Where are you now, Warren Sapp?
The great former defensive tackle and current NFL Network noisemaker has spent the better part of this season talking about how the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense was toast, a victim of age.
So much for that analysis.
Further, so much for the five-year trend in which the Steelers had been lit up by Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks like Tom Brady(notes). In taking a 25-17 win over the New England Patriots on Sunday, the Steelers answered the doubt about themselves and their strategy with an extraordinarily complete win.
Purists will point out that the Steelers were too dependent on the pass in this game (quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) threw 50 times compared to the team's 23 total rushing attempts). Whatever! Welcome to the modern NFL, where the I-formation has sadly gone the way of baseball television ratings (if you weren't watching, MLB brought the drama this year).
The important thing about this game was that Pittsburgh, where the zone blitz was invented, adapted in critical ways. First and foremost, the Steelers' defense did something it has rarely done on a regular basis: It played man-to-man defense. Underrated cornerback Ike Taylor(notes) followed Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker(notes) all over the field, limiting him to six catches for a season-low 39 yards. Likewise, Brady's record pace for passing yards was significantly slowed as he managed only 198 yards and 5.7 yards per pass attempt.
The Steelers, who hadn't sacked Brady since 2005, also got to him three times. Those sacks came because Brady hesitated while trying to figure out the Steelers' coverage.
On offense, the Steelers also continued to evolve, putting this game completely in Roethlisberger's hands. Sure, Roethlisberger has been the center of the Steelers' offense for years now, true of any great quarterback. However, the Steelers usually have depended upon Roethlisberger as the big heaver, the guy who came up with some deep pass along the line to get momentum going.
This game plan featured Roethlisberger peppering the Patriots with lots of short and intermediate throws. That, combined with the defensive effort, allowed the Steelers to play keep-away, holding the ball for more than 39 minutes. Even without veteran receiver Hines Ward(notes), out with a sprained ankle, Roethlisberger got chunks of yardage when necessary. He split the throws primarily among up-and-coming wide receiver Antonio Brown(notes) (nine catches), Heath Miller(notes) (seven), Mike Wallace(notes) (seven) and Emmanuel Sanders(notes) (five) as he out-Bradyed Brady.
Finally, the Steelers won a game that was crucial for their confidence. They have gone to three of the past six Super Bowls and have lots of accomplished players who know they can play, but until this point, the Steelers hadn't beaten anybody of significance this season. The only other team with a winning record they had previously beaten is 4-3 Tennessee. The rest of the schedule has been littered with wins over Jacksonville (2-6), Seattle (2-6), Arizona (1-6) and Indianapolis (0-8).
If Pittsburgh hadn't beaten the Patriots – just its second victory against Brady – it would have been easy fodder for second-guessing as the Steelers prepared for their rematch with Baltimore next Sunday. That's the Ravens who opened the season by hammering Pittsburgh 35-7. A loss to the Patriots would have been thrown in with the losses to the Ravens and Texans as a trifecta of doubt. More important, the Steelers would have been behind Baltimore and Cincinnati (both 5-2) going into a critical stretch in which they play those teams three times over their next four games.
Instead, the Steelers got plenty of relief from that nonsense and coach Mike Tomlin was throwing around quotes about his team playing up to its "standard."
Even if the process of getting to that standard was altered.
Here are the winners and losers for Week 8:
The Ravens' Ray Rice celebrates one of his three rushing touchdowns against Arizona.
• Having just discussed the Steelers, fans of teams in the AFC and NFC North divisions can talk a little trash today. The AFC North finished Sunday with the best overall record in the NFL at 19-10. That includes the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals all with only two losses each. The last-place Cleveland Browns are at a reasonable 3-4. Over in the NFC, the North division is a combined 19-11, although the Green Bay Packers are a huge part of that at 7-0. This probably isn't a huge surprise when you remember that Pittsburgh and Green Bay just faced off in the Super Bowl. At the other end of the spectrum, the AFC South is 11-20 and the NFC Worst, er, West is 10-18.
• Big-time congrats to quarterback Eli Manning(notes), who led the New York Giants back from a 14-3 first-half deficit against the Miami Dolphins. While this is not the greatest comeback by Manning, it was perhaps the best game in his career from one perspective: It's his most attempts (45) in a victory and the second-most without throwing an interception. In 2007, Manning threw 53 passes without an interception against Washington, but the Giants lost as Manning completed only 18 of those 53. In 2008, he threw 43 without an interception against Cincinnati in a win and had 40 without a pick in the NFC championship game at Green Bay in the 2007 playoffs. For the game, Manning completed 31 of 45 for 349 yards and two touchdowns. It was a struggle against a winless Dolphins team, but it was a win.
