Because of the way it is built, the NFL almost cannot comprehend the forces at work that would allow a team that lost its previous game by 28 points to be favored by 14 points in its next game.
But the Steelers, as we know in the Northwest, are sacred in the NFL. After a most awkward 35-7 loss to Baltimore in their opener, the Steelers are blessed Sunday with a visit from the Seahawks, who at the moment may be the worst team in the NFL. In a sport that worships parity and rarely sees a spread of more than 10 points, this is estimated to be the most noncompetitive game since S. O’Neal vs. D. DeVito.
Even the Seahawks seemed to buy into the aura. The atmosphere, history and talent of the Steelers in Pittsburgh had Seahawks coach Pete Carroll almost rapturous Wednesday.
“Theyre a fantastic team leadership, quarterback, runners, receivers, rushers, terrific safety play,” he said. Playing in Pittsburgh, he went on, “is hard . . . historically, as challenging as it can possibly get. It doesnt get any cooler than that, as far as the fans and the towels. They love their team with a deep connection and they show it when they play. So its an exciting place.”
If it weren’t for the fact that the Seahawks are about to get their faces bashed in, Carroll makes it sound like Christmas and kittens and ice cream. An Up With People concert nearly broke out in the middle of his soliloquy. Still, by now, we have learned to accept Carroll as the human Easter egg hunt, and we wouldn’t have him any other way.
Particularly since nearly everything he said was true, plus the embarrassed Steelers are playing with a mad-on usually reserved for people in long lines at the DMV.
“If you saw Sunday’s tape,” growled Steelers coach Mike Tomlin to Seattle reporters Wednesday, “we’ll take all the edges we can get.”
As to how the oddsmakers, and the rest of us, arrived at such a disparity between the teams, one way to look at it is what happened to the Seahawks in the first quarter Sunday in San Francisco. Not necessarily only the 33-17 final score, but specifically, the consequences of one sprained ankle.
Perhaps the most obscure position on the Seahawks offense is fullback, because he is almost exclusively a blocker, which this season means being the bodyguard for quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. As you may have read, that job is not one wished upon even the IRS.
The job’s occupant, Michael Robinson, is so obscure that most Seahawks fans would be surprised to learn he is one the few returning starters from a season ago, when he played in 11 games, opening four. But since he rushed only 12 times and caught eight passes, he brought minimal attention upon himself.
But when Robinson, a sixth-year guy from Penn State, went out in the first quarter with a sprained ankle, the trap door opened under the Seahawks offense.
“It changes you,” Carroll said. “We had to take some packages out.”
That’s because the Seahawks, like most teams, don’t have a backup fullback. The Seahawks moved newcomer tight end Zach Miller into the breach. The substitution wasn’t the main reason the Seahawks went scoreless in the first half and had 37 yards of offense, but it was close.
“Zach has to take a lot of duties that hes prepared to do, but not deeply well-versed at,” Carroll said. “He can do it, but its different.”
That’s being polite. Miller, the surprise free-agent acquisition from Oakland, wasn’t ready.
“I’d played a little fullback in Oakland, just to mix up the defenses, and I took some reps here in practice,” said Miller after practice Wednesday. “But I’ve never played it anywhere full time. It’s tough to do on certain plays.”
The obligations include much more work against linebackers as well as in open space. The Niners were well aware that the Seahawks started the NFL’s second youngest offensive line since 1995, then added a newbie at fullback. They poured the pressure on Jackson, and it worked.
“Few guys can go quickly from tight end to fullback and make that transition really effectively,” Carroll said. ” Zach hung in there. He got better as the game went
Robinson was also co-captain of the special teams, which Sunday had the worst sports day since the fellow in Portland who drafted Sam Bowie ahead of Michael Jordan, allowing two returns for touchdowns in the final five minutes to decide the game.
“When you add it up,” Carroll said, “(Robinson’s loss) was more of a hit (on special teams) than the fullback spot.”
The Seahawks hired a practice squad refugee, name of Eddie Williams, to help replace Robinson in both spots. But he adds more youth and cluelessness to a group so young/inexperienced/thin at so many positions already that they have little flexibility in the post-lockout confusion that is the regular season.
Reasons are many for being a 14-point underdog in the NFL. The ability to be derailed by a sprained ankle to a fullback is just one.
It’s good that Carroll can whistle a happy tune about the “opportunity to learn” in Pittsburgh. If he can’t, nobody can. But if I were Tarvaris Jackson, I’d learn the one-step-drop pass.