A day in the life of the Steelers
"We're treating it just like a home game,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said during the week, once it became apparent that Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc with the power grid in New Jersey, and therefore the Steelers couldn't be guaranteed that their Jersey City hotel would have power when they arrived on Saturday.
Tomlin didn't make a big deal of it, which was smart. "A lot more people have a lot more adversity than what we had on this trip,'' Tomlin said. Not only was it not a particularly difficult hardship, it would have sounded absurd to complain about logistics when thousands of people had homes and property destroyed.
Here, then, was the Steeler Sunday schedule:
7 a.m.: Players wake up at Omni William Penn Hotel, downtown Pittsburgh, eat, and drive individually to the airport, 25 minutes away.
9:28 a.m.: Take off from Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.
10:21 a.m.: After a 53-minute flight, land at Newark (N.J.) International Airport.
10:33 a.m.: Team boards buses for ride to Newark Airport Marriott
10:55 a.m.: Pregame meal begins.
11:30 a.m.: Players lay on couches and sit on chairs, trying to rest before leaving for the stadium.
12:30 p.m.: Team boards buses for nine-mile trip to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
12:55 p.m.: Arrival at stadium.
4:26 p.m.: Gametime.
7:29 p.m.: Game ends. Steelers 24, Giants 20.
8:35 p.m.: Buses leave MetLife Stadium for nine-mile trip to Newark Airport.
9:29 p.m.: Takeoff from Newark International Airport.
10:18 p.m.: After a 49-minute flight, land at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.
Time from morning takeoff in Pittsburgh to nighttime landing back in Pittsburgh: 12 hours, 50 minutes.
"It was a challenge for us, because it was different,'' one of the stars of the game, Mike Wallace, told me afterward. "It just seems like a long day. Normally, you have a late game, and you get to sleep a little more and you're more rested for the game. When we got to the hotel, we really were just laying around on the floor or wherever we could find. But it all worked out.''
It's a mark of how meaningless the odd travel day was that the Steelers played their best game of the year. The artistic part of the game might have been better in wins over the Jets and Washington, but this was against the Super Bowl champs, on the road. The Steelers outscored the Giants 14-0 in the fourth quarter and throttled Eli Manning (10 of 24, 125 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) all day.
It had to be a sweet day for Ben Roethlisberger winning the head-to-head with Manning, who was drafted higher than him in the 2004 draft. Roethlisberger played significantly better (21 of 30, 216 yards, two touchdowns and an interception). His well-timed throw to Wallace, who finished it with a 51-yard touchdown, brought the Steelers within 20-17, and then Roethlisberger led a 51-yard drive that ended in an Isaac Redman touchdown run to win it.
"I love this team,'' said Wallace. "We're fighters. This win says we're rolling now."
Rolling, yes. Almost detoured by officials' calls, a big yes. A Keenan Lewis interference call on Victor Cruz gave the Giants 41 free yards when Lewis hardly brushed Cruz. The 70-yard "fumble'' return by Michael Boley that gave the Giants a 14-7 lead should have been ruled an incomplete pass out of Roethlisberger's hands -- and the Giants surely should have been called for an illegal clip downfield on the Boley return. For a while, it looked like everything would come up Giants, to salve the wounds of a wounded region for three hours. But in the end, the better team, on this day, at least, won.
Let's not forget the game Alex Smith played in Arizona
It's always easy to dump on Alex Smith. Is there a young quarterback in NFL history who, in the first 16 games he played as a pro, lost by 39, 35, 38, 41 and 31 points; a quarterback who'd been given up for dead time after time in his star-crossed career; a player who -- after leading his team to the conference title game -- watched his team flirt with another quarterback to take his place, and, in response, took a forlorn free agent trip to the last place he ever wanted to be?
Smith didn't play Sunday; the 49ers had their bye this weekend. But I didn't want the week to get away from us without extolling his virtues after his performance last Monday. His numbers were alarmingly good: 18 of 19 for 232 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions -- and the one incompletion was a clear drop by Delanie Walker.
There was something else notable about his game: Not one of his 19 throws (20, actually, if you count one that was negated by penalty) was off-target. His accuracy, in a word, was stunning. I watched the game again on NFL Game Rewind, focusing on each of the 20 throws, and watching each one several times, running it back and forth. Though he threw short much of the night, he did have completions that traveled 10, 11, 15, 20 and 22 yards past the line of scrimmage. Here's how I graded the 20 throws:
A (perfectly accurate, hitting his receiver in stride): 15 throws
B (accurate, but receiver reached slightly away from body): 3
C (passable, catchable throw; if missed, would have been a drop): 2
D (poor throw that would have been a great catch): 0
F (significantly off target): 0
Smith's two Cs came on his eighth and ninth passes of the game, early in the second quarter. The first was a sliding-on-his-knees catch by wideout Kyle Williams on a low throw that led him well. The second: a crossing route dropped by Walker -- slightly behind him, but Walker erred because he tried to run with it before concentrating on securing it. The final 11 passes (10 As and a B) were all thrown the way quarterbacks are taught: leading the receiver, throwing so the receiver can make significant yards after the catch.
