Pittsburgh Steelers 33 – New York Giants 30

Game Overview: Whew! Even though the Giants lost this game and losing is never good, this was a relatively positive game for New York for one single reason: Eli Manning looked like a legitimate NFL quarterback. Indeed, had the Giants found a way to win the game with Manning looking as bad as he did last week, I am not sure fans out there would feel better than the way things turned out.

While I thought the Giants had a good chance to win this game, I was surprised that the offense and special teams was able to put 30 points up on the board (23 points against the NFL’s #1-ranked defense). I was equally surprised to see the Giants’ secondary play what I think was by far their worst game of the season. The secondary is supposed to be the strength of this defense and it was the secondary that lost the game. It wasn’t great play by Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or their wide receivers; it was simply shoddy defense. Pittsburgh had receivers running all over the place wide open…and I mean wide open. Whatever zone defense the Giants were employing, they acted like this was the first time they used it and it failed miserably.

Once again, the Giants blew a chance to take a step towards the playoffs. With the way the rest of the NFC played this past weekend, the Giants would have been in the middle of the playoff hunt with a 6-8 record. They had a chance to win this game and should have won it. But the defense failed to hold up their end of the deal. The Steelers were never forced to punt.

Coaching: Two problems with the coaching this week…one offensive, one defensive. Offensively, Coughlin’s decision to go for the 2-point conversion after taking the lead 30-26 with eight minutes left in the game made no sense. And it could have come back to haunt the Giants had New York managed to get into field goal position late in the game trailing 33-30 instead of 33-31. Secondly, Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis obviously committed to defending the run (which he should have), but did not trust his corners to play aggressive man defense on the Steelers’ secondary. The loose zone coverages that the Giants employed backfired as the Giants’ secondary looked confused and the Steelers had guys running wide open all over the place.

Quarterback: Just as Eli Manning’s previous three poor games does not mean he will turn out to be a bad quarterback, his extremely positive performance against the Steelers does not guarantee that he will end up being a good quarterback. But it was a big step in the right direction and provides confidence to fans, coaches, players, and Manning himself

Manning (16-of-23 for 182 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) not only managed the game well by not making any mistakes to hurt his team (the interception was a well thrown pass on a play where the receiver fell down), but he also made plays that helped his team put 23 offensive points up on the board against the #1-ranked defense in the NFL.

Manning’s stats in the first half do not look stellar: 4-of-8 for 27 yards and a touchdown. The first drive of the game was a 3-and-out as Manning’s first pass of the day came on 3rd-and-5 and fell incomplete to TE Jeremy Shockey (Shockey did not run a very good route on the play). The next time the Giants had the ball, five straight running plays put the ball on the Steelers’ 2-yard line. On 2nd-and-goal, Manning threw a perfect play-action pass to Shockey for a 2-yard touchdown, giving the Giants a 14-7 lead. The Giants again were able to move the ball on their third drive of the half as Manning threw to HB Tiki Barber over the middle for eight yards and then winged a nice sideline pass to Ike Hilliard for 12 yards off bootleg play-action. Manning then scrambled for 13 yards up the middle of the defense. A well-thrown quick out to Amani Toomer should have put the ball at the Steelers 26-yard line, but LG Jason Whittle was flagged for tripping on the play, moving the ball back to the 43-yard line. On 2nd-and-18, the Giants attempted a wide receiver screen to Hilliard, but reserve LT Brandon Winey got in the way of the pass as it deflected off the back of his helmet. Manning dumped the ball off to Barber on the next play for five yards and a promising drive came to an end with a punt.

Manning’s worst throw of the day came on the fourth drive of the half. After Manning scrambled for five yards and Barber lost 3 yards on a run, Manning had Jim Finn all alone in the flat on 3rd-and-8 for what may have ended up being a first down completion. But reminiscent of last week’s effort against the Ravens, Manning threw a terribly inaccurate pass into the turf despite not being pressured. The good news was this was the only poor pass of the day for Manning. When the Giants got the ball again before halftime, there were only 9 seconds on the clock and Manning “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone fell incomplete.

It was in the second half that Manning really elevated his game as he completed all but three of his 15 passes. With practically no running game to speak of in the second half, the Giants and Manning managed to put up 16 offensive points. The Giants got the ball in Steelers’ territory after a turnover. After a 3-yard loss by Barber, Manning hit Finn on a swing pass for 13 yards and a first down. Two plays later, Manning found Hilliard for seven yards. Two plays later, a quick pass to Shockey put the ball on the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. However, Barber was stuffed on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line and the Giants were forced to kick a field goal.

