Monday, January 02, 2012

Steelers must spread successes

Monday, January 2, 2012

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 01: Safety Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers sacks quarterback Seneca Wallace #6 of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — They won.

For all the dull shrugs these 2011 Steelers have earned with most of their 12 victories, for all the doubts they'll carry into the NFL playoffs, they did win again Sunday. This time, like so many others, it was a squeaker against a lesser opponent, and its climax was yet another sorry opposing quarterback strutting up the field at the end. But there was Troy Polamalu batting away Seneca Wallace's desperation heave to hold on, 13-9, at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

It was ugly bordering on unwanted, but they won.

Losers lose, and winners win. This was the ninth team in franchise history to win a dozen. This was one of six current teams in the league with that many. It's not some throwaway achievement.

And they'll win Sunday in Denver, too.

That's mostly because Tim Tebow, a godsend for the NFL marketing folks, has been an utter flop since his feet came back to terra firma. The 8-8 Broncos' past three games, all losses, were lowlighted by his six measly completions for 60 yards and an interception yesterday in a 7-3 loss to Kansas City. All recent opponents have dared the 31st-most prolific passer in a 32-team league to run, and he went nowhere.

No one-dimensional quarterback, never mind a no-dimensional one, will get the better of a Dick LeBeau defense. That's doubly true if LaMarr Woodley returns — "I'll be out there," he told me after this game — and if Polamalu maintains the brilliance he showed yesterday.

Write it down: The only quarterback taking a knee Sunday will be wearing black and gold, and only because time has elapsed.

But that hardly means the Steelers can look past the Broncos, given the current state of their offense.

Yesterday marked the third time in four games the Steelers were held to 14 or fewer points. They continue their epic red-zone struggles, and Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers appear to have lost any semblance of general chemistry.

Blame the bum ankle if you want — Roethlisberger didn't — but I'll point to Bruce Arians' surprisingly conservative scheme of late. Yes, Roethlisberger's short throws were off, and his long throws were even worse. In 10 quarters since injuring his ankle, Roethlisberger has completed 58 percent of his passes for one touchdown and four picks.

But these aren't your mill-working grandfather's Steelers. They're a big-play, passing team, and Arians and Mike Tomlin need to get back to that. Watch this offense now, and it looks like the field has been squeezed like an accordion: Mike Wallace runs deep, and all the rest stay in tight slants.

Remember Mike Wallace?

He caught one ball for 11 yards yesterday, and he hasn't had more than five in a game since October.

I brought this up with Wallace, and he clearly was in no mood to elaborate.

"I don't know, man," he said. "They're not my calls."

Some of Wallace's reduced workload is to Antonio Brown's credit. But few players in the NFL can stretch a field as Wallace can, and it's a weapon the Steelers need to un-holster.

There's a good amount of untapped talent, actually.

"We know it, believe me," Roethlisberger said. "We're getting some things done out there, but you'll have players go down or weather going bad or just us missing plays. We know we need to click. I'd like for it to be against Denver."

The running game is a separate mess entirely: If Rashard Mendenhall has a torn knee ligament — sure sounded that way — Isaac Redman will be the main back. For a while yesterday, that might have sounded inviting. He rushed for 92 yards and bounced and spun his way through several tackles. But fumbling twice with a late four-point lead washes that out.

"I can't hurt my team like that," Redman said.

No, he can't. John Clay, the sparingly used back who replaced Redman, was limping after the game, too.

It won't be easy, and I'm not suggesting it will. The Steelers can — and must — do better offensively to go deep into these playoffs. But I'll repeat a final time that there's plenty to be said for winning.

Here's something that might have been missed amid all the shrugs: All four of their losses came against playoff teams (two to Baltimore, one each to Houston and San Francisco), but three of the victories also came against playoff teams (two over Cincinnati, one over New England).

Add Denver to that list soon.

But don't take the points until you see more from the offense.

CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 01: Wide receiver Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a pass in front of defensive back Mike Adams #20 of the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on January 1, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Game balls

Columnist Dejan Kovacevic selects the game's top performers:

Troy Polamalu, Steelers, SS: A pick and a QB sack on a running play? Yeah, sure looks like the old No. 43 is back. And just in time.

Antonio Brown, Steelers, WR: Produced healthiest bulk of Steelers' offense with six catches for 90 yards, including a 40-yarder against his helmet.

Jabaal Sheard, Browns, DE: Former Pitt standout recorded eighth sack and largely had his way with Steelers' Marcus Gilbert.

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