aaron Rodgers may or may not play the eventual Packers game. The Steelers cannot afford a misstep.