After the Steelers kick another field goal to extend the lead to 23-17, Manning made a perfect throw on a deep pass to a well-covered David Tyree for 49 yards on 2nd-and-23. He then hit Barber over the middle for 17, Shockey on a crossing pattern for 8, and then Marcellus Rivers in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and a 24-23 lead. When the defense faltered again and the Steelers regained the advantage 26-24, Manning went into action again. His first pass to Hilliard was slightly off the mark and dropped (it still should have been caught). Manning then made a great play. He correctly anticipated a blitz coming from his left, stood tough in the pocket despite a rusher bearing down on him, and fired a well-thrown pass to Toomer for 17 yards on 3rd-and-8. After a pass intended for Barber was tipped, he found Toomer again for 17 yards and threw a screen pass to Hilliard that picked up 15 yards and moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. Barber scored on the very next play, giving the Giants a 30-26 lead.

The Giants only got the ball one more time in the second half. With just under five minutes to go, Manning passed short to Barber twice. On 3rd-and-2, he threw a perfect deep ball to Toomer. There was a lot of contact between the corner and Toomer and Toomer fell. The stumbling defensive back then dove to pick off the pass. This pick was not Manning’s fault as the ball was well thrown. The Giants never got the ball again.

Wide Receivers: Still not good. Toomer (2 catches for 34 yards) was shut out for three quarters. Both of his receptions came on the drive that put the Giants up 30-26. Perhaps I’m being overly critical, but it seemed to me that Toomer went down awfully easy on Manning’s last pass attempt that was intercepted. There was undoubtedly contact (and that in itself is supposed to be a penalty), but I saw no severe contact that should have suggested Toomer losing his balance and falling down so easily. I wonder if he put on an acting job and it backfired. He’s a big receiver who should have been able to run through that contact and still get his hands on the football…after all, that’s the style of his game. Supposedly.

Ike Hilliard (3 passes for 34 yards) dropped one pass, but also showed some niftiness by making a tackler miss on his 15-yard screen pass that moved the ball to the Steelers’ 1-yard line. He was lucky he was credited with the 12-yard sideline reception in the 2nd quarter as the officials missed the fact that he didn’t get his second foot down inbounds.

David Tyree, the third receiver, only had one reception. But it was big one – a 49 yarder on 2nd-and-23 on a drive that resulted in a touchdown. Tyree also made a nice block on Tiki’s 35-yard gain.

Running Backs: The Giants ran the ball pretty darn well in the first half as Barber carried the football 10 times for 70 yards (a 7.0 yards-per-carry average). But the running game disappeared in the second half as Barber was limited to six yards on eight carries. There were simply too many negative running plays as well…five in all. The Giants really ran the ball well on their second drive of the game as Barber picked up 35, 7, 3, and 6 yards against the second best run defense in the NFL. Not only was the 35 yarder on a left-side sweep a key run, but so was Barber’s 3-yard gain up the middle on 3rd-and-1. Barber also ran with great effort on a 2nd-and-2 on the next possession when he really fought hard for the first down on a tough 2-yard run. But Tiki was not able to do much the rest of the day…his totals a bit bloated by a 13-yard draw right before halftime.

Barber was the leading receiver with five receptions for 38 yards. His blitz pick-ups were excellent.

I thought Jim Finn blocked pretty well. He made nice short yardage blocks on Tiki’s 3-yard run on 3rd-and-1 as well as his 1-yard touchdown. Finn also demonstrated nice effort on his 13-yard pass reception on 2nd-and-13.

Tight Ends: Jeremy Shockey blocked well for the most part. He got a couple of key blocks on the big running drive by Barber. He also made a nice block on an 8-yard gain by Barber in the 3rd quarter, but a few plays later he got pushed back at the point-of-attack and Barber was forced to alter the intended direction of the play. Shockey caught three passes for 13 yards and a touchdown. He has to be careful about spiking the ball in the field of play when the play does not result in a touchdown as that is a penalty.

Marcellus Rivers blocked better this week. He made a nice block on a Barber run right before Shockey’s touchdown reception. He also did make a good block on Tiki’s 1-yard touchdown run. However, he gave up a serious pass pressure by LB Joey Porter on a 1st-and-10 play where Manning was forced to scramble for five yards. He also got stood up on one Barber run that went nowhere. Marcellus caught a 1-yard touchdown pass.

