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Taking on Tom (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday January 17, 2006 5:02PM; Updated: Wednesday January 18, 2006 1:42AM
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Manning got heat for his failure to control the Steelers' blitz, and his remark that the team had "problems with the protection." Gosh, he criticized his teammates, or the coaching, or something. How awful. Better make that, how honest.

I think that game will cause people to rethink their postseason preparation, if they clinch early, because having the regulars take a seat for two or three weeks seemed to create more problems than it solved.

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I like to watch the Steelers, just as I used to enjoy watching the old Floyd Peters-coached Gold Rush teams on the 49ers, because their blitz scheme was constantly changing, constantly evolving. Peters told me that he used to stay up nights thinking of only one thing, how to apply pressure in ways he hadn't shown before. Well, Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, father of the zone blitz, seems to be the same type of coach. He unwrapped a new package for the Colts Sunday.

He packed his defensive front with smaller people, linebackers, plus strong safety Troy Polamalu. He had guys coming from weird angles, and used some zone blitz principles by dropping linemen into the short zones. He made a pass rusher out of his best cover linebacker, James Farrior, and had him swooping in on Manning from everywhere, inside and out.

Who ever knew that Farrior could blitz? The Steeler rush always came from the outside backers. Farrior had been the mop-up man in the middle. In eight years, going into this season, he had put up only eight and a half sacks. This year he had two during the regular season and against the Colts he had two and a half, plus a few more forces.

Manning and the protection scheme couldn't handle this orgy of strategy in the first half. By the fourth quarter, though, things had righted themselves and they were moving smartly. Then all the crazy stuff, which has been well documented, happened.

Yeah, Manning was off, and the protection took a while to catch up with the rush, and all that, but where I assign the major blame is with the Colts' thinking at the end of the game. They started on their own 42, down by three points, with 1:09 showing. They had all three time outs.

First pass was a 22-yard completion to Reggie Wayne on a crossing pattern against a defense that was no longer applying pressure. On the next play Manning completed an eight-yarder to Marvin Harrison, again on a cross. Time out on the Steelers 28 with 0:31 left.

Two more completions and they'd have been lining up for a short field goal. If the game goes into OT, I've got to like the Colts' chances. They had moved the ball for two long TD drives in the fourth quarter. The Steelers, with all the publicity their running game received, had scored only once out of five second-half possessions. Instead, Manning, or maybe it was offensive coordinator Tom Moore, although I've got to believe it was Manning himself (Moore, an old timer, never would be so bold) threw two deep balls to Wayne in the left corner, neither of which had a chance, thereby setting up a 46-yard field goal.

Strange things happen to kickers under extreme pressure. Gary Anderson, who went 35-for-35 in 1998, missed a 38-yarder that could have sent the Vikings into the Super Bowl. Last year's playoffs featured three missed game-winners in the 40-yard range. Manning made an unwise decision. Mike Vanderjagt's kick wasn't a close miss, it was a choke, a shank job. Good-bye Colts. I think that's what Manning could have caught heat for, his decision making, not the way he sprayed his passes in the first half, running an offense that was generally screwed up.

One final note about this bizarre contest. Everywhere around the country, sportswriters are dusting off their old columns about the need for fulltime officials, after Pete Morelli messed up the call on Polamalu's interception. I've said it before and I'll repeat it: Tell me exactly what these guys would do during the week that would make them better?

It isn't like hockey or basketball or baseball, in which they're working every other day. Football officials have a week between games, but the thought of them going back to their normal occupations for three or four days, drives some people absolutely wild.

According to NFL Supervisor of Officials Mike Pereira, they go through a three-day clinic in Dallas during the preseason. Then each official spends another three days in an NFL training camp. During the season they arrive at the site early on Saturday, spend the day and Saturday night in the hotel looking at films and brushing up on the rules, go through the same stuff again on Sunday morning and then go to the game.

Now tell me, please, what would they do if they got there, say, on a Tuesday? Sit in the hotel looking at more films for five days a week -- for five months -- read more rulebooks, memorize college fight songs, what? There's such a thing as paralysis by analysis, or mental overload. Anyone who's ever crammed for an exam knows that. Sorry, but I think all those people hollering for full time officials haven't really thought it through well enough.


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