- Beck had an awful half, and yes some it wasn't his fault as the Steelers' blanket coverage clearly frustrated him, but that frustration led to some really bad decisions. He twice simply threw it away though there was zero pressure and at least five yards of open field beyond the pocket. On his first throw away, on just the second play of the Hawks' second drive, Shaun Alexander was open on a drag pattern to the left. A Steelers DB (half out of the frame) was playing about 4 yards off and behind him, containing him so to speak, but a decent throw and an easy catch could have resulted in at least three. At first I thought maybe Hasselbeck didn't consider Alexander a legitimate target, because he didn't even really look in Alexander's direction, but on the final drive of the second half he actually dumped off to Alexander twice, for three yards apiece. James Harrison broke on the pattern from about four yards away stopping Alexander exactly where he caught the ball. That doesn't excuse Beck from throwing the ball away when passing to Alexander or scrambling would have netted something.
Beck was accurate on only 50% of his throws in the first half. He overthrew on 23%. Some blame falls on the receivers, as Nate Burleson (big surprise), Ben Obomanu and even Deion Branch (once) quit on their routes. I'm sure the heat contributed to that. The bigger problem from Beck's perspective was the play-calling, how Dick LeBeau countered it and Seattle's non-existent receiving from the backfield. Let's handle those in order. Mike Holmgren must have thought that LeBeau would be out blitzing, because time and again he called for downfield patterns in the hope that someone would find a hole in Pittsburgh's zone. That happened exactly three times in the entire half. Instead, LeBeau, I imagine counseled by Mike Tomlin, not only didn't blitz, but rarely sent more than three pass rushers. He blitzed a mere 5 times out of 24 passing plays, and only sent 6 once. There are a lot of ways to beat a three man rush, the most obvious would be to simply run the ball. I'll cover that in a second. Another would be to use double moves and send your receivers deep, the Hawks tried this a few times but Beck doesn't have a great deep ball and because of its high angle and tendency to hang it's a real liability against the deep zones the Steelers were calling. The final would be to work underneath in the sizable space between the linemen and the deep zone. The Hawks took advantage of this three times, none more noteworthy than on a 5 wide (first time I've ever seen that) quick screen to Burleson on the first play of the Hawks' third drive. It easily netted 7, put the Hawks in great position and Alexander picked up a first on the very next play. They never called a play like that again for the rest of the contest.
The problem with Seattle's backfield receiving isn't just Alexander, neither Mack Strong nor Leonard Weaver are much of a threat, but moreover alot of the problem is just the play-calling. Perhaps sending split backs into the flat may have worked in Bill Walsh's day, perhaps it would still work if we had anyone on the roster who could break a tackle, but you can only watch Weaver, Strong and Alexander hard scrabbling to get back to the line of scrimmage so many times before you barf. It's one of about three patterns Holmgren runs with his backfield. If Seattle's backfield really is so limited in its receiving, perhaps a screen or draw could be mixed in. Something, because minus that one long reception in week one, Seattle's backfield has averaged just 5.5 yards per reception and that's almost all Mack Strong.
- I have not come here to bury Shaun Alexander but praise the line's run blocking. It really hasn't deserved the mass of criticism it has received. On some plays it almost looks as good as 2005. One such occasion was on the fourth play of Seattle's second drive. Here's how it evolved last Sunday: It's first and ten, the Hawks are in I formation, with 2 wide receivers and a single tight end. The Steelers a base 3-4. After the snap Chris Spencer moves hard left engaging defensive end Brett Keisel, Walter Jones engages Harrison gives him a big Franchise shove and knocks him about a yard back and to the outside. Rob Sims pulls up between the gap created between the end and linebacker. He enters the second level and creates a triangular shaped pocket of rushing room. The exciting thing is that fullback Mack Strong is running untouched through the gaping hole and promising a dominating lead block on any DB that dare attempt to tackle Alexander. There it is, perfection. The Steelers defense contained for five yards past the line of scrimmage plus an untouched lead blocker. The rush resulted in a three yard gain after Harrison caught Alexander from behind. Perhaps a younger Jones could have pancaked Harrison, taken him completely out of the play, I don't know. I do know that Harrison caught Alexander because sitting in that pocket, with Strong outpacing him four yards farther down the field, Alexander stutter stepped, twice. Watch this play, watch the execution, the dual lead blockers with Strong essentially running free eight yards past the line of scrimmage and tell me again that Seattle's problem is the run blocking.
- Jennings had a couple rough stretches and despite my theorizing otherwise, it's not man but zone coverage that gives him troubles. His worst showing was on the third play of the Steelers first drive of the second quarter backed up within their own ten, third and 3. The Steelers have two receivers bunched left and Seattle is in a 4-2 nickel. Jordan Babineaux and Kelly Jennings are in zone coverage left. Babs interior, Jennings ext--oh wait, no he seems to be playing the interior too. Willie Reid catches the ball in the flat, Jennings breaks on the receiver (at this point the first down is already conceded) throws an awful tackle that slides right off the 186 pound Reid before Reid breaks it for a 25 yard gain. The worst infraction is the blown coverage as once Jennings was near Reid the first down was all but conceded anyway, but the tackle is exactly the type you fear from a slight player like Jennings, not really bad form, just wimpy. Reid barely broke stride slipping past him. Jennings has played well all year and has been a real step up in man coverage from Kelly Herndon, but what he showed on this play isn't something tackle drills can overcome.
- Tatupu has gotten much better navigating blockers, but he still misses some tackles and the way Seattle is designed defensively, when Tatupu misses all hell breaks loose. That's what happened on the fifth play of the Steelers scoring drive when Najeh Davenport went off for 45 yards. As soon as Tatupu misses about 7 yards past the line of scrimmage, Davenport cuts back towards the left sideline and Hawks tumbled like a California mudslide. Nate Washington got away with an iffy block in the back, the kind of call you want when it benefits your team but not so flagrant that you can justifiable be outraged. Washington's contact was largely incidental, despite Joe Buck crediting him with a "great block".
- This is getting long, but I have couple more things to cover. First clock management critiques are quickly becoming a pet-peeve of mine. After two plays on the Hawks final drive of the half, the announcers were calling the Steelers to call a timeout. It was third and 4 and at that point the Steelers had outgained Seattle 107 to 6 in the second quarter. No one called a timeout and Beck found Obomanu for 30 yards out of bounds with 47 seconds remaining. The next call by Seattle led to Beck getting sacked, as all throughout the half, no receiver got open downfield. At this point it's 2 and 14, Pitt has a pair of timeouts; if Seattle calls a timeout, the drive could easily fizzle and the Steelers could get the ball back with time enough on the clock. Instead they quick huddle, this takes 15 seconds, and throw to Marcus Pollard down the seam for 22 yards. The play ends with 12 seconds left on the clock. On both the sack and the Pollard reception, Chris Gray blows a block and their not of the missed assignment variety, he's beaten back like a rag doll---dude looks gassed. There is no way of knowing if Pollard even gets so open if Seattle calls a timeout and allows the defense to huddle up and Gray's second blown block, quite fortuitously, results in a roughing the passer penalty. The clock stops again. Seattle now has a first and ten at the Steelers' 14 with 12 seconds left and 3 timeouts. That's just short of ideal. Seattle has two unhurried opportunities to get it into the end zone and still another chance to kick the field goal. The rest doesn't really matter, Beck throws an interception, the announcers somehow pin this on Seattle not having enough time, people kvetch, yada-yada. Had Seattle known--with help from the White Visitation--that they would end the drive in the Steelers red zone, perhaps an earlier timeout would have been warranted, but no one knew that. The only time I think a timeout should have definitely been called was after Beck was sacked, and not because of the clock, but because Gray was dying out there. Had they called that timeout the next play is a complete mystery, not the 37 net yard catch and penalty that dragged Seattle from 60+ yard field goal range into the Steelers' red zone. Whatever Seattle did in this parallel universe where they called that timeout, it is unlikely that it went as well as what they did do.
- This has been a bit of a shit list, to correspond with an ugly half of football. On Sunday, I was honestly optimistic that Seattle could make halftime adjustments (maybe run the ball once or twice) and come out and pull away in the second half. That, of course, didn't happen. Still, in the spirit of that optimism, let's end this with a few happy notes. Baraka Atkins works pretty dang well in coverage for a lineman. He had an assist on Peterson's muscely arm sack. The Hawks had Peterson and Deon Grant wedged between right end and right tackle in one of the more funny looking formations I've ever seen. At the snap, Peterson rushed Grant dropped into coverage and Atkins dropped into coverage along the right flat. The play clearly confused Ben Roethlisberger who looked bewildered before being dragged down by Peterson. The Hawks are not a great blitzing team or even a good one. When they blitz they frequently, somewhat paradoxically, get less pressure than when just rush four. It's as if all the rushers tie up each other attempting to get through the line. But creative looks like this one--they only rushed 4--create pass rush without opening the gaping holes in the zone a six or seven man rush does. I think we'd all like to see some more of this originality out of John Marshall.
The Tape: 10-8
By John Morgan