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Six Points... on the win over the Jaguars

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The collapse of the passing offense in the second half was part-Ben, part-O-Line. After racking up over 300 yards in the first two quarters of action, Pittsburgh’s offense managed just 55 yards in the final two, and most of the problem lied with the team’s passing attack (though the running game sputtered a bit as well).

Pittsburgh lined up to pass on only ten plays in the second half, seven of which came on third down. The first five plays, good or bad, were mostly tied to the play of Ben Roethlisberger. Despite a fast start, Ben was showing some issues with his accuracy back in the second quarter, where he missed on big play opportunities to both Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders.

Ben’s first passing attempt in the second half was a positive one; he hit Hines Ward out of the shotgun to convert a 3rd-and-4. Ward caught the pass just past the sticks, and eluded a tackler to turn the play into a 19-yard gain on top of the first down.

On the next play, Ben took another shot deep to Sanders. Sanders beat his man but was in danger of running into a safety cutting across to provide assistance. However, the safety was still slightly out of the play, leaving a small window for Ben to attack. It’s the type of tight throw he’s made before, but he missed it completely, tossing it five yards beyond Sanders into the turf in the end zone.

Two plays later, Big Ben sat back in the shotgun facing a 3rd-and-12 thanks to the last incompletion and a stuff of Rashard Mendenhall on second down. This time around, the two tackles let Ben down. Both Starks and Scott were beaten to a degree, and Ben was forced to scramble for seven yards and a failed conversion.

Ben didn’t get his next attempt until the start of the fourth quarter, thanks to a nine-minute drive by Jacksonville. The quarterback dropped back on 2nd-and-10 and attempted a sideline pass to Heath Miller, who had found a soft spot in the coverage. Unfortunately, Ben put too much on the throw and his target was slightly off. Instead of throwing to Heath’s inside shoulder, he tossed it high and to the outside. Miller managed to snag it anyways, but he had no chance of coming down in the field of play, so the pass was incomplete.

On the next play, Ben tried, once again, for Heath, who had found a soft spot in the middle of the field. Roethlisberger missed right on the pass, and Heath couldn’t get a fingertip on it despite a diving chance.

While the onus was mostly on Ben for the first five plays, the line failed him on his next five tries.

Fast forward to the next drive. Pittsburgh found itself staring at a 3rd-and-7 instead of a 3rd-and-2 as a result of a delay of game penalty. Ben took the snap in an empty backfield out of the shotgun, and Starks was beaten badly by his assignment. Since this is still Ben Roethlisberger we’re talking about, he escaped the initial pressure and rolled right. By that time, though, Tyson Alualu shed his block and brought Ben down for a three-yard loss.

Ben’s next attempt was pressured as well, and the quarterback escaped to the left. He managed to get a throw off to Mike Wallace, but the receiver didn’t have much of a chance at it as the throw sailed slightly out of bounds.

One play after that (on a third down), Starks was beaten again by defensive end John Chick, who sped past the tackle for an easy sack and a forced fumble. Pittsburgh would recover, but the play forced Pittsburgh to punt. That punt turned out to be Daniel Sepulveda’s unfortunate shank, a miscue that set up a field goal for Jacksonville.

Ben’s next attempt came on the team’s final drive. Once again, Starks was beaten with ease on the left side, though Chick managed to slip through the inside this time around. Roethlisberger managed to convert the 3rd-and-3 anyways with a three-yard scramble.

His final attempt came three plays later, with the team needed to convert a 3rd-and-4 to seal the win. Big Ben was dead in the water from the get-go. The Jaguars, who had been running a four-man rush on every passing play (outside of the Hines Ward completion), added a number of delayed blitzers to the mix.  David Johnson was blown up by Chick one-on-one on the left side. Heath Miller managed to knock down linebacker Matt Roth on the other side, but neither he nor Jonathan Scott were able to get to Roth before he got back up. Roth ended up getting to Roethlisberger, who was already hemmed in from the left and up-front.

Two issues stood out to me when I went back and watched those ten snaps. First, that Ben’s accuracy is off this season. While some of Sunday’s struggles can be attributed to a gusty day at Heinz Field, he has also struggled with his throws in a few other contests this year. As for why he’s been off this season, that I can’t answer.

The other issue is that the offensive line was getting beat straight up in the second half, and especially in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars didn’t unveil anything fancy until the final play, and rushed just four on nearly every passing attempt. Starks, in particular, struggled against the speed of John Chick, who was able to blow by the tackle with ease late in the game.

