Game of Week 9: Steelers-Giants
Led by Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning, the 2004 QB class might be best ever
After a rocky start, Todd Haley's offensive scheme is starting to produce results
The Giants' biggest problem is fixing their woes converting red zone opportunities
Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3) at New York Giants (6-2)
1. Quarterback class
When it comes to drafting quarterbacks, 1983 has been the benchmark year for a long time. That draft yielded six big-time college quarterbacks in the first round: John Elway (No. 1 overall), Todd Blackledge (7), Jim Kelly (14), Tony Eason (15), Ken O'Brien (24) and Dan Marino (27).
Elway, Kelly and Marino all wound up in the Hall of Fame. Elway helped Denver win back-to-back Super Bowls after the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Kelly led Buffalo to four Super Bowls but the Bills lost all four. Marino went to the Super Bowl in his second season with Miami (1984) -- the Dolphins lost -- and never got back.
Collectively, Elway, Kelly and Marino make a strong case for 1983 as the best draft for QBs. But the Class of 2004 is challenging for that title.
Eight years ago, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger went first, fourth and 11th, respectively, in the first round. And let us not overlook Matt Schaub, who was a third-round pick.
Sunday's game at MetLife Stadium will feature Manning and Roethlisberger, who each have two Super Bowl rings. Manning also has two Super Bowl MVP awards. Both players are strong-armed, durable, big-time playmakers who just might wind up stealing the honor of best quarterback class from their 1983 brethren.
Early in his career, Roethlisberger had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about Manning, because he was the No. 1 pick. But over the years, Roethlisberger has developed an admiration for Manning, as he told reporters in a conference call this week.
"As I've gotten older, it's more neat to see his success, to see him getting two Super Bowls because I think it just adds to the legacy of our draft class and all four quarterbacks -- Matt Schaub, Philip, myself and Eli that were drafted there," said Roethlisberger. "I hope that we can play well enough that one day they talk about us as maybe the best quarterback draft class of all time."
2. Dink-and-dunk showing results
It took some time for Roethlisberger to adjust to new coordinator Todd Haley and his offense. There was a minor incident between the two on the sideline in Denver in the season opener. Recently, Roethlisberger referred to Haley's scheme as a "dink-and-dunk" offense.
Beneath all the rhetoric, however, are some pretty impressive numbers. Through seven games, Roethlisberger has completed 179 of 268 passes (66.8 percent) for 1,987 yards and 14 touchdowns, with only three interceptions. His passer rating of 101.4 ranks fifth in the league.
With Pittsburgh's offensive line banged up and its running backs (Rashard Mendenhall, heel; Isaac Redman, ankle; and now Jonathan Dwyer, quad) coping with injuries, having Roethlisberger release the ball quickly isn't a bad thing. In last Sunday's 27-12 win over the Redskins and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, Roethlisberger connected on 21 of 28 short passes (10 yards or fewer) and had three touchdowns. He finished the game 24 of 33 for 222 yards and, just as important, wasn't sacked and was hurried only once .
Besides keeping Big Ben more upright, Haley's offense has turned the Steelers into ball hogs. They had three scoring drives against Washington that consumed a total of 19 minutes. Their per game average time of possession, 34 minutes and 35 seconds, ranks second in the league.
He may not be getting as many downfield passing opportunities as he would like, but Roethlisberger need not feel sheepish about his average gain per pass play (7.41 yards). It's higher than the averages of both Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans' Drew Brees.
3. Red about green
When your team is averaging nearly 30 points a game, it would seem like the offense is purring like a finely tuned sports car. But there's a rattle under the Giants' hood -- and coach Tom Coughlin doesn't like the sound of it.
The problem is the Giants haven't been real efficient in the red zone (Coughlin calls it the green zone). In 36 trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line, the Giants have scored only 16 touchdowns -- a 44.4 percent rate that ranks 26th in the league.
"That's the Achilles' heel for us right now," Coughlin said earlier this week, "punching the ball in the end zone when we do get into the green zone. We haven't done a very good job of that."
Right now, quarterback Eli Manning doesn't have any receiver he can count on consistently inside the red zone. Manning likes to throw back corner fades to 6-footer Hakeem Nicks -- five of Nicks' seven touchdowns last season came inside the 20 -- but they are still establishing their timing after Nicks missed the OTAs and all of training camp because of a broken foot. At 6-7, tight end Martellus Bennett is a big red zone target, but he hasn't caught a scoring pass inside there since Week 3. Ramses Barden also is 6-7, but he has never caught a scoring pass in his four NFL seasons.
Settling for field goals or, worse, coming away with no points is one way of bringing the ire out of Coughlin. He sounded upset just discussing the problem with the media.
"We've addressed it forever," Coughlin said. "We work it the same way every week. We study, we work hard, we have a nice play and we think we can run with things."
This is a flaw the Giants need to fix if they plan to make a run for the playoffs in the second half of the season.
