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Six Points... on the win over the Cardinals

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Ike Taylor is a top-five cornerback, without a doubt – maybe even top-three. It’s funny, because in an article published prior to the season by USA Today, Ike Taylor wasn’t ranked among the top ten. In fact, he didn’t receive a single vote by any of the eight staffers making up the list and wasn’t included among the honorable mentions.

Taylor has been out-shining other players at his position – save for Darrelle Revis – all season. He had one of his best performances this past Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. Sure, he did commit a number of penalties, but he still limited Larry Fitzgerald to four catches on ten targets.

Here’s what I loved most about Ike’s performance when I went back for a second look: he played Fitzgerald physically, both on the line and in the field of play. Only rarely did he give the former-Pitt star a cushion to work with, opting instead to play right in front of him. On more than one occasion, Ike managed to jam the receiver at the line, disrupting Fitzgerald’s route and timing before he could even get things started.

What speaks even more to the talent of Ike Taylor is the fact that Arizona spent much of the afternoon trying to hide Fitzgerald from #24 – they set him in motion, switched him from side-to-side, and ran pick plays designed to shake Taylor from his coverage. Occasionally, it worked – more often than not, it didn’t.

Ike may not notch an interception all season – a product of his stone hands, but he may not give up 100 yards to a single receiver in 2011. At this point in the season, Revis is the only other cornerback I’d confidently rank ahead of Taylor. He’s that good right now.

Chris Kemoeatu is becoming a problem. Of course, you could easily say that he was a problem last season, as his failed attempt at a block led to a defensive touchdown by the Packers in February’s Super Bowl.

Kemoeatu, to use an already over-used cliche, is what he is. He’s a strong, mauling run blocker that excels as a pulling guard – in fact, he’s one of the best linemen in the league at pulling on run plays.

However, he’s a poor pass protector and he doesn’t seem to think the game as well as some of the other linemen Pittsburgh has on the roster. He’s also a risk to take one or more penalties every game, as we clearly saw with two major flags against the Cardinals.

The biggest problem, though, is that it seems like he’s regressing, which is a major issue considering he’s not really that old. He’s still only 28 and he’s in just his fourth season as a full-time starter.

Doug Legursky looked like a great option at the position prior to his injury (while filling in for Kemo’s own injury). Pittsburgh might be best off letting Legursky fill the role once again once he returns to full health.

Lawrence Timmons needs to move back inside, but that move won’t come soon enough. The 73-yard catch and run by La’Rod Stephens-Howling showed the limits off a Farrior-Foote inside tandem. James Farrior and Larry Foote boast a wealth of experience and football intelligence, but they’re much closer to the twilights of their careers as opposed to their respective primes.

The defense is fine with just Farrior in the fold, as he make up for his lack of speed by serving as the general for that side of the ball, making adjustments and ensuring that the other ten men are set up to do what they need to.

However, when it turns into athleticism vs. athleticism, Farrior is going to get burned nearly every time. Stephens-Howlings turned a short pass into a long gain because Farrior wasn’t quick enough to get him on the ground.

With Timmons on the outside, there’s simply not enough speed in the middle of the field, which is a major problem with New England coming to town this week.

Troy Polamalu is due for another monster game. He nearly had himself an interception against Arizona, but was remarkably quiet otherwise. With that in mind and with the Patriots arriving in town this weekend, don’t think that Troy will let those missed chances fall by the wayside. I think we’ll see a performance closer to the dominance he showed against Tennessee, and he could very well cause a turnover or two in the process.

The run defense is still an issue. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Arizona was held to just 73 yards on the afternoon. That was a product of two things: the Cardinals fell behind early and, as such, were forced to pass their way back into the game; and lead-dog Beanie Wells limped off with an injury after a dozen carries.

Also, don’t read too much into the defense putting a hat on Chris Johnson a few games ago. When I talked to NFL Films Guru Greg Cosell for the lead story in the November print edition of PSR, he classified Johnson as an “avoid contact player,” and came off as wholly unimpressed by a running back who racked up 2,000 yards just two seasons ago.

Speaking of running backs, Rashard Mendenhall went MIA again. Mendenhall was excellent against Jacksonville, but put up yet another dud performance (13 carries for 32 yards) against Arizona. Meanwhile, both Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore found some room on the ground in limited action (12 carries for 55 yards between them.)

On the season, even with his 146-yard performance two weeks ago, Mendenhall ranks 34th out of 40 qualified rushers in Football Outsider’s efficiency rankings (Chris Johnson ranks 40th by the way).

When I talked with Cosell, I also asked about Mendenhall (which eventually led to talk about Chris Johnson). He feels that Mendenhall has stopped looking for standard gains (3-5 yarders) and is constantly looking to make the big play.

Unfortunately, if the big play never arrives, that means you’ve left the offense in 2nd- or 3rd-and-longs all afternoon.

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