Visanthe Shiancoe made a key block on Barber’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Offensive Line: Another positive step forward against another top-ranked defense. Ironically, pass protection was much better than the blocking for the ground game this weekend. The offensive line started off well in the run-blocking department as they played a more physical game than the Steelers early on. The Giants dominated the line of scrimmage on their second drive as the Giants rushed for 53 yards on five consecutive running plays. But as mentioned above, there were two many negative plays (five) in the game and Barber was only able to gain six yards on eight carries in the second half of the game. On the big running drive, there were good blocks by Luke Petitgout, David Diehl, Jason Whittle, and Shaun O’Hara. Wayne Lucier and Diehl also made nice blocks on Barber’s best second half run (8 yards). However, Diehl got pushed back on the 3rd-and-goal play that lost three yards. O’Hara later got shoved back by the nose tackle on another Barber run that lost three yards.

Pass protection, especially given the quality of the opponent and their complicated blitzing schemes, was very good. Manning was not officially sacked (though he did have to scramble a couple of times and he was “sacked” on the 2-point conversion attempt). For most of the game, Manning had decent time to throw the football. Only in the 4th quarter did the protection by the OL get a little shaky. Lucier got run over on the pass play to Hilliard that he dropped. Two plays later, on the play where Manning completed the 17-yarder to Toomer on 3rd-and-8, Manning had called out the blitz, but for some reason Petitgout chose to help out Whittle instead of picking up the free blitzer. This happened again on the 2-point conversion as I think Petitgout should have picked up the free blitzer who “sacked” Manning on the failed attempt. And on the second to last offensive play of the game, Diehl did the same thing and let a free blitzer come from his side.

Two negatives were the legitimate tripping penalties called on Whittle and Lucier. The Giants were able to overcome the penalty on Lucier, but the penalty on Whittle took them out of scoring range.

Defense: There is a dangerous tendency by quite a few people to say that the Giants’ defense would be alright if it weren’t for all of the injuries. But a closer look at who is not playing and what their real future in New York is shows that many of the players who are starting now could be the starters next year or the year after too. Obviously getting Gibril Wilson back will help a lot, but it’s doubtful that Omar Stoutmire and Shaun Williams will be return next season. Michael Strahan will return in 2005, but how much will the then 34-year old have left in his gas tank? The other DL’s on Injured Reserve are back-up types (Chuck Wiley, Lorenzo Bromell, Keith Washington, Martin Chase). Norman Hand will be 33 and in his last year of his contract next season. And the linebacking corps is what it is. So before you think the defense only needs some tweaking, consider that the guys who are playing now really may be main characters in 2005 as well. And these characters surrendered almost 500 yards of offense to the Steelers on Saturday.

Aside from the secondary playing like absolute excrement, the part of the defensive game that really ticked me off was the Giants not being able to get the ball back after the Manning interception. The Steelers were able to convert two 3rd-and-3’s to run out the clock. Very poor effort.

Defensive Line: The Giants switched up the defensive line again this week with Lance Legree (LDE), Fred Robbins (LDT), Kenderick Allen (RDT), and Osi Umenyiora (RDE) starting. It’s pretty sad when a Practice Squad pick-up (Kenderick Allen) is out-playing a #1 pick (William Joseph). Kenderick (6 tackles) suffered a hamstring injury against the Steelers and after his departure, the run defense really suffered. That’s not to say that Allen did not struggle at times. He was battling against All-Pro Alan Faneca. At some plays, he held his ground and HB Jerome Bettis was stuffed; at other times, he got moved off the line of scrimmage. But what I really like about Allen is the way the guy battles. He’s big, looks somewhat athletic, and really plays hard. He plays off blocks and gets in on tackles (his tackle total the last two weeks has been excellent). I also like the way that he plays down the line to make plays in pursuit.

Fred Robbins (2 tackles) played a decent game. The Steelers ran for an unacceptable 160 yards on the ground, but their gains in the first half really didn’t hurt all that much except for the big 23-yard gain late in the 2nd quarter that helped to set up a field goal. Robbins and Allen did a reasonable job inside though Allen got effectively blocked on runs of 9 and 12 yards as well in the first half (as well as the 23-yarder). Robbins made real nice play on Bettis from the backside in the 3rd quarter.

The guy who I thought played a very good game was Lance Legree (3 tackles). Legree not only was pretty stout against the run for most of the game, but he got consistent pass pressure on Roethlisberger. Legree played at LDE, DT, and RDE. He is the one who pressured Big Ben on his first interception. He got two good pass pressures on the Steelers’ third drive of the game, including a 3rd-and-10 pass that fell incomplete. He got another good pressure on the play in the 2nd quarter where Will Peterson was flagged for holding.

Osi Umenyiora (13 tackles, 1 sack) was active, but his statistics look a bit more impressive than they actually were. Umenyiora was up-and-down against the run and I would have liked to have seen a more consistent pass pressure from him. His sack was a coverage sack on a play where he originally got knocked to the ground. Umenyiora was impressive against the run early. This shows that he is learning and improving. And I liked the leverage he played with (very low to the ground). On the first Steelers’ drive, Osi got good pressure on Roethlisberger on a 3rd-and-4 pass that was completed for the first down. On Pittsburgh’s next possession, Umenyiora played off a block to nail Bettis in the backfield for a 2-yard loss. A few plays later, he held his ground at the point-of-attack and got in on the tackle. But Umenyiora was also fooled badly on the shovel pass for a touchdown (great trick play). Osi’s excellent run defense continued on the next possession as he beat the tackle to the inside to hit Bettis in the backfield again. But then Umenyiora’s run defense began to deteriorate. The Steelers were able to run in his direction for gains of 12, 5, 23, 8, 18, 4, and 7 yards. I thought one thing that hurt Osi at times was the defensive alignment. There were a lot of plays where the tackle to Osi’s left was playing far inside, forcing both Umenyiora and the linebacker (usually Emmons) to cover a lot of ground by themselves. The Steelers took advantage of this and the Giants never really adjusted. Osi did get a couple of pass pressures in the second half, including on a 3rd-and-4 pass that fell incomplete. He also got a good pass rush on the 35-yard touchdown pass to WR Antwaan Randle El in the first half.

As for the reserves, William Joseph’s tackle total (zero) pretty much tells it all despite playing for extensive periods in the second half of the game once Allen left injured. Joseph was terrible against the run, regularly being easily shoved side. Same story with DT Damone Duckett, who did make one good play against the run by penetrating into the backfield. The Steelers really started to run the ball well in the third quarter when Joseph and Duckett were playing tackle. There were three runs in a row that picked up 11, 10, and 18 yards. And Joseph was effectively blocked on the last three running plays of the Steelers’ game-winning touchdown drive, including the touchdown. He also disappeared when the Steelers were running out the clock at the end of the game. A very bad game for Joseph (he did get one good pass rush).

Linebackers: After 14 games, I’m pretty sure that Kevin Lewis (3 tackles) is never going to be more than an adequate back-up. For the second week in a row, he was far, far too quiet against a power running team…and that’s where a middle linebacker has to step it up. Lewis had problems shedding the block of the lead fullback, let alone the offensive linemen. Simply put, he was blocked too often at the point-of-attack. He also badly missed a tackle on Bettis at the line on a play that picked up 10 yards.

Carlos Emmons (11 tackles, 1 pass defense) was active. There were times when he was very good against the run (especially in the first half), but he too wore down a bit in the second half and he got blocked on the 23-yard gain by Bettis in the 2nd quarter too (as did Nick Greisen). Still, it was a mostly positive performance. I just would have liked to have seen him finish stronger, especially when the Steelers were running out the clock.

Nick Greisen (13 tackles, 1 sack) played well. He was in on a lot of plays, including at or near the line of scrimmage. He played the cutback better this week though he did misread the play on the 18-yard run by HB Verron Haynes. Greisen also had an 8-yard sack on a delayed dog up the middle.

Defensive Backs: Just terrible. The defensive backs and perhaps the defensive schemes in the secondary lost the game for the Giants. The Steelers completed passes of 34, 39, 24, 35 (TD), 40, and 36 yards against the Giants. And on many of these plays, the receiver was WIDE open with no one in sight. The breakdowns were both mental (mistakes in zone coverage) and physical. Some of the receivers were so wide open that I was unsure who made the mistake (so some of what follows is speculation on my part). And these receivers were getting open despite decent pass pressure from the Giants rushing the passer.

For example, late in the 1st quarter, there was a play where Roethlisberger was under pressure and just tossed the football lazily down the field. There was no one anywhere near WR Antwaan Randle El as either FS Brent Alexander and/or CB Will Allen screwed up and a 39 yard completion resulted, setting up a field goal. On the next drive, WR Hines Ward was all alone in the middle of the field as Allen and/or Emmons and/or Kevin Lewis screwed up the zone. At the end of the 3rd quarter, Ward, who was originally covered by Allen, cut across the field. Allen pointed to Ward as he left his zone, seemingly singling to either Terry Cousin or Will Peterson to pick him up. Neither did and a wide-open 40-yard completion resulted.

