Tuesday, November 29, 2005

11-0 and still rolling

Well, it became painfully clear to the rest of the NFL Monday night that the Colts are very much no longer the one-trick pony they used to be. They punched the typically physical Steelers right in Bill Cowher's proverbial jaw on their way to a 26-7 victory that wasn't even that close.

The Steelers came in with a simple game plan: control the clock and keep the ball away from Peyton Manning and friends. Unfortunately, as has been far too often the case in Bill Cowher's 15 years of spittle-inducing fury on the sidelines, that plan was exposed early for what is was: vanilla and unrealistic.

The Steelers have not been able to run the ball succesfully against good defenses this year. They went for 104 against San Diego, but ran for under 80 against Baltimore, Jacksonville, and a New England defense that in September wasn't quite the M.A.S.H. unit it currently resembles. Yes, they ran all over the Bengals, but Cincinnati's defense has yet to earn the label of elite unit.

So what did they try to do Monday night? Run, run, and run some more to play "clockball." They ran the ball on nine of their first 12 first downs and gained two or fewer yards on six of those attempts. The Colts knew the Steelers were going to run. Tony Dungy knew the Steelers were going to run. Heck, even John Madden knew the Steelers were going to run. But their lack of success and Cowher's stubborn nature didn't stop them from throwing the ball early against a defense geared to stop the run.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the '05 Steelers is their lack of interest in even ATTEMPTING a pass more than 20 yards downfield. Ben Roethlisberger, at one point Monday evening, had completed 13 passes for about 65 yards. Five yards per completion isn't gonna get it done against the 49ers, let alone the Colts.

This simply isn't the same squad as the '04 group that easily could have gone to and won the Super Bowl had it not been for the same style of coaching that has let them down time and time again in big games over the last decade and a half. The offensive line has been banged up (in the case of Marvel Smith), less effective than usual and aging (Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings), inexperienced and probably not very good to begin with (Trai Essex), far more bad than good (Max Starks) and flat-out abysmal (Kendall Simmons). Jerome Bettis is a year older and a few tires wider. The superbly talented Plaxico Burress has been replaced by the marginally talented Cedric Wilson. Antwaan Randle El has been replaced with an even less useful Antwaan Randle El.

On the defensive side of the ball, Joey Porter has been on the decline since the middle of '04 at the latest, Larry Foote is putrid and Clark Haggans and James Farrior have been hurt. The secondary has taken a lot of heat when the team has been struggling, but the real culprit has been the defensive front, which generates pressure on the opposing QB about as often as we're treated to Haley's comet in the night sky. The 3-4 defense isn't the optimal defense for getting penetration up front against a passing attack, but combined with the lack of any semblance of effective blitzing, which far too often involves the corners or safeties, it has been rendered obsolete.

The greatest problem though is the change that didn't take place in the offseason. Bill Cowher is still wearing the headset on the sidelines and gazing peculiarly at the events unfolding before him like a man walking in on his wife making love to a unicorn. Pick your poison from Monday night's throttling and you can make a case for a man who should no longer be in control of the NFL team that has done the least with its superior talent in the past 10 years. It doesn't matter whether it was the run-first attitude that didn't change following its lack of success, the completely absurd onside kick to start the second half, or the unconscionable 4th-and-5 decision to let Roethliberger run a QB draw ... each epitomized Cowher's coaching style. To put it simply, he's scared to lose, and that was painfully clear Monday night.

Particularly in the case of the onside kick, he basically admitted that his offense, which did nothing in the first half that wasn't handed to them, needed the ball, while his defense, which came together quite nicely following the debacle that was the first play from scrimmage, was not to be trusted with the Colts starting at their own 25 or so.

In the meantime, the Colts are clearly the class of the NFL and, despite having a coach who has come up as big in critical game over his career as Cowher has, will vault over that hump this year. With Manning essentially running the show and the defensive line ensuring the big plays against will be kept to a minimum, there isn't a team in the league that should be able to run with the Colts. Denver is the closest option, but Jake Plummer in a road playoff game? Not likely.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Rivalry weekend

After nearly a month of the laptop being on hiatus thanks to, in the words of the fine Asian gentleman who fixed it, a "shot hard drive," the blog returns as college football (and in a small way, the NFL) heads into rivalry weekend.

When we came to you last, Penn State was reeling from a last-second loss at the Big House in Ann Arbor, a result of a vanilla defense, questionable officiating from a crew chief that, like most Big 11 zebras, hailed from the great state of Michigan, and perhaps most significantly, lobbying from Lloyd Carr for two more seconds on the clock. Since then, the Lions have reeled off three impressive "on-the-surface" wins - less impressive when you consider the fact the opponents were a team playing above its heads in Barry Alvarez's final season, perhaps the single biggest disappointment in D-I college football, and perhaps the worst team from a major conference in the past 15 years not named Temple.

Now, the Lions head into East Lansing to face a Michigan State team that is playing the role its most comfortable with: late-season spoiler, trying to salvage its own season after running off to a lightning-quick start and proceeding to collapse in mid-October. No one knows the role better than Michigan State. Add in the fact that the Spartans are 9-1 against Top 10 opponents since 1997 (one of the truly great "are you kidding?" stats to come along in a while), and the upset alert is on.

The stakes are simple enough: win and PSU is the Big 11 Champion, on its way to a BCS bowl, and on the couch for the next two weeks hoping USC or Texas, among others, falter so that it may have a shot at the Rose Bowl. Lose and more than likely head to Orlando for a second trip in four years to the Crapital One Bowl. Not good times.

One of the most interesting questions to consider at this point is where Penn State would be had Chad Henne not hit Mario Maningham in the end zone on that fortuitous final play. The answer seems pretty clear - third in the BCS, third in all the polls, as they would be the third undefeated team behind SC and Texas. So basically, all it did in the long run was cost Penn State one spot in the BCS rankings.

As it currently stands, Penn State needs to win at Michigan State and get help in the following form: SC or Texas must lose, and either Miami or possibly LSU must lose as well.

Why LSU you ask, a team that Penn State is one spot ahead of in the BCS? LSU still sits ahead of Penn State in the two polls that count toward the BCS. Should Penn State move up one spot in each it may - and I stress may - be enough to surpass the Hurricanes even should Miami win out. However, the more likely scenario is the PSU needs a loss by the 'Canes in addition to Goliath A or Goliath B faltering.

I'd place the odds of Penn State slithering into the Rose Bowl at about 5 percent: Though I believe the Lions would give SC or Texas a hell of a game, those two are looking semi-invincable (or in the case of Texas, in-Vince-ible) and Miami is playing its best ball at the right time.

On to some picks for the weekend:

IOWA (-4.5) over Minnesota:
I'll take Minnesota in the dome, but Iowa's pink locker rooms will do the trick in this one. Laurence Maroney is probable, and though the Gophers can run with or without home, look for Iowa, reinvigorated from its win at Wisconsin, to pull it out late.
Pick: Iowa 38, Minnesota 30

Northwestern (-15.5) over ILLINOIS:
Team A can score points. Team B can't. Team A can play defense on occasion. Team B can't. Team A has a quarterback who throws it to his own receivers. Team B has a quarterback who throws to Teams C, D, E, F, G, H and I. Team A ain't Illinois.
Pick: Northwestern 48, Illinois 20

INDIANA (+12.5) over Purdue:
Indiana, despite trouncing Illinois earlier in the fall, has done everything possible over the last month to make people believe they are just as bad as the Illini. But they're not quite that bad, and thanks to the nature of this game in the state of Indiana (and ONLY in the state of Indiana), they'll hang close for a while.
Pick: Purdue 34, Indiana 26

Ohio State (-3) over MICHIGAN:
Winner of this one takes the Big Ten's BCS bid should Penn State falter. Despite it being in Ann Arbor, it's as simple as this: Ohio State is deserving of winning or sharing the conference crown; this Michigan team, despite showing marked improvement in the past month, is not.
Pick: Ohio State 27, Michigan 20

MICHIGAN STATE (+8) over Penn State:
History suggest the battle for the Land Grant trophy will be a blowout in favor of the home team. Logic, among other strong variables, suggest it will be a blowout in favor of the road team. Michigan State's season comes down to this game, and East Lansing will be alive for this game, whereas if any other team were waltzing in at this point, the Spartans may have simply rolled over. But Penn State will be ready.
Pick: Penn State 31, Michigan State 26

And the upset special of the week, leaving Penn State one SC/Texas loss shy of the Rose Bowl:
Georgia Tech (+18) over MIAMI:
Miami has its final two games at home before a likely ACC championship game tilt against Florida State. Unfortunately for the 'Canes, this is a team that can often go out feeling it has something to prove on the road, while playing lackluster ball at home. This college football season has lacked the big, big upset, all season, and an 18-point dog going into the No. 3 team in the nation's house and winning would do the trick.
Pick: Georgia Tech 28, Miami 27