After starting 50 consecutive games at right tackle, the Steelers' offensive lineman suffered setbacks in back-to-back years when a torn Achilles tendon sidelined him for the entire 2010 season and a torn triceps knocked him out for all but one game last year. Now Colon is back and he's playing a new position: left guard. On Tuesday, he was presented the Ed Block Courage Award, as voted on by his teammates. Here are excerpts from his chat with SI.com.
Of the two injuries, which was more difficult for you to handle?
I think the second time around. The first one was kind of luck of the draw. I got hit with a bad one and I worked my tail off to get back. I felt like I fought really hard rehab wise and in my head I was over the injury bug. The second time was the hardest because I felt cheated. I was angry and I was really upset by it.
What did you learn about yourself during the time you were out with the injuries?
There were a lot of things I learned. It was tough because the first year (2010) I felt like I was coming into a groove. They say a football player really doesn't reach his niche until three years in, and I really felt like I was starting to get it. Position-wise, I was ready to take the next step of kind of being an elite tackle. I felt like I was on my way. Then when everything went down, you really don't know how much you appreciate the game and everything that comes along with it until you're not playing. The preparation, the camaraderie, just being out on the field, being able to compete -- that's what I missed the most. I think the second time really tested my heart, my passion and how much I really loved the game. I think I grew strength in myself and I grew strength from my faith, and I'm here now.
How excited were you to return this season?
This year was different approaching it for me because I was playing a new position. I definitely felt like this was my last straw, like the Steelers waited around and gave me opportunities and the second time around no one expected it. The third time for me to be back on the field is a situation kind of like We love you, but it's a business. So I kind of really had to step it up from a training standpoint, all aspects -- mentally and everything -- because I was playing a position I had never played before in my career. I really had to dig down and grab this thing by the horns.
Do you feel you're better suited to playing tackle or guard?
I never fall into that mind-set that I'm a better tackle, or I'm a better guard, or which one I like the best. I just like to feel like whatever position I'm at I'm able to have the ability to do well there. I never minded moving to left guard because I was just so appreciative that the Steelers still considered me in the mix. You see so many guys come off of IR (and) you don't know how much mileage this guy has left. Is he on his last legs? So for them to say they still wanted this kid in the mix, We think he can be a ball player for us, I was just appreciative of that.
How does the Giants defensive line compare to others that you have faced?
We know who they are. They're an athletic front, they're extremely hard-nosed, and they like to get after the quarterback. I think the test is on us as a line. How are we going to hold up? Are we going to falter, or are we going to stand up and fight? I know the answer to that. I know we're going to fight and get after them. We have to be poised and dictate what kind of game we want to play.
The Steelers have lost three of four road games. How important is it to win in New York?
In all three of those losses -- Denver, Oakland, Tennessee -- we didn't close out the games. It came down to the fourth quarter and the offense had the ball, but we didn't close out games. We weren't detailed enough or making the big plays that you need to finish games. I think we walked away from all three losses learning that, hey, whether we're tied or ahead, we've got to finish games. If you think about it, the great closers, like Mariano [Rivera], when they get on the mound, that's it; they come to shut the game down.
What's the funniest thing Ben Roethlisberger has ever said or done in the huddle?
Ben is more lighthearted before the game. Once he gets on the field, he's all business. I think he has great composure; he doesn't really get rattled. When things get hot, he steps up his game even more. When it comes down to clutch time, he's as big as anybody in all of sports. I say that because he's proven it.
This is familiar territory for the Giants. For the third year in a row and the sixth time in Coughlin's nine seasons as coach, the Giants are 6-2 midway through the season. Here's a look at how they finished the previous five times.
The Giants are on a roll, having won all four of their games in October. But that winning streak could have ended last week in Dallas if Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant hadn't landed with his right hand on the back line of the end zone when attempting to catch a touchdown late in the game.
With the Eagles, Cowboys and Washington all struggling to get over the .500 mark, the Giants have a chance to continue pulling away in the NFC East. But Eli Manning and the Giants' passing game will face a tough challenge against a Steelers pass defense that ranks No. 1 in the league even though it has mustered only 12 sacks and will be without premier safety Troy Polamalu (calf injury) for the fourth week in a row.
The Steelers have won three of their last four games, and two of their three losses this season (at Oakland and at Tennessee) each came by three points. Although coach Mike Tomlin said Pittsburgh's season is still a story being written, he knows that it's time for his team to make its move.
"We're at that time of year when good teams start to take form and show what they're capable of on a consistent basis, and we need to do that," Tomlin said during a conference call with New York-area media this week.
Coming into this season, the Steelers had the fourth-best record in the league in road games (47-33) since 2002. They have run into complications for their trip to New York. Their original hotel has no power in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and they couldn't find another one that had enough vacant rooms, so they will fly out mid-morning Sunday and return immediately after the game.
It will truly be a business trip for the Steelers, who should reestablish their road warrior mentality.
Steelers 27, Giants 23
Last week: Eagles 23, Falcons 20
Season record: 4-4