Will Peterson (4 tackles, 2 pass defenses) probably played the best game of the starters, but he too made mistakes. Peterson was playing too far off the ball (a common occurrence on Saturday) on an easy 12-yard completion on 3rd-and-4 on the Steelers’ first drive. In the 2nd quarter, Peterson did knock a pass away from Ward. Late in the quarter, Peterson was flagged with defensive holding on an incomplete pass. In the 3rd quarter, Peterson had good coverage on Ward in the end zone on 3rd-and-10 to force the Steelers to settle for a field goal. Peterson made a great play on the ball on a pass over the middle to Randle El near the goal line on 3rd-and-4 early in the 4th quarter, saving a touchdown. But Peterson and Terry Cousin overran the underthrown 36-yard deep pass to Randle El on the Steelers’ game-winning touchdown drive. Peterson never turned back to make a play on the ball.

CB Will Allen (6 tackles, 1 pass defense) did not play well. He may have screwed up on the two aforementioned zone play mistakes. He also played too far off the line on an easy 10-yard completion to Ward late in the 2nd quarter and then immediately gave up a 20-yarder to Ward on the very next play. This helped to set up Pittsburgh’s final field goal of the first half. In the 3rd quarter, Allen dropped yet another interception that hit him right in the hands. Three plays later, the Steelers kick a field goal. In the 4th quarter, Allen embarrassingly got beaten by the back for a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-6, keeping alive another field goal drive. On the Steelers’ game-winning drive, Allen couldn’t make a play on the ball on a jump ball situation to Ward that picked up 9-yards along the sideline. Two plays later, Allen was once again too far off his man, allowing an 11-yard completion.

SS Terry Cousin (7 tackles) was atrocious. He got beat for 10 yards by Hines Ward on an out on the first play of the second Pittsburgh drive. Two plays later, despite playing way off the line, Cousin got beat deep in zone coverage by Randle El for 34 yards, setting up the first Steelers’ touchdown of the day. Then in the 2nd quarter, Cousin got beat badly by Randle El for a 35-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-13 despite a good pass rush (S Curry Burns was very late getting over to help on the play too). In the 3rd quarter, Cousin got beat for 5 yards on 3rd-and-3, keeping alive another scoring drive. And Cousin did not make a play on the football on the 36-yard deep pass on the game-winning touchdown drive by Pittsburgh.

FS Brent Alexander (7 tackles, 1 interception, 1 sack) didn’t play particularly well. Roethlisberger threw the ball right to him on the interception (Alexander wasn’t even near a receiver). His sacked was wiped out by a utterly ridiculous roughing-the-pass penalty that may have affected the outcome of the game. Alexander did not drive the quarterback into the ground…it was a bad, bad call. But Alexander really screwed up big time when he missed what should have been an easy tackle on a misdirection flat pass to HB Verron Haynes on 3rd-and-9. Instead of forcing a punt, the Steelers picked up the first down and went on to score.

Frank Walker (1 tackle, 1 interception) had a good game. He did a great job of sticking with his man on the play where he picked off Roethlisberger on the Steelers’ first drive of the game. Walker was illegally picked on the first 3rd-and-3 play after the Manning interception, leading to an easy first down reception.

Special Teams: The special teams played mostly well, but what hurt was the fact that the Steelers often started with good field position after kickoffs. This was not so much the fault of the coverage units as it was bad kickoffs by Steve Christie and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on Shiancoe. Steeler possessions after kickoffs started at the 49 (Shiancoe’s penalty hurt here), 36, 36, 31, 30, and 33-yard lines. Getting in on tackles and assists here were Jack Brewer (2), Jim Finn (2), and Marcellus Rivers (2), Jim Finn, David Tyree, and Curry Burns.

This was not one of Jeff Feagles’ better efforts as he punted three times for a 34.0 yards-per-punt average. His 31-yarder early in the first quarter was particularly poor and helped to set up the Steelers in good field position for a drive that ended with a touchdown. Coverage was good. Antwaan Randle El returned only one punt and was tackled by David Tyree for a 2-yard loss.

The Steelers never punted so Mark Jones never received a chance to return a punt.

The big story of course was Willie Ponder’s return game. Not only did Ponder return one kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, but he also had good returns of 33, 29, and 31 yards. His other returns went for 17, 17, 16, and 25 yards. Ponder did a good job on his return as he cut it back to the right, avoided one tackle, and used his speed to out-run two more potential tacklers. It was a team effort with good blocks from Ron Dayne, Visanthe Shiancoe, Gary Walker, Brandon Winey, T.J. Hollowell, Marcellus Rivers, and David Tyree.

(Box Score – Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants, December 18, 2004)