By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
They’re 2-1 and in a familiar position right atop the AFC North standings. But something feels a little bit off with the Pittsburgh Steelers thus far. They followed up their embarrassing, Week 1 blowout at Baltimore admirably with a 24-0, home opening win over Seattle. But in needing to hang on just to upend the Peyton Manning-less Colts last Sunday night, there seemed a sense that some issues may still need to be addressed.
For starters, the Steelers have some serious problems up front. Three of their offensive linemen had to leave the game at Indy and as of right now, guard Doug Legursky and left tackle Jonathan Scott have not practiced yet this week. Tackle Marcus Gilbert has practiced but was the third of the trio of O-line guys to go down against the Colts and guard Chris Kemoeatu, one of the mainstays of a front that has gone to three of the last six Super Bowls, missed the Seattle game and is playing on a tender knee. And none of this has anything to do with veteran tackle Willie Colon, who tore his triceps in Week 1 and is out for the year.
The guy they protect, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, had three turnovers against the Colts and in three games has thrown four picks, lost four fumbles and been sacked nine times. And on defense, there are whispers that seem to keep getting louder (except by NFL Network dummy Warren Sapp, who’s been screaming it all along) that as a group, age is setting in and slowing them down. For a team that has relied so much on such a fearsome D, if this is true, it’s not good.
The Steelers are in a strange position. They lost the Super Bowl last year which makes them eligible to join the list of so many runners-up that have failed to reach the playoffs tin the following season. But they make the postseason seemingly every year and are routinely among the league’s top teams, making them seem a long shot to suffer that post-Super Bowl hangover (strangely, the last time Pittsburgh missed the playoffs came the year after they won Super Bowl XL). After traveling to Houston to take on the upstart Texans this week, they have three very winnable games in a row on their schedule (vs. Tennessee, vs. Jacksonville, at Arizona) before hosting the Patriots, who have had their number of late for the most part, in a Week 8, Halloween weekend showdown. They should be at least 5-2 by then, perhaps even better. These next four weeks leading up to that game against New England should tell us a great deal about what kind of season the Steelers will ultimately have.
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Green Bay: The Pack returned to the scene of their NFC championship from last year and took advantage of yet another sloppy, stubborn performance by the Bears (just 12 rushes after only 11 in Week 2) to move to 3-0. Tight end Jermichael Finley, predicted by ESPN moron Tom Jackson to struggle mightily with the Chicago D, caught three TD passes and may well be the most dangerous of Green Bay’s many weapons.
2. New Orleans: The Saints, a questionable call at the tail end of Week 1 from being 3-0, came back from a nine-point, fourth quarter deficit to beat Houston 40-33. Most impressive was the play of the offense, particularly Drew Brees, in that final quarter. Brees was 13-of-19 for 163 yards and two TDs in the fourth, part a 23-point barrage.
3. Detroit: The earth may well spin off its axis. The Lions are indeed 3-0 and this past week, they came back from a 20-0 halftime deficit in a place the haven’t won in 14 years (the Metrodome) to do it. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who actually hasn’t gotten hurt yet, was 32-of-46 for 378 yards and two TDs and is looking like he finally may live up to being taken No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft.
4. Buffalo: If you don’t believe the earth is spinning off its axis because Detroit is 3-0, let me present to you the Buffalo Bills. For the second straight week, they came back from a big deficit (21-3 in Week 2, 21-0 in Week 3) to win, shredding the Patriots hideous defense for nearly 500 total yards and 34 points in just over two full quarters. It was their first win over the Pats in eight years and with the Bengals and injury depleted Eagles on deck the next two weeks, 5-0 isn’t out of the question.
5. (tie) New England/Baltimore: The Pats back into this spot mostly because even though they have the worst defense in the NFL and Tom Brady threw four picks against the Bills, they still very nearly escaped with the win. As for the Ravens, they seem to go as QB Joe Flacco does and Flacco was immense (27-of-48, 389 yards, three TDs) in a blowout win at the Rams.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Kansas City: It took the Chiefs a full half to even make a first down against San Diego but then, they showed some life for the first time all season, pulling to within three points and having the ball late before a Matt Cassel INT doomed them. There still isn’t a worst team in the NFL than this one but give them credit for losing three of their best players for the season over the first two weeks yet still managing to be competitive.
2. Miami: After falling to 0-3 with a fall-from-ahead loss to the Browns, Dolphins defensive lineman Kendall Langford said, “We should have blown their asses out. They were not a good team.” Hey Kendall, they beat you and are 2-1. You’re 0-3. Yours is the one that’s not a good team.
3. St. Louis: Picked by many to win the gross NFC West, the Rams are now 0-3 and have been outscored 96-36 combined after getting blasted at home by the Ravens, 37-7. There have been a lot of injuries but that doesn’t excuse the defense (supposedly this team’s strength) allowing some guy named Torrey Smith to catch three TD passes totaling 133 yards in the first quarter. Also, look at the Rams schedule – they are staring down 0-7 before their first division game in Week 9 at Arizona.