If Starks is having trouble with John Chick (who I’d barely heard of going into the game), how will he fare against Terrell Suggs in week nine’s rematch against Baltimore? And if Ben is struggling to hit his open receivers, how will the Steelers fare against teams that are on the right side of .500 coming in?

Rashard Mendenhall silenced his critics with a stellar performance. If you’ve read Six Points before, you already know that I’ve been one of his critics. While Mendenhall’s numbers say quite a bit (146 yards, one TD), the thing that stood out the most was the way he ran.

He danced less often, and hit the holes hard. The line looked solid in the first half, and Mendenhall cashed in by keeping his body moving forward. His touchdown run, a sweep to the right corner, is indicative of the type of play that he can pull off if he can commit to it. One moment of hesitation turns that touchdown into a short gain or a loss, but he committed and made the play, and it was a play that no other running back on the roster had a chance of making.

Rashard’s strong outing could be the result of some extra motivation. There’s no stronger motivation than sitting by and watching someone outperform you at your own job (as the Redman/Dwyer duo did in week 5). To his credit, Mendenhall came out and took his job by force. Let’s hope, for Pittsburgh’s sake, that this is a sign of things to come and not an aberration.

Look out though, as the offensive line will be seven-for-seven against the Cardinals. As in, the Pittsburgh Steelers will field their seventh different starting offensive line in as many games on Sunday, regardless of who takes the field at left guard (Kemoeatu or Essex) and right tackle (Scott or Gilbert).

That’s an astounding amount of change when you think about it, and it might not be over.

As Woodley waxes, Timmons wanes. After four weeks of relative invisibility, LaMarr Woodley has re-appeared as a dominant force on the defensive side of the ball. The backer piled up eight tackles, two sacks, three tackles for a loss, and two quarterback hits against the Jaguars, and his pressure was a big reason why Blaine Gabbert’s passing attack barely got off the ground.

Unfortunately, Woodley’s re-emergence comes at the same time as the disappearance of fellow 2007-draftee Lawrence Timmons. I wish I could list his stats on Sunday, but I can’t. Lawrence failed to register a stat in any category on Sunday.

Like Woodley, Timmons struggled a bit through the first four weeks with some up-and-down performances. He was solid in week five, but non-existent in week six. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that he’s playing outside – not his natural inside position. But then again, he hasn’t looked like the player he was last season on the inside either. Make no mistake though, this team needs him back playing strong in the middle soon, as he’ll have to deal with the multi-TE sets of New England two weeks from now.

Mike Tomlin said after the game that his pass defense hasn’t been tested, and he’s right. While the league-low 157.7 passing yards allowed per game is an astounding number, remember which quarterbacks this team has dealt with this season.

Joe Flacco performed the best against the club in week one, but he really hasn’t looked like an elite quarterback throughout the 2011 season. Matt Schaub might have been the next-best pure passer on the list, but he played most of his game without All-Pro receiver Andre Johnson.

Both Matt Hasselbeck and Kerry Collins are both on the tail ends of their careers, and the Steelers have always fared well against Hasselbeck anyways.

Beyond those four, Pittsburgh faced the intimidating trio of Tarvaris Jackson, Curtis Painter, and a rookie in Blaine Gabbert.

Not exactly an all-world assortment. New England will serve as a true test (albeit an extreme one) of the merits of this pass defense.

Also something to consider: that low passing total could be the result of teams finding more room on the ground against a usually-stingy run defense.

As it stands today, this team has three or four Pro Bowlers in my mind. Maybe the pass defense hasn’t been tested; either way, Ike Taylor is for real. He may not nab an interception all season, but Taylor has quietly turned into one of the league’s best and most-dependable corners. Ike may have given up a touchdown in coverage on Sunday (his first in 2011), but it was one of only two catches he allowed all game.

Polamalu will likely get the nod because he’s Troy Polamalu. He hasn’t been churning out the game-changing takeaways he has in seasons past, but he is making big plays in key moments.

Even with a few games on the sidelines, Brett Keisel is my third Pro Bowler from this defense. He is, pound-for-pound, Pittsburgh’s best defensive lineman this season. He was an absolute stud on Sunday with two sacks and yet another tipped ball that nearly turned into an interception.

Offensively, my only Pro Bowler is Mike Wallace, and that’s an absolute no-brainer.

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