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Old 12-25-2010, 09:26 AM   #1
A Son of Martha

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Default Yes, Carolina is that bad

Yes, Carolina is that bad
Friday, December 24, 2010
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Given barely half a week to dream up reasons to fret about a confrontation with the Carolina Panthers, the Murphy's Law apostles in the Steelers congregation were forced toward some unorthodox reasoning.

On any given Thursday ...

Didn't sound quite right.

On any given Christmas Eve Eve ...

Didn't make much sense.

But by halftime of the event itself, even the All-Pro fretters had to settle for a new but very genuine NFL axiom: Nothing brightens the holiday season like a visit from wretched Carolina.

Seriously, amid all the manic last minute hustle and bustle -- especially the bustle -- what better Christmas gift for a football team with serious postseason plans than a relaxing massage from the only team in the league without a road victory?

Yes Virginia, it turns out that John Fox's team wasn't 2-12 for nothing. Even Mike Tomlin, who stretched credulity with some early week theory that because the Panthers were younger than his Steelers the short week would be a distinct advantage for the visitors, had to be impressed with how truly dreadful the opposition was.

"It depended on how they played it," Tomlin said when asked if he expected gigantic chunks of yardage to be so available in the Carolina defense. "We knew they'd potentially stack the line because they play some five down [lineman] personnel groups, and when that happened guys got open and Ben [Roethlisberger] distributed the ball."

Roethlisberger connected 22 times in 32 throws to eight targets, none so consistently spectacular as the still-blossoming Mike Wallace, whose four catches accounted for 104 yards and a touchdown.

"He did some different things tonight, like on the deep ball, he came back to it," said a well-pleased Steelers' quarterback with his second-year wideout. "I'd been on him to do that. Sometimes speed guys can't make that play, but he did tonight."

The general direction of things seemed all but predetermined after only two possessions.

Carolina, struggling to average barely a touchdown a week through this miserable season, held the ball for the game's first 7 minutes, during which it gained a tepid 42 yards before punting at the Steelers 32.

Facing fourth-and-5 then, with a 2-12 team, on Dec. 23, in a scoreless game, Fox just couldn't risk turning the ball over on downs. Not here. Not now. So he punted to the end zone, winning a crucial 12 yards on a night when field position would mean absolutely nothing.

It took the Steelers two plays to outgain Carolina's 7-minute first possession, a 35-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall and a 15-yard pass to Wallace. Roethlisberger's 20-yard completion to the de-concussed Heath Miller pushed the ball to the 11, and only Fox's successful challenge flag on an 8-yard Roethlisberger-to-Emmanuel Sanders pass prevented a touchdown on the Steelers' first possession. But already, the rout was on.

Roethlisberger found Wallace isolated on Carolina linebacker Nic Harris and side-armed a nifty slant pass to him that Wallace took 43 yards for the score that made it 10-0 as the second quarter got legs.

Before it ended, there'd be another fistful of gross chunkage carved from the Carolina defense. Sanders caught a 35-yarder from Roethlisberger, Miller a 19-yarder, and Wallace made a great catch along the left sideline for 40 yards on the Steelers' last possession before intermission.

"They did some different things," Roethlisberger said, "some single-high and then a lot of cover-2, which kind of gave us the middle and we got some good matchups."

All that cooked up as a 17-point second quarter, which wasn't terribly surprising given the nature of second quarters around here this fall. After Thursday night, the Steelers have outscored the opposition in the second quarter, 131-39.

Part of the squawking story line for the next 10 days, of course, is the dubious debate over whether the Steelers' burst of big-play offense is a function of actual improvement or the happy holiday happenstance of having Carolina near the tail end of the schedule.

Before Thursday night, the Steelers hadn't managed two rushing touchdowns or two passing touchdowns in the same game since Nov. 21. Roethlisberger produced his first 300 yard-plus passing performance against Carolina since he whipped the offense up and down the field for 387 yards against a disinterested New England defense the night Tom Brady massacred this team.

Even with the accumulated evidence of whatever Jan. 2 brings from Cleveland in the regular-season finale, the Steelers will likely go into the playoffs with a lot more offensive questions than defensive issues, which are frankly very scarce.

There won't be much wrong with a 12-4 record and a No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, if that's how it washes out, but a two-game winning streak against the Panthers and the Browns isn't a terribly reliable projector of a team's postseason profile.

By mid-January, maybe these Panthers won't seem like such a wonderful gift after all.

Sorry, all sales final.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10358...#ixzz198aFzEF5
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