• Bengals rookie wide receiver A.J. Green(notes) continues to play like a veteran and make fools of us who predicted that Julio Jones(notes) of Atlanta would be the better as a rookie (yeah, that includes me). Green had four catches for 63 yards and his 43-yard touchdown helped give the Bengals a 17-3 first-half lead.
[ Yahoo Sports Radio: Bengals' Andy Dalton on NFL transition ]
Matthew Stafford passed for 267 yards and three touchdowns.
• Apologies to Detroit Lions quarterback Matt Stafford, who I accused this week of being too inconsistent with his completion percentage after twice being under 50 percent in the first seven games and going only 28 of 50 against San Francisco two weeks ago. Stafford, who is above 60 percent for the season, completed 21 of 30 in the win over the Denver Broncos. He's still a little wild, but he's making significant improvements.
• Nice work by Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) to get right back in the game after getting hurt in the second half in the win over the Washington Redskins. The Bills had Tyler Thigpen(notes) warming up when Fitzpatrick was hurt, but never had to put Thigpen in the game. After getting a contract extension this week, Fitzpatrick needed to back it up not only with his play, but with his toughness.
• Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson set a career-best with five catches for 76 yards and one touchdown catch in the win over the Carolina Panthers. Put that alongside his 86 yards rushing and you have a dynamic game for Peterson, who has never been used much as a receiver. That has always been a bit curious because Peterson actually catches the ball OK. He's not an intuitive receiver when things break down, but with rookie quarterback Christian Ponder(notes) being more of a running threat than the Vikings have had on a consistent basis at that position, Peterson may now have more room underneath.
[ Video: Adrian Peterson's insane TD run ]
• Impressive work by San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore(notes), who is earning the money he got from a contract extension. He tied his career high for carries with 31 and rushed for 134 yards as the 49ers improved to 6-1 with an ugly-but-effective win over Cleveland. The 49ers are already four games up on second-place Seattle. The NFC West is so bad that the 49ers could almost have this thing sewn up before December. Christmas may come real early for Niners fans this year.
Stephen Jackson rushed for 159-yards and two touchdowns.
• If you're confused by how the New Orleans Saints could look so good last week in destroying the winless Indianapolis Colts and then lose so decisively against the St. Louis Rams, then join me for a beer some time because I can't figure it out either. I do have something of a theory, at least: The Saints defense is brutally inconsistent, as Rams running back Steven Jackson showed in rolling up 159 yards and two touchdowns. In 2009, the Saints had a defense that could force action and create turnovers. It had problems, but it was capable of playing fast and served as a good match for the Saints' offense, which wants to play even faster. Now, that's just not happening despite New Orleans' infusion of talent with the likes of Malcolm Jenkins(notes), Patrick Robinson(notes) and Shaun Rogers(notes).
• After watching John Beck(notes) get sacked nine times by an unspectacular Bills defense, Washington coach Mike Shanahan has to know that his team is in big-time trouble. Redskins fans who were talking about a playoff run this season don't have much to say after watching Washington lose three straight and four of the past five. At 3-4, the Redskins are pretty much the same team Shanahan took over after the 2009 season. At the end of the day, you have to start asking: What has changed?
Broncos QB Tim Tebow was sacked seven times by the Lions defense.
• To all the Tim Tebow(notes) fans out there: This is the harsh reality of what Tebow can't do. In consecutive weeks against defenses from Miami and Detroit that are, at best, average to slightly above, Tebow has been putrid for all but five minutes of desperation time. Tebow has allowed almost as many touchdowns (two) as he has created (three) as a starter this season. His final stats don't reflect how bad he was for the first 3 ½ quarters on Sunday. This is why it was tragic for Tebow to be a first-round draft pick. He has been forced onto the field well before he should have been because there were great expectations that went with his draft status. Tebow has so much to work on that the Broncos might not be able to fix him. He can't stay with a first read in the passing game and has no ability to get to the second read. His pocket awareness is absent and there's no quick remedy. Tebow may have to be cut and made a reclamation project by some other team. It's been only two starts in 2011, but some things are painfully obvious.
