Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sum total of 27-0 win: Much ado about nothing

Sunday, December 25, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Ziggy Hood #96 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles Kellen Clemens #10 of the St. Louis Rams during the game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 27-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Through all of its myriad innovations, and despite every last inspired wrinkle introduced through the years by the incomparable Dick LeBeau, the Steelers defense never has changed its primary strategical purpose: to make the opponent one dimensional.

So, what do you do when you're presented an opposing offense that has already done that for you?

You pitch a shutout is what you do.

"A shutout is always what we want to do," said linebacker Lawrence Timmons, whose Christmas Eve included 7 unassisted tackles, 10 total tackles, 1 sack, 2 quarterback hurries, and, sure, probably 6 geese a-laying. "We're always capable of doing it."

True enough, but it's rare in an offense-flooded NFL that anyone runs up against a team like the St. Louis Rams, a team that a top defense likely should shut out.

The Rams come pre-packaged for a skunking. You can go ahead and try to make them one dimensional, but really, with a third-string quarterback and no legitimate receiving threats, this team should be marked NO DISASSEMBLY REQUIRED.

And that, almost by itself, explains the Steelers' 27-0 victory Saturday, the one they needed to preserve a puncher's chance to earn the AFC North title on the last day of the season in Cleveland.

"We can't worry about what Baltimore is going to do," said linebacker James Farrior. "We just have to control what we do."

Control never was an issue for this final home game, mostly because the Rams' self-control was so admirable.

Here's a team that had eight passing touchdowns all season at kickoff and still does. Here's a team averaging 11 points per game that fell 11 short of that. Here's a team that hadn't scored more than 21 in any game and didn't come within 20 of that.

Thus, on a day when the Rams visited the red zone exactly once across all 60 minutes, the Steelers picked up their second shutout this season (24-0 against Seattle here Sept. 18) without needing so much as a turnover. They managed three sacks and even those didn't seem terribly necessary, as third-stringer Kellen Clemens was misfiring on 15 of his 24 throws.

Had it not been for Steven Jackson, who carved out 103 rushing yards on 24 thunderous carries, the Steelers might have won this 27 to minus 30. Probably some rule against that.

"I definitely felt we could have played the run better," said Farrior, who thought he had a better feel for where this defense is than a lot of people. "We've got a good group, but it's always a work in progress. Nobody ever plays a perfect game. We've just got to continue to work and let the process play out."

As the defense continues its development just two weeks short of the playoffs, defensive back Keenan Lewis continues to be a valuable sub-package contributor. He made a great coverage play against 6-foot-5 wideout Danario Alexander early in the second quarter on a third-and-10 situation, which forced the only bit of gadgetry offered by St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo. He sent the punter rolling right on fourth-and-10 from the Steelers 44. He got 9.

"It was an aggressive call," said Spagnuolo, whose record fell to 10-37 as an NFL head coach. "We got the right look and thought we could get it, but they did a nice job taking it away."

Still, the Steelers didn't take away a lot aside from what the Rams traditionally take away from themselves (the take Saturday included a missed 33-yard field goal) and now Mike Tomlin's team is again running a little two-game streak with nary a turnover.

You'd imagine now that James Harrison has returned and that LaMarr Woodley is presumably closer, now that Timmons appears to be playing with more urgency and the secondary continues to be a force, the Steelers should be well positioned for a typical playoff run.

You'd imagine.

"On a scale of 10, I'd give us an 8 right now," said cornerback Ike Taylor, who again was virtually perfect despite the absence of any huge challenge. "We felt like we had a good chance for a shutout today, and it's always one of our goals, but there's a lot we can improve on."

It's a defense that has surrendered three total touchdowns in the past five games, only two total touchdown passes in the past six, a defense that hasn't yielded an opponent passer rating of even 87 since Tom Brady visited here Oct. 30.

But, if any of that indicates they're capable of playing football the first weekend in February, it's still somehow not terribly obvious.

If anything is, it is that the Rams brought zero focus to that question.

Gene Collier: More articles by this author

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