"It's good you noticed that,'' Smith told me. "Putting the ball in the right spot, in the right time, when he's expecting it, is a crucial part of the passing game, I think. So many guys talk about yards after the catch, and I've always believed the quarterback has a huge responsibility there -- it's not just the receiver. A quarterback has to put it on the receiver and give his guys the opportunity to make plays downfield. Joe Montana was great at that. I have a lot of respect for Tom Brady with that now. Watch how he gets the ball to [Wes] Welker in stride, so he can run after the catch.''
It stands to reason, then, that Smith would have a good yards per attempt average. Just how good, I didn't know until I looked. I interrupt this note to bring you ...
Stat of the Week
|Comparing the quarterbacks|
Rating the best quarterbacks in football in yards per attempt and accuracy through nine weeks (not including Eagles-Saints tonight) shows Smith, at the NFL's midpoint, is second in completion percentage and fifth in yards per attempt, two key indicators for quarterback play. Guess who's first in each category? Peyton Manning.
Two other points to make from watching the 49ers passing game:
Randy Moss is a significant presence in the offense, despite have 13 catches in eight games. Perfect example: Late in the first half, Moss took two defenders deep on a corner route -- a coverage error by the Cards -- and left Mario Manningham alone to catch an easy seven-yard out route in stride. Smith threw a nine-yard TD pass to Michael Crabtree on the next snap.
I counted three times in the game that Moss almost magnetically took coverage away from sideline throws and gave 49ers receivers big openings. "You definitely have a point there,'' Smith said. "On that play to Mario, I'm reading from the top down there -- Randy on the corner route, where he draws coverage, and then down to Mario, who's open. Since the beginning of the season, we've seen DBs [defensive backs] give Randy respect, and he gets safety help. The last few weeks, he and Vernon Davis, as well, have forced teams to concentrate on taking the big play away. So the money to be made in our offense is underneath."
Hard to pass judgment on this just from watching every play in the passing game one week, but I didn't see receivers show any sign of ego or anger for not getting the ball when open. You know how you see, on iso-camera replays, receivers sometimes waving for the ball, or jumping up and down when they don't get it, or showing some emotion when they think the ball should have come to them? None of that here. Again, don't draw any conclusions based on one rout of the Cardinals.
"I'm telling you, we have a lot of selfless guys, and a great example is Randy,'' said Smith. "Everyone knows he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he has a role here. He blocks in the run game. He does what he's told to do. He's set the tone for our receivers.''
I asked Smith how often Moss has come back to the huddle saying he had an edge on a corner, or how often in an offensive meeting he talked about how some route would be perfect for him against a certain coverage. "Not a single time,'' said Smith. "Never once. Never says, 'I saw this out there -- get it to me.' Nothing like that. The honest truth is he's taken so much pride in things that no one would notice, like the run game, that the other guys have no choice but to follow his lead."
There's a lot to like about the Niners. They've allowed six points or fewer in four of their last five games. The offense knows what it is -- a move-the-chains deal with a smart quarterback who, most importantly, knows who he is. Smith had a crummy game against the Giants and contributed to San Francisco's downfall in a major way that afternoon. But I really like what I've seen out of him this year, mostly. He's as accurate an intermediate passer as I've seen this season. I think he's going to be asset, not a question mark, as the 49ers make a Super Bowl push.
Each week, thanks to play-by-play game dissection by ProFootballFocus.com, I'll look at one important matchup or individual performance metric from one of the Sunday games.
This week it's Andrew Luck, who completed 30 of 48 passes for 433 yards (151 yards after the catch), two touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a 105.6 rating. The numbers don't tell the whole story, but in this case they come pretty close. A number of things that make this performance one to remember:
Playing under pressure. What the numbers do miss is the fact that Luck ended the day with a new center and right tackle, missing his most experienced linemen, Samson Satele and Winston Justice, forced out with injuries.
Though he was only sacked once, Luck was hit five times and hurried on many others. Some of his best plays came in the face of pressure as he either evaded it and made a great throw (in the first quarter, stepping away from Olivier Vernon and completing a pinpoint pass to Reggie Wayne on an out) or scrambled and threw on the move, as he did to pick up the first down with 40 seconds left in the second quarter. Overall, under pressure, Luck was 9 of 14 for 165 yards and a touchdown. Rating: 128.6. Outstanding.
Playing without much of a running game. Although the stats show 26 rushing attempts for 97 yards, the first-half numbers of 11 attempts for 22 yards are much more indicative.
Third-down passing. Miami entered the game best in the NFL in third-down efficiency on defense. The Dolphins did a good job of getting the Colts into third down (often 3rd-and-long) but somehow Luck seemed to have a knack for knowing exactly where to go with the ball. His numbers were remarkable. On third down he completed 13 of 17 for 204 yards and a touchdown for a rating of 135.4 and converted all but one of these into a first down. He converted on 3rd-and-11, -12, -14, -16 and -20.
Yards in the air. One of the trends recently has been for quarterbacks (particularly novices) to throw short passes and let the receiver do the work. That hasn't been the case with Luck. He threw a few of those (four), but only 35 percent of Luck's 433 yards came after the catch against an NFL average of 45 percent. He also had another 72 yards in the air and a touchdown lost due to dropped balls.
In summary. To put this performance in the category of "rookie" record only would be wrong. It was so much more than that because without much semblance of a running game Luck took a good defense apart, particularly on third down. In short, there are not many quarterbacks in the NFL who could have won this game for the Colts.