4. Minnesota: 17-7, 17-0 and 20-0. All halftime leads for the Vikes through the season’s first three weeks. And all eventual losses. This past week, overmatched coach Leslie Frazier looked at his weekly big, halftime advantage and decided to then give Adrian Peterson, only the best running back in the NFL, five carries in the entire second half. Not even Frazier’s predecessor Brad Childress, pariah extraordinaire, was that misguided.
5. Indianapolis: The Colts showed some heart for the first time this season, coming back twice on the Steelers before falling late, 23-20. It’s only been three weeks, but it’s officially time to start the clock on Manning being put on injured reserve. What would possibly be the point of bringing him back in November if the team is 1-9 or something. Sorry, Colts fans – it’s Curtis Painter or bust.
- The Raiders: Oakland, which could well be 3-0 if not for a “whoever has the ball last wins,” game at Buffalo in Week 2, started slow then roared back to smoke the Jets, 34-24. In doing so, the Raiders did something no one does against Rex Ryan coached defenses and that’s run the ball down their throat. Led by Darren McFadden’s 171 yards and two TDs, the Raiders piled it on, with 234 yards on the ground, 7.2 per rush. Could this team actually be a postseason threat? Will Al Davis disintegrate into a pile of dust before figuring out how to screw it all up? Stay tuned…
- The Bucs Defense: Josh Freeman has just two TD passes against four picks through his first three games but the Bucs are still 2-1 thanks in large part to their D. Tampa held Atlanta to 30 yards rushing, forced three turnovers and had four sacks in a tough, 16-13 division win.
- Victor Cruz, Giants: Cruz exploded in the 2010 preseason then was buried for the bulk of the regular year. But this season, thanks to injuries to the G-men’s top two targets Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham, he’s stepped it up, catching 3 balls for 110 yards and two TDs, one of which was a sick, 74-yarder that may well wind up one of the plays of they year in a 29-16 win over the host Eagles.
- The Falcons: In that same game against the Bucs, Atlanta’s D got to a fourth-and-1 with 1:46 left down by three points. Then, someone jumped offsides, Tampa got an automatic first down, the game was over and the Falcons were 1-2, one decent fourth quarter against the Eagles in Week 2 from being 0-3. Since getting blown out of their own dome by the Packers in the playoffs last year, the Falcons have looked lost; their QB is the most sacked in the league, their star back managed just 20 yards on 11 carries against the Bucs and their defense still can’t come up with the big play when it needs to. Early candidate for most disappointing team here.
- The Eagles: Never mind that the Eagles are still coached by Andy Reid, who screwed them for the 753rd time by not having the slightest idea how to manage the clock properly against the Giants last week. Or that Michael Vick can’t seem to play a game without getting hurt and then bitches about being unfairly treated by the officials afterward. Or that the backup QB is someone named Mike Kafka and has supplanted eternal bum Vince Young on the depth chart. Or that the defense is in disarray, having to shuffle linebackers on a weekly basis. Or that they gave up 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter against Philly. Actually yeah, mind those things. Right now the “dream team” looks more like a nightmare.
- The Chargers: Do you think Chargers fans know that regardless of how much talent their team stockpiles on both sides of the ball, they will never, ever win anything as long as Norv Turner continues to be their head coach? No one plays down to their competition quite like San Diego, which barely hung on to beat the outrageously awful Chiefs last week, and at home no less. This week’s edition of “Why Norv Sucks,” takes us to the later stages of the fourth quarter of that very game. The Chargers had seen a 17-0 halftime edge whittled down to 20-17 and faced a fourth-and-1 from the KC 34-yard line with 1:26 left. Instead of a pooch punt that would have forced the Chiefs to either drive the length of the field to tie or win (or at least start at their own 20, 14 crucial extra yards of field position), good ol’ Norv went for it. Naturally, the Chargers didn’t make the first down and had to sweat out the final moments. Norv’ll tell you he was aggressively trying to end the game right there. Anyone else will tell you he’s out of his mind and is conceivably the most overmatched coach in the NFL.
It may only have been three weeks but were we a little too quick to coronate the Houston Texans? Last week, facing their first real test of the season, particularly for their new-look defense, they led 26-17 headed into the fourth quarter at New Orleans and proceeded to get outscored 23-7 over the final 15 minutes en route to a heartbreaking loss. With the money on the table, the defense, so solid through the season’s first two weeks, crumbled under the weight of the great Saints offense. And the offense, stacked with studs right down the line, settled for field goals on four out of five trips inside the New Orleans 20, not a good scenario when facing an attack as high-powered as the Saints (or a defense as suspect for that matter).
Houston has plenty of time to get well and a win this week at home against the Steelers will go a long way toward getting back some of the good will engendered by the 2-0 start. With the Colts where they are and the Jaguars looking weak and without a quarterback, the division is ripe for the Texans to finally get over the hump, exorcise a few demons and make their first ever playoff appearance. Hopefully for their sake, they have short memories. Given their dark, albeit short, history, a loss like last week’s could linger.