[ Related: Pick-6 contributes to Tim Tebow's misery ]
• I'm officially tired of Bill Cowher's cat-and-mouse game over whether he'll coach next year. On Sunday, Cowher said on the CBS pre-game show that he has no plans to coach next season. Whatever. Cowher will coach if he gets what he wants in terms of money and control. Team front offices should realize that Cowher is a diva who has lost his desire to do the dirty work that goes with coaching. Cowher is almost playing this as if he wants the attention that goes with having his name out there, not with actually doing something to deserve the attention. Sure, he deserves consideration for dealing with the sad death of his wife in July 2010 and it's absolutely possible Cowher has gotten comfortable during his five years away from the game. But it also feels as if Cowher is just playing games. If you want to coach, just say so.
• Tennessee running back Chris Johnson could be headed out of the starting lineup as his ugly season continued to spiral downward. Johnson had 34 yards on 14 carries and was replaced by Javon Ringer(notes) in the fourth quarter. Ringer finished with 60 yards on 14 carries. Ringer isn't close to Johnson in terms of talent, but that doesn't matter in the least if Johnson isn't performing.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
The Vikings' Percy Harvin scores a 1st quarter rushing touchdown.
Loved: The Vikings lining up Percy Harvin(notes) as the lone running back when they got inside the 20-yard line in the first quarter. The second carry resulted in a 10-yard touchdown off Harvin's nice cutback. Don't take this as an endorsement of Harvin over Adrian Peterson, but it's a good change of pace and it's exactly what the Vikings should be doing with the multitalented Harvin. He needs to avoid the stupid personal foul and the fumble that happened later in the first half, but that's another story.
Loathed: While I love the fact that Fox has former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira in the studio to explain calls, the self-import "Fox Command Center" graphic has to go. Guys, it's football, not the coverage of a war or a NASA launch from the 1970s. Can we lighten things up a bit?
Loved: Watching Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) hit Anquan Boldin(notes) with a 37-yard pass along the right sideline in the third quarter to set up the Ravens' first touchdown as Baltimore put together a terrific comeback. The entire gain came on the strength of Flacco's pinpoint passing. When Flacco is right, few players throw the deep ball as well as he does. He has a monster arm and throws a nice spiral when he gets a chance to release correctly. However …
Loathed: Watching Flacco play so poorly in the first half. He lost a fumble that set up one touchdown for Arizona and threw an interception. Part of the Ravens' flawed passing game can be blamed on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. But Flacco needs to execute at a much higher level early in games than he currently is doing.
Loved: Seeing running back Steven Jackson (159 rushing yards, 2 TDs) get on track early in leading the Rams to their first victory of the season. The Rams had a rough early schedule and more than their fair share of injuries. Regardless, St. Louis has done a good job of assembling a solid roster. It would be unfortunate if a bad year in the midst of rebuilding led to significant upheaval in the coaching staff and/or front office.
Loathed: Ed Hochuli is one of the better referees in the NFL – yeah, Chargers fans, I know you're bitter, but let it go – and a really, really nice guy. However, the NFL has to institute a rule limiting him to 25 words or less on his explanations after challenges. His monologues are getting worse by the year. It's like he's doing an audition for a Broadway play, as if he is ready for a one-man version of "Hamlet."
Loved: Watching Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown do his touchdown dance again this week and some of his other moments of assorted preening. The man has some sizzle to his moves and he's fun. I thought he was going to be pretty good when I saw him in training camp. Thanks for making me look good, Antonio. That's not an easy thing to do.
Loathed: Watching Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark(notes) continue to lead with his helmet when hitting an opponent. Clark, who appeared to have used this technique on at least two occasions, is a good player and deserves admiration for overcoming injuries. But his tackling is getting worse by the year and he's flirting with becoming a bona fide cheap-shot artist.
Loved: Talking to Minnesota Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson(notes), who might be the best to ever play the position (yeah, right up there alongside former New England great John Hannah). The cool part is that our conversation included the Food Network as a topic. Hutchinson is a good friend of chef Guy Fieri, the host of "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" and "Guy's Big Bite."
Loathed: That things are so bad in Indianapolis that Donald Brown(notes) is back in the mix as a serious player on offense. Brown led the Colts with 10 carries, a season-high for him. While that's hardly a significant fact, particularly in another loss for Indy, it's telling in a small way. Brown, a former first-round pick, is emblematic of how thin the Colts' roster has become in recent years after picking so low year after year. He has displayed little or no toughness in his two-plus seasons and has benefitted from being on a really good team that covered his deficiencies.
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