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Six Points... on the win over the Chiefs

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This week's edition of Six Points looks at the ugly turnovers committed by each team on Sunday night, the team's early struggles in the red zone, and an updated Pro Bowl outlook for a number of Steelers players.

This game featured six turnovers - two by Pittsburgh – and both were ugly to watch.  Pittsburgh’s first turnover, and the first such play of the game, occurred in the red zone on the team’s first offensive drive. Mewelde Moore slashed through the defense for six yards before fumbling – the type of fumble that a friend of mine referred to as “the definition of coughing up the ball.” Tamba Hali caught Moore from behind and the ball squirted out of his hands and into the end zone, where it was recovered by the Chiefs for a touchback.

Pittsburgh’s other turnover – an interception – was one-part poor throw and three-parts bad decision. Kansas City executed a simple four-man rush on the play and Pittsburgh’s line actually did an excellent job of picking it up. Ben Roethlisberger had time to throw. He attempted to look off the safety, Travis Daniels, before tossing a mid-deep pass to Antonio Brown on the outside. There were three problems, though.

First, Daniels didn’t bite; he didn’t even hesitate. He ran right to Brown and ended up grabbing an easy interception. Second (and the reason why it was an easy pick), the throw was off. The way it was thrown, Antonio Brown had little chance of getting to it, even if Daniels wasn’t there. The reason for that (and the third problem), was that Brown was absolutely blanketed by Brandon Flowers on the play. Even if it turned out to be one-on-one coverage (with no help from Daniels), Ben would have been hard-pressed to complete the pass.

If Ben hadn’t locked in on Brown as he did, he would have seen Emmanuel Sanders breaking across the middle of the field into the spot that Daniels vacated.

As ugly as those two turnovers were, Kansas City’s four giveaways were worse. I know a fair amount of Pittsburghers were hoping that quarterback Tyler Palko, a former Pitt Panther, would play well against him hometown team. While there were some positives, his four-turnover performance killed the Chiefs in what, surprisingly, was a winnable game.

Palko’s first turnover came in the first quarter, and began an ugly stretch where the quarterback turned the ball over on three straight plays. On a third down late in the quarter, Palko and center Casey Wiegmann botched a snap, which was recovered by Brett Keisel. It’s difficult to assess full blame here, as none of NBC’s camera angles showed a full view of the snap, so I can’t say if it was Palko’s fault, the fault of his center, or both. Regardless, this was relatively tame compared to the other three turnovers.

Palko’s second giveaway occurred on his next offensive play, deep in his own territory. Two things stood out here: first, that it was picked off by Ike Taylor, who tends to drop all but the easiest interceptions. Second, NBC color-man Cris Collinsworth can be heard groaning “oh no,” while the ball is still in the air. Collinsworth speculated that either the ball was horribly underthrown or that receiver Steve Breaston ran the wrong route. Either way, it was an easy catch for Taylor and it set up a Pittsburgh field goal.

One offensive play later, Palko threw his second-straight pick and committed his third-straight turnover, and it might have been the worst giveaway of the night. Palko scrambled left and tossed a pass right two Ryan Mundy, and I mean RIGHT to him. The closest receiver was Dwayne Bowe, and even he legitimately had no chance of getting anywhere near the pass. It was a poor throw, a poor decision, and another easy interception.

Bowe shoulders most of the blame for the final turnover as well, a pick by Keenan Lewis that sealed a Steelers win. Palko, against a three-man rush, tries to stick one in to Bowe, but it ends up as a giveaway thanks to two mistakes by the receiver. First, Bowe sticks his hand up to signal that he’s going deep (or continuing to run his route straight upfield). Palko sees this and throws it expecting Bowe to be there, only to see Bowe break into the middle of the field. Second, Bowe doesn’t even attempt to catch/swat/tip the pass. He keeps his hands at his sides despite the fact that he has the length to tip it away and perhaps avoid the interception. He doesn’t, and the interception essentially ends the game.

The offense’s early red zone struggles kept the game close. Pittsburgh had three chances in the red zone in the contest, all in the first half. They came away with only 10 points and failed to score on one of the three.

We already discussed Mewelde Moore’s fumble, which ended Pittsburgh’s first offensive drive. The problem is, he should have never had a chance to fumble in the first place. One play earlier (which was also Pittsburgh’s first play inside the red zone), Mike Wallace dropped a relatively easy catch for what should have been an eight-yard touchdown. It went right off his hands and into the dirt.

Pittsburgh’sPhoto by: Charles LeClaire second red zone chance, on a drive that started at Kansas City’s seven-yard line, ended with a Shaun Suisham field goal. The first two plays were runs, one by Rashard Mendenhall and one by Isaac Redman. The Steelers offensive line didn’t get much of a push on either, forcing a third down. On that critical down, Pittsburgh lined up in an empty set with Ben in the shotgun. Roethlisberger noticed something before the snap and set slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders as the hot route. Once the snap arrived, he tossed a fade to the back-right corner of the end zone. Two problems, though: One, Sanders was essentially picked out of the play by the defender covering fellow-receiver Antonio Brown. Two, even if he wasn’t picked, Sanders would have had trouble tracking down a ball that was slightly overthrown by Ben. Three plays, four yards, only three points.

The third red zone chance was the exception. This one took three plays to seal. The first was a solid six-yard run by Mendenhall. The second play saw Ben take his check down, which turned out to be Mendenhall again, for a seven-yard gain. The third play was vintage Ben. The quarterback completely juked out of a sack by a free rusher and found rookie Weslye Saunders, who executed a toe drill in the back of the end zone for his first career touchdown.

I wouldn’t worry too much about the overall offensive performance. It simply looked as if something was off all night in nearly every area. You could chalk that up to the long layoff thanks to the bye week or just one of those bad weeks.

Ben Roethlisberger is still getting used to playing with his broken thumb. Once he gets used to the discomfort, he’ll be a little more accurate than he was on Sunday. Mike Wallace won’t continue dropping balls like he did against Kansas City, and should bounce back for the team’s stretch run.

The running game will always be a concern, and I’m not sure they did enough against a bottom-ten run defense in Kansas City. However, the team ran fairly well early before breaking down in the fourth quarter when the team had the lead.

At this point though, it is what it is. The team will need a near miracle to fix the running game before the playoffs. Either way, this is a pass-first offense that can be very effective by tossing the ball around.

Carnell Lake deserves quite a bit of credit for what the secondary is doing this year. The first-year defensive backs coach has allowed his cornerbacks to be more aggressive with their play. Gone are the days when teams could dink-and-dunk their way down the field by sticking balls on receivers by virtue of an extra-large cushion provided by a corner.

The corners are now challenging receivers physically. While that will lead to a few more interference penalties, it has also prevented receivers from breaking the 100-yard mark – no receiver has accomplished that feat this season.

Here’s an update to the Pro Bowl Watch. Let’s take a look at which Steelers I might consider voting for if the season ended today.

QB Ben Roethlisberger In years past, making it as an AFC QB was a difficult proposition as the Brady-Manning duo would lock up two of the three spots every year. With Manning out, Brady is the only lock this season. I had Ben as my number-three option before the injury to Houston’s Matt Schaub. With Schaub out for the season, Big Ben will join Brady as a favorite to earn a spot.

WR Mike Wallace – Even with a recent drop-off in production, Wallace should make the Pro Bowl roster. Outside of Wes Welker, no pass-catcher in the AFC has put together a strong season and the other high-yardage receivers reside in the NFC.

TE Heath Miller Rob Gronkowski is in, even if he doesn’t catch another pass this season. Miller could be an option as a number-two guy, but he’ll need to finish strong.

C Maurkice Pouncey – He hasn’t played as well as he did last season, but his path to a Pro Bowl is clear with all the time missed by New York’s Nick Mangold.

DE Brett Keisel Keisel doesn’t have the sack totals (he shouldn’t as a 3-4 defensive end). However, he leads the team in hurries and seems to make plays every game, whether it’s swatting passes or recovering fumbles. I would vote for him.

OLB LaMarr Woodley – He’s been sitting at nine sacks since his injury. If he can come back and rack up a few more, he’ll find a spot. As it stands right now, he’s on the outside looking in.

CB Ike Taylor – If he doesn’t earn a spot, the league is nuts. He’s been one of the league’s best corners all season.

SS Troy Polamalu – His numbers aren’t up to his usual standards, but his name recognition will likely get him in. I’m on the fence as to whether I’d vote in his favor as this juncture.

KR Antonio Brown – Keep an eye on him as a receiver, as well. If he can start scoring, it will help his chances. The same applies for his return duties. He has strong averages and works on both punts and kicks, but he hasn’t house-called one and that will hurt his chances. 

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