Give the Steelers their due
Adam Schein / Special to FOXSports.com
I know when you pen a "grades" column, you brace yourself for fascinating reader reaction. What I received from the Steelers fans, and non-Steeler faithful, I never saw coming.
Mike Tomlin's outfit is 8-3, good enough for first place in the AFC North. They are currently the No. 3 seed in the AFC. I saw fit to give Pittsburgh an A-minus grade for the first half of the campaign. Frankly, it was one of my easier choices because 8-3 speaks for itself and I had thought Pittsburgh would win nine or 10 games this year.
The consensus from Steeler Nation? It was way too high of a mark.
Now, this is the same fan base that ripped me for being anti-Steeler when I boldly predicted in 2005 the Steelers wouldn't make the playoffs. They won the Super Bowl. This is same fan base that called me clueless when I said the Steelers wouldn't make the playoffs in 2006. I then became a genius.
Now I am "soft" and a "homer" (really, one guy e-mailed me that — I don't even know what that means) for giving the Steelers an A-minus?
The way the Steelers are built, they will absolutely hold off Cleveland for the division title. Remember that the Steelers, after beating the Browns twice this regular season, own the tie-breaker. Pittsburgh is still squarely in the hunt for the No. 2 seed and a coveted bye. And yes, the Steelers can absolutely challenge the big, bad Patriots when they play in two weeks.
I know the last two games were eye sores. The Jets' loss was atrocious. The pass protection resembled a turnstile at a New York City subway station, allowing the defensively challenged Jets to sack Ben Roethlisberger seven times. The anemic Jets pass rush had nine sacks all year before the game. Willie Parker had one of his worst games of a great season against a porous run defense. You never run against the Steelers' vaunted defense. Thomas Jones carved them up, becoming the first back to register a 100-yard rushing game in over two years. Kellen Clemens looked like a cross between Steve Young and Randall Cunningham making plays with his arm, legs and brain in crunch time. The Jets won in overtime. It was inexplicable and awful.
And you figured Pittsburgh, looking to take out its frustration, would pound poor John Beck and the winless Dolphins into the ground.
Little did the Steelers know they had to beat Beck, the Dolphins, Mother Nature and the embarrassment that was Heinz Field.
Rain fell. Mud was everywhere. The field was such a disaster you couldn't see the yard markers. The conditions weren't fit for your reunion game at the local school yard Thanksgiving weekend, let alone Monday Night Football. You couldn't plant. You couldn't run. You could barely play. The game was a total slopfest, offense was at a minimum and the Steelers survived the elements and the desperate Dolphins in the ugliest game of the year.
It's simply paralysis by analysis if you take anything from that game other than the final score. You can't rip Pittsburgh for only scoring three points in the quagmire. That would be illogical.
In his postgame comments, Roethlisberger seemed giddy to win, thankful the Steelers didn't fumble.
Tyronne Carter led the Steelers in tackles during the game. In talking to the safety the day after the game, Carter was just thankful to be healthy.
"I've never played in a situation like that before," Carter said. "The footing was bad already at our stadium but the rain made it worse. The field was thick with mud and had holes in it where you had to watch every step. When you think of professional ballplayers, you are supposed to not worry about field conditions. We are lucky there was no major injury. We can't see the holes in the ground, but you are sinking."
I acknowledge the Steelers don't possess the same offensive line they had in years past. In the three losses, the Jets, Broncos and Cardinals all got highly aggressive in their defensive play calls. And there is a bit of a book on how to beat Pittsburgh. But all three of the losses were on the road. The Jets were coming off of their bye week. Denver is well-coached and a pretty solid squad despite the 5-6 record. Adrian Wilson told me after the win that the Cardinals, a very talented team, treated that game as a Super Bowl. And obviously the Arizona staff is very familiar with the Steelers' talent and ways.
That adds up to one, just one, really bad game and one bad loss.
The Eagles hung with the Patriots. Mike Tomlin's team should be able to do the same in two weeks.
Dick LeBeau's defense remains a physical, feared difference-making unit. It's as good as or better than any defense in the NFL. You could easily make a case it's the most complete defense in the NFL. Roethlisberger is enjoying his most dominant year as a pro ball player, winning games (like Cleveland) by carrying the Steelers on his back. Until the Jets game, he was squarely in the top five for league MVP. Hines Ward epitomizes the Steelers way with his clutch, physical brand of ball on offense. Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes are clutch and have lived up to their draft status. Willie Parker is playing like a top five back.
Great defense? Clutch, battle-tested offensive players? A strong coaching staff? That sounds like a recipe for success down the stretch of the season and in the tournament.
The rest of the schedule isn't easy, including a visit from the hated Bengals and Carson Palmer this Sunday night. Cincy finally put it together last weekend. After the game against the Patriots, Pittsburgh welcomes the tough-minded Jags. It eases when the Steelers visit St. Louis and Baltimore to close the regular season.
Pittsburgh will go 4-1 or 3-2 down the stretch. It could be good enough for the No. 2 seed -- 11 or 12 wins is nothing short of a stunning debut for rookie head coach Mike Tomlin, who has impressed with his intensity, preparation, flexibility and management.
But the Steelers will be a difficult out come January. And with the right off-season moves (like paying Alan Faneca) you will be able to build off of Tomlin's highly successful debut.
Pretty good read.