Thursday, January 22, 2009

Year in Review - Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4), AFC North and AFC Champions

Before the 2008 NFL season things were uneasy in Pittsburgh. The Steelers had collapsed to end the 2007 season, bowing out with a home playoff loss in the Wild Card round to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They had major question marks with their offensive line, which was allowing QB Ben Roethlisberger to get decimated game after game. Plus, the Steelers were facing the toughest schedule in the league. They were matched up against the NFC East and the AFC South, both considered the best divisions in the 2007 season. Despite the line problems still existing the Steelers marched their way to an AFC Championship behind spectacular defense and timely offense.

The Steelers opened the season at home against the Houston Texans. The Texans were considered by some to be a playoff sleeper in 2008. The Steelers put the kibosh on that rather quickly. They dominated the Texans, winning 38-17. RB Willie Parker rushed for 138 yards and 3 TDs, one more TD than he rushed for in the entire 2007 season. Next the Steelers visited their rivals (not sure you can call them that still considering I can't even remember the last time they beat the Steelers) the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland. Hopes were still high for the Browns but the Steelers defense manhandled the Browns, holding them to just 208 total yards. Parker went over 100 yards for the second straight game and a first quarter TD from Roethlisberger to WR Hines Ward proved to be enough in a 10-6 victory. If the Steelers were feeling good about themselves that quickly changed after Week 3. The Steelers were destroyed by the Philadelphia Eagles 15-6. The score doesn't indicate a blow out but anyone watching saw that Eagles defensive line make ground beef out of the Steelers offensive line. The Eagles totaled 9 sacks, knocked Roethlisberger out of the game, and held Parker to just 20 yards rushing. The Steelers offense was reeling heading into a Monday night showdown with the Baltimore Ravens. Behind rookie QB Joe Flacco the Ravens surprised everyone, jumping out to a 13-3 lead at Heinz Field. The Steelers were booed off the field as they headed into the locker room for haltime. Finally the Steelers offense got going as Roethlisberger hit WR Santonio Holmes for a 38 yard TD. The defense then forced and recovered a fumble for a TD to take the lead. The Steelers eventually won in overtime on a Jeff Reed field goal, 23-20. A quarter into the season the Steelers were 3-1 but they had some injury concerns. Both RB Rashard Mendenhall and right guard Kendall Simmons were lost for the season in the Ravens game.

Pittsburgh was once again in prime time in Week 5, playing at Jacksonville in the Sunday night game. It was a back and forth game but the Steelers got tremendous performances from Roethlisberger and RB Melwelde Moore, who was filling in for injured RB's Parker and Mendenhall. Roethlisberger passed for 309 yards, threw 3 TDs, including a late game strike to Hines Ward, giving the Steelers a 26-21 win. After a much needed week off the Steelers finally had an easy game as they crushed the hapless Bengals in Cincinnati 38-10. Moore rushed for 120 yards and 2 TDs and the Steelers held Cincinnati to just 212 total yards and recorded 7 sacks. It was back to the grind for Pittsburgh as they headed home to take on the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. The Steelers were depleted heading into the game, missing Parker, Holmes, and Ward. Roethlisberger had his worse game of the season throwing 4 INTs but the biggest blow for the Steelers came when their long snapper Greg Warren was lost with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Steelers emergency backup was defensive stud James Harrison, who predictably sailed his snap well over punter Mitch Berger's head. That safety tied the game at 14 and the Giants scored a TD on their next possession to win the game 21-14. For the 4th time in 8 games the Steelers were in prime time, facing at the time a resurgent Washington Redskins team in Washington. The Steelers offense was terrible in the first half, with Roethlisberger looking like garbage. Luckily for them the Steelers defense was making the Redskins offense look even worse. Roethlisberger was knocked out of the game early in the 3rd quarter, paving the way for backup Byron Leftwich to have a great game in the second half. Leftwich went 7/10 for 129 yards and a TD. The defense forced Redskins QB Jason Campbell into his first 2 INTs of the season and the Steelers cruised to a 23-6 win, putting them at 6-2 at the halfway point.

