Monday, December 05, 2011

Steelers find their punch

Monday, December 5, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 04: Andy Dalton(notes) #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals is sacked in the fourth quarter by James Harrison(notes) #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on December 4, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 35-7. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The Steelers' offense strutted into their pivotal AFC North Division showdown against Cincinnati armed with an arsenal mismatch approximating an F-14 taking on a .45 Colt. And yeah, they still chose to walk right up to the Bengals and punch them in the face.

Must have felt like the right thing to do.

"Sometimes, man, you just have to go right at a team," right tackle Marcus Gilbert told me after the Steelers' wire-to-wire, 35-7 walloping Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. "We wanted to come out and pound them. We wanted to take their will."

Anyone remember the Chiefs' will being taken last week in Kansas City?

Or, really, any other opponent?

Me neither, but the Bengals' will most certainly was sapped by the end of this one, with the Steelers delivering a belligerent bruising on both sides of the ball. They surprised everyone by rushing for 136 yards, staying on the ground even inside the red zone. They found a previously undetected fire on defense, getting three sacks from James Harrison and the performance of the year from the down linemen. They were superb on special teams, including Antonio Brown's punt-return touchdown sprung by a violent block from Bryant McFadden. And the cumulative result was the most complete, most important and maybe most entertaining victory all season.

Entertaining for them, I mean.

"Now that was fun," linebacker James Farrior said.

Look at it this way: The Steelers could have lined up five wideouts against an injury-wracked secondary and, even with Ben Roethlisberger's bum thumb, heaved bombs all day. Instead, they typically deployed three tight ends and alternated a not-surprisingly-fresh-looking Rashard Mendenhall for 60 yards and Isaac Redman for 51 more. Mendenhall scored the game's first two touchdowns, too.

It all started with a push up front so sustained you'd swear a cloud of dust in Chuck Noll's image had formed off Heinz Field's winter-worn turf.

"That's something I know our offensive linemen take pride in. Our running backs as well," Roethlisberger said of the running game. "It was awesome to see it really get going."

It's absurd to argue the Steelers would be better off running that much all the time. They're a passing team because that's what the talent dictates. But a little versatility helps. The Bengals went to a dime defense at times yesterday, essentially daring the Steelers to run. Others will try it, too.

On defense, the Steelers' punches came with a "9" and "2" branded across the knuckles. But that, too, was a departure.

It had been difficult to feel very strongly about this group, even with its No. 2 NFL ranking. They seldom generated a pass rush, almost never took the ball away and, really, didn't scare much of anyone. There was plenty of resiliency, but not much in the way of teeth.

That changed yesterday. LaMarr Woodley was forced out early by that wonky hamstring, but Harrison took care of the pass rush from the other outside linebacker slot by tossing Dalton about like a crash-test dummy. Ike Taylor defied history and held onto a second interception in as many weeks. And, as with the offense, the push up front was key. Brett Keisel continued to be Pro Bowl proficient, Ziggy Hood was almost good enough to overshadow his bizarre Pee Wee Herman dance — that's almost — and all concerned made life so miserable for Dalton that Marvin Lewis pulled him late.

"For the most part, we had him rattled all day," Farrior said.

Aside to Tyler Palko: That's how the Steelers usually treat novice quarterbacks.

"It was a full 60 minutes, definitely one of our better performances," Harrison said.

A 9-3 record is still only good enough for a tie atop the AFC, so this hardly was a coronation. But this achieved more than any other game in establishing the Steelers' identity. Or, I should say, re-establishing it.

Harrison, predictably, wanted no part of my suggestion to that effect.

"It's about 16 games," he said. "If it was about just one game, we'd be garbage."

Said it with a snarl, too.

No comments: