Monday, November 17, 2008

Steelers' TE Spaeth doing a "great job"

Steelers barely get it done

November 17, 2008

By Gene Collier

Willie Colon's thundering belly laugh echoed through a Steelers locker room that was rapidly emptying winners into the wintry darkness, and no other reaction was particularly valid, really, to the insanity just completed.

The Steelers got 115 yards from Willie Parker, 124 from Hines Ward, 308 off the arm of Ben Roethlisberger ... and scored no touchdowns.

"HAHAHAHA!" said Colon, approximately, upon first hearing it put that way. "I guess that's just a team that's just getting it done when they're just not getting it done."

That the Steelers won a game, 11-10, was apparently not psychedelic enough yesterday. That they ran 73 plays, rolled up 410 yards, possessed the pig for a season-high 36 1/2 minutes, and still scored no touchdowns, well, that was some kind of testament to the offense as a whole, or hole, as the case may be.

This is an offense that doesn't deserve a name as much as a title. I'm thinking "Spaeth: The Final Frontier."

Six of Roethlisberger's 31 completions went to backup tight end Matt Spaeth, just as six others did a week ago, and now the guy filling in for Heath Miller has 108 receiving yards in two weeks.

"We've been teasing Matt, telling him that he does a nice Robin, but can he do Batman," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said a few minutes after his club flipped the visiting San Diego Chargers and took back a one-game lead in the AFC North Division. "He's been driving the Batmobile pretty good."

This offense, as situated, is frankly not like any Batmobile with which I'm familiar, although it is certainly of the comic genre. Were it not for James Harrison harrying Philip Rivers into a fumble and resultant safety in the first half yesterday, we would be talking about what it feels like to go 103 minutes and 21 seconds without a touchdown on your own lawn. Doubtless 410 total net yards is nice, but how come it feels like it came on 410 total net plays?

"Part of that is our doing, and it's discouraging," Tomlin said. "We're not a finished product, but maybe we found something today in Gary Russell."

Russell, a second-year free agent out of Minnesota whose 39-yard kickoff return last week showed that it is apparently legal to return one beyond the 30, popped himself free for 10 yards on two short-yardage plays, something Mewelde Moore has been failing at in recent games. Moore lost 1 yard on fourth-and-1 at the Chargers' 1 as the first quarter expired yesterday.

But if Russell is the answer, or if Spaeth is the answer to why 410 yards of Bruce Arians-designed offense apparently has gotten out of the touchdown business, then the problem might be worse than it appears.

Asked that if he would throw for 300 yards, that Ward would catch more than 100 yards worth of passes, that Parker would gain more than 100 on the ground, how many points would he guess the Steelers would have accumulated yesterday, Roethlisberger didn't have to think for very long.

"You would think a lot more," Roethlisberger said. "I haven't seen the completion numbers, but it seemed like a lot of people were catching balls. Spaeth, Sean McHugh, Mewelde, you like it when you're spreading the ball around. Spaeth has done a great job filling in for, umm, for Heath."

"I've been real happy about what I've done the past two weeks," said Spaeth, who grabbed four throws that resulted in first downs in the third quarter as the Steelers labored to overcome a 7-5 deficit. "Heath is a great tight end and we need him back, but in the interim, I'm doing whatever I can to fill the void."

The Steelers tried filling the void with penalties for most of yesterday, running up a season-high 13 with a major contribution from the offense, where holding and blocking in the back were a staple, with an innovative six-men-on-the-line thrown in for spice. That likely won't happen again, but the knowledge that the offense failed to crack the goal line against a defense that had allowed three touchdown passes in a game four times this season, a defense that hasn't produced a turnover since Oct. 12, that's a little more problematic.

"We can't get caught up in, 'is this play-call right or is that play-call right,'" Colon said. "We just have to keep after it, and that's what we did. At the end, you could see it breaking down in their eyes. Key guys stepped up."

Ward caught four balls for 42 yards on the final Steelers possession, the one that chewed all but 11 seconds from the final 6:41, and Parker ran six times for 31 more. But they needed a Jeff Reed field goal to win it, and just as surely needed James Harrison and a defense that persists in its excellence.

"They've saved our butts all year," Colon said. "We're blessed to have 'em out there."

You can count your blessings in this NFL, but you can't win a division title on faith.

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