Pressure started to mount for Roethlisberger after his costly INTs cost the Steelers a home game against the Colts. Roethlisberger threw 3 INTs and took the blame for the 24-20 loss. Some Steelers fans were calling for Leftwich to play but Roethlisberger would end up persevering. The Steelers took part in one of the strangest games of the season the next week at home against the San Diego Chargers. Roethlisberger threw for 308 yards and Parker rushed for 115 but the Steelers didn't score an offensive TD. Their points came on three field goals by Jeff Reed and a safety by Harrison. The Steelers won 11-10, the first time a game ended with that score in NFL history. Gamblers everywhere were also affected when at the end of the game, a Troy Polamalu touchdown was overturned. Had the score stood the Steelers would have covered, but alas they did not, ruining lives everywhere. The Steelers then played on Thursday night, defeating the Bengals 27-10. The defense once again dominated the hapless Bengals offense, limiting them to 208 total yards. The Steelers had their most impressive performance of the season the next week, destroying the New England Patriots in Foxborough 33-10. The Steelers defense broke open a close game in the second half forcing 5 Patriot turnovers. It was the 4th time in 5 games that the Steelers had held their opponent to 10 points or less. The Steelers were sitting at 9-3 but still held a shaky lead over the resurgent Ravens in the AFC North.

The Dallas Cowboys came to Pittsburgh in Week 14 and late in the game looked like they would be walking out of a Pittsburgh with a win. The Steelers trailed 13-3 going into the 4th quarter before their defense once again took over. A TD from Roethlisberger to Miller tied the score at 13, then DeShea Townsend picked off an errant Tony Romo pass and returned it 25 yards for the winning TD. The Steelers had a chance to clinch the division in Baltimore the next week. The game was hard hitting and fierce like all games between these teams. It was also highlighted by controversy. Roethlisberger hit Holmes for what was originally called a catch at the Ravens 1 yard line. However, the replay booth was called in and it was determined that the ball broke the plain, giving the Steelers a TD and a 13-9 lead. The Ravens had one last shot but Flacco was intercepted at the goal line and the Steelers were AFC North champions. Despite that achievement the Steelers still had higher goals, namely home field advantage throughout the playoffs. They faced the Tennessee Titans at Tennessee in basically a winner take all game. It was a tight game for 3 quarters but interceptions late in the game by Roethlisberger did the Steelers in, as they fell to the Titans 31-14, guaranteeing them the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs. The final game of the season should have just been a warm up against the Browns before the playoffs but a scary sight unfolded for the Steelers. Roethlisberger suffered a concussion and was carted off the field. The Steelers won handily 31-0 to finish the year 12-4, but the concern in Pittsburgh was all about Roethlisberger.

A week off was all Roethlibserger needed as he was back for a rematch against the Chargers in the AFC Divisional Playoff. The Chargers came into the game winners of 5 straight and jumped out to an early 7-0 lead. The Steelers responded with a 67 yard punt return for a TD by Holmes. Ball control was the story in the 3rd quarter as the Chargers ran just one offensive play. Parker had his second big game of the year against the Chargers, rushing for 146 yards and the Steelers won comfortably 35-24. Fittingly that set up an AFC Championship game in Pittsburgh against the Ravens. The Ravens had upset the Titans, so Pittsburgh ended up with home field advantage anyway. In the beginning it looked like the Steelers would blow out a tired Ravens team as they jumped ahead 13-0. The Ravens crawled back, eventually getting to within two, 16-14 in the 4th quarter. The Ravens had the ball and a chance to win the game when Flacco was intercepted for a third time, this time it was Polamalu who returned it 40 yards for the game sealing touchdown, sending the Steelers to their seventh Super Bowl in franchise history.

I will be back tomorrow with a look back at the Arizona Cardinals 2008 season. See you then.

No comments: