wrote that, according to the Pittsburgh press, the Steelers "had no fight left in them". Minus Troy Polamalu, the Steeler defense would allow a running game to gash them (as the Browns did last week), and then the passing game could easily do the rest.
We didn't get that game, but we got a game that had me on the edge of my seat until, quite literally, the final second came off the clock. It's been a long, long time since the Packers have played in a nailbiter, and even though we came out on the wrong end of the scoreboard, it was a good day to be a Packer fan. It was a tough, back-and-forth game in chilly conditions against the defending Super Bowl champs, who decided to come to play today (even if their coach out-thunk himself too many times on the way).
With that, let's get to this week's QuickHits:
* First and foremost, the effects of this loss doesn't hamper the Packers' playoff chances too much. It would have been nice to have gotten the win, waited for a Giant loss tomorrow night, and celebrated clinching a wild-card. Now, we have to wait until a home game against the Seahawks next week at home, a team that was manhandled by Tampa Bay today.
The NFC East is still the division to watch, and Dallas beating the Saints may be good in many ways for the NFL, but the Packers would like to see the Cowboys stay amongst the wild cards, and not challenge for the division. The Cowboys are the team that Packers own the tiebreaker against, and we'd like to keep the East as is: the Eagles up top and the Giants and Cowboys fighting amongst each other for the last spot.
* Aaron Nagler got a little fiesty with the number of folks who were calling for a more balanced offensive attack by the Packers, but in the end, Aaron Rodgers attempted 48 passes today, completing only 26 and featured back Ryan Grant only got 8 rushing attempts. If you take away Grant's 24-yard touchdown run, he was 7/13...less than a 2-yard average. The Steelers definitely came to play this week with their rushing defense, especially after being embarassed by the Browns last week for 171 yards on the ground.
The lack of consistency of that balance from week-to-week has to be a head-scratcher, though. Sure, Grant wasn't getting a lot of yards, but his opportunities were few and far apart. That the Packers ended up with five passing plays for every running play (including Aaron Rodgers' three scrambles) isn't something that is going to hold up in the playoffs. One week, Grant runs well and he gets 100+. The next week, he runs well, but the Packers give up on the run anyway. Then, he doesn't run well and the Packers appeared to have given up on the run after they coin toss.
* On the flip side, Pittsburgh played it almost identically. Big Ben attempted 46 passes and the Steelers attempted only 19 rushes in all. The offensive numbers were almost identical, except that Rothlisburger finished with over 100 more yards than Rodgers.
* Rodgers and the passing game was somewhat of an enigma today. Rodgers had another slow start with many of his balls seemingly overthrown, underthrown, or behind his receivers. Now, an astute observer may suggest that A-Rodge may be simply placing the ball when it can only be caught by his receivers, and you may not be too far off. It also shows the contrast in how the two quarterbacks approached their pass-heavy strategies today.
If you watched Rodgers, more times than not the ball was indeed low, high, or behind. But much of what the Packers like to do is to put the receiver in a position to gain yards after the catch. In many cases, the receivers caught the balls for shorter gains and then had to make a move to move the ball upfield. Even the biggest gainers weren't through the air, but were slant or curl patterns that the receiver then tacked on more and more yards on. Safer, conservative throws that, many times, were caught by a receiver who had his momentum shifted or even stopped, then restarted again.
Rothlisberger, on the other hand, had some pinpoint passes that he put in front of the receiver's routes. He throw bombs that went over defensive back's heads, or sometimes dangerous passes that the receiver would run into. Neither threw an interception, but Big Ben had the slightly higher completion ratio, more yards (but less YAC), and a higher average per attempts (10.9 to AR's 8.0).
* The drops by receivers were disturbing. While many others will have their scapegoats for the loss today, we can't deny that the first half was marred by several key drops. What is particularly disturbing is that the drops seem inversely proportional to the temperature...the colder the games, the more unreliable the receivers get. With a first-round matchup in Philadelphia in January a strong possibility, Mike McCarthy may want to move some of the receiver drills outside over the next week or so.
* The sack numbers were interesting: Rothlisberger was sacked 5 times today but had the better passing day than Rodgers, who was sacked only once. The TV commentators mentioned more than once that Coach Tomlin was not taking steps to make Big Ben get rid of the ball earlier and avoid those sacks, unlike what happened with Rodgers in the early part of this season. Of course, the Packers made those adjustments and went on a 5-game win streak. The Steelers just got their first win in well over a month.
In other words, at least today, the Steelers were able to not allow those sacks to consistently end drives. None of the Steelers' sacks were on the same drive, and two of those drives resulted in touchdowns.
* Quite simply, this game may have put a big ol' dent in Charles Woodson's chances for Defensive Player of the Year. Sure, he had nine tackles, but none of the big plays we've become accustomed to. Add to that a couple of holding penalties and being part of a secondary that gave up 472 yards through the air (though we all know who was defending the most damning plays) doesn't do a lot of convince voters to look past the Jets' Revis or the Saints' Sharper when ballot time comes along. Woodson will need a big couple of games against the Seahawks and the Cards to get his front-runner status back.
* The Packers penalty situation may not look that bad compared to other weeks (7 accepted penalties for 56 yards), but they came at the worst possible time: the game-winning drive by the Steelers in the fourth quarter. Yes, the refs were being a bit flag-happy with both teams on that drive, and I am the first to say that they need to let the teams play to decide the final outcome, not the penalties deciding it. Three critical calls against Woodson, Chillar, and Bell all helped decide the outcome of this game on that drive, when it mattered the most.
* Incidentally, Steeler left tackle Max Starks reminded me of another #78 I've seen recently playing tackle in the NFL. Starks almost single-handledly imploded the Steelers' final drive with holding penalties and terrible blocking. The Steelers needed the penalties by the Packers or they never would have gotten down the field.
* Send him to pasture #1: Mason Crosby. I actually feel sorry for this kid. His 34-yard field goal miss ended up being the mathematical difference in this ball game. But there's no excuse for missing a 34-yarder anywhere when you are an NFL player, and don't give me the "wind and field conditions" story. His confidence is shot, and the approach the Packers took last week to defend him to a fault to the media was not only overkill, but invited more criticism.
The even more harrowing decision to suddenly change his holder in the middle of a slump was even more glaring. The problem, when examined by even novice analysts, hasn't been with the holds, but with Crosby's mechanics and approach. Instead of changing everything around the problem, you need to solve it.
* Send him to pasture #2: Jarrett Bush. PackerRanter declared he was climbing aboard the Jarrett Bush bandwagon before the game today, and I am guessing he is quickly scrambling off. Just NOT making stupid plays for a couple of weeks isn't reason to get behind someone. Bush made two HUGE gaffes today in coverage that resulted in long gainers, including the huge 60-yard Mike Wallace touchdown on the Steelers' first play from scrimmage.
Unfortunately, the Packers have only Josh Bell to back him up, and he doesn't appear to necessarily be that much of an upgrade. Of course, he's been struggling since "Drake and Josh" was canceled on Nickelodeon, anyway.
* Keeping Quinn Johnson active is worth it, if only to see him bulldoze into the back of Aaron Rodgers on quarterback sneaks and push him ahead four-five yards farther than he would have gone otherwise.
A lot more to say on the subject, but despite how enjoyable this game was to watch (compared to so many games that seem like they were done after the second quarter lately), you left with a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach. How does your defense allow a team that you should have completely sucked out every last shred of fight to go on a 12-play, 86-yard touchdown drive with only two minutes left on the clock?
Despite today's loss, the Packers are almost certainly in the playoffs. But they have a ways to go before the are truly considered a Playoff Team.