By Christina Rivers
On a rainy night in Pittsburgh, fans were excited to see their team go head to head in a nationally-televised Monday Night Football event. Instead of being inspirational, the Pittsburgh Steelers saw the Kansas City Chiefs put up one of the best fights of their 1-7 season. Dropped passes, fumbles and two defenses that were decidedly angry became a theme for the night. The Steelers watched as the Chiefs put up 10 points to lead a game for the first time in the 2012 season. Pittsburgh struggled with what appeared to be disorganization and missed opportunities. When Ben Roethlisberger went down hard in a sack by Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, sandwiched with his throwing arm pinned, it was as if all the air in Pittsburgh’s sails turned into football doldrums. With the Chiefs winning the coin toss in overtime, it came down to a crucial interception by Lawrence Timmons to set up the winning field goal by Shaun Suisham, which ended the game in sudden death, 16-13.
Roethlisberger looked frustrated as early as the Steelers’ first offensive possession. Starting out of the shotgun, Heath Miller was wide open for a 20-yard catch. Roethlisberger threw two incomplete passes in the series and the ground game didn’t produce either. When the offense came back on the field, Roethlisberger had yet another incomplete pass and watched as Isaac Redman coughed up the ball on the Pittsburgh 11-yard line. In the second quarter, Roethlisberger struggled on a drive that consisted of a throw to tight end David Paulson that was fumbled (recovered by Willie Colon), small gains rushing and tight end Heath Miller being nearly the only person he could find open that could handle the ball. After two incomplete passes, one to Emmanuel Sanders and another to Jerricho Cotchery, Roethlisberger had to watch from the sidelines as the Steelers settled for the field goal. In the drive that tied the Steelers with the Chiefs at 10 points apiece, Roethlisberger threw a short pass to Mike Wallace who made an athletic acrobatic catch using his legs and hands to score the touchdown. Roethlisberger could get very little momentum going with the offense, unusually inconsistent in his passing, and sacked early in the third quarter – a fatal blow by Houston and Hali.
Roethlisberger was evaluated at the stadium before leaving with his wife to go for further testing on his right shoulder at a local hospital. In the middle of a career year, Roethlisberger was 9 of 18 for 84 yards and one touchdown before he left the game. The injury reopened conversations about Roethlisberger’s announcement early in the year that he had a partial rotator cuff injury.
Byron Leftwich hadn’t seen any playing time this regular season. In fact, the game against the Chiefs was the first time he had played in two years. Suddenly, after standing in the cold rain on the sidelines (Charlie Batch inactive for the game), he was called upon to run the offense that was already struggling. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley seemed to want to play it somewhat safe after a first half that was less than par. The rust was apparent. Leftwich was 7 of 14 for 73 yards and produced a scoring drive in the third quarter that gave the Steelers a three point lead going into the fourth.
While it is difficult to point at any one issue as the reason the quarterbacks looked out of sync against Kansas City, and hard to grade a player who was seriously injured, neither Roethlisberger or Leftwich looked focused.
Quarterback’s Grade: C
With Antonio Brown out due to an ankle injury, the Steelers called upon Gilreath to take his place at receiver. It didn’t matter. The receiving corps was covered tightly and even when the ball was catchable, they struggled to hang on. There were nine incomplete passes or drops in the first three quarters with Roethlisberger at the helm. Under Leftwich there were eight. The victim of most of these plays was number three receiver Cotchery. Heath Miller was the one constant, leading the team in receptions, going 4-4 for 47 yards.
The running game was stuffed for the most part by the defensive front of the Chiefs. Redman was able to carry the ball 21 yards on eight calls. Jonathan Dwyer had the most carries at 19, with difficult rushing assignments for 56 yards. Roethlisberger had the second longest rush on the night with 14. Dwyer had one go for 17.
The offense was only able to convert 6-16 third downs and were unable to convert a fourth down and short that head coach Mike Tomlin said they should go for instead of punting.
Offense Grade: C
It could be considered a victory by the defense if it weren’t for the fact that they too struggled at times throughout the game. Coming in, Pittsburgh knew that Jamaal Charles would be the main offensive threat for Kansas City, yet he was able to carry the ball 23 times for 100 yards and a touchdown. Charles burst easily through the left side of the Steelers’ defensive line. When he wasn’t pushing the ball forward on the ground, Peyton Hillis came in and added ten carries for 30 yards. The turnover machine in Matt Cassel stayed locked in the closet until overtime.
The defense was solid against the pass. They held Kansas City to just 11 receptions on the game for 154 yards. Out of nine targets, franchise receiver Dwayne Bowe made only four catches for 55 yards. Kansas City was unable to get a touchdown through the air. Brett Keisel helped in that aspect, getting to Cassel twice for sacks and two additional quarterback hits. LaMarr Woodley had one tackle for a loss, but was third in defense with eight tackles. Ryan Clark had 10 tackles and 2 pass defenses. The defensive backfield didn’t have many pass defenses because they covered their targets nicely and shut down Cassel’s ability to get the ball to receivers. Lawrence Timmons defended two passes and added a quarterback hit of his own before he snatched a Cassel ball out of the air and returned it for 23 yards in overtime to give the Steelers the chance at the game winning field goal.
Defense Grade: B
Shaun Suisham had another perfect night. He made 3-3 field goals, his longest a 35-yarder and was 1-1 on PATs. In a game where a lot of punting was going on, rookie Drew Butler kicked six for 256 yards. It earned him a 42.7 yards per punt average. His longest punt went for 58 yards.
Chris Rainey handled the only kick return on the night for the Steelers and added one punt return. Bobbling the punt, Rainey lost four yards on the play. Gilreath handled two punt returns for 8 yards.
Special Teams Grade: A-
The Final Word
While the win was an ugly one, it was still a win. Looking at their near future play against division rival Baltimore, the Steelers could have used a bit of wiggle room and less injuries. At the end of the night the Steelers walked away as winners, but not necessarily heroes. Just one win behind the Ravens in the AFC North, the Steelers will be dealing with questions about their starting quarterback and how to counter a Baltimore team that seems to enjoy sitting atop the division throne.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.