The Pittsburgh Steelers continue to be one of the NFL’s most difficult teams to figure out. Coming off an embarrassing home loss to New Orleans they traveled to Cincinnati to take on the division-leading Bengals and blew them out of Paul Brown Stadium 42-21. Following a formula that proved effective in their previous road win at Tennessee, the Steelers rode Le’Veon Bell who has become a bona fide superstar. Trailing 21-17 entering the fourth quarter the Steelers outscored Cincinnati 25-0, with 13 and 22-yard touchdown runs from Bell sandwiched around a 94-yard Ben Roethlisberger-to-Martavis (or Martinis as spellcheck kept correcting me on Twitter) Bryant touchdown pass. Bell carried seven times for 110 yards and two touchdowns in that fourth quarter and finished with 235 yards from scrimmage. He joins Walter Payton in 1977, as the only other player in NFL history to go over 200 yards from scrimmage in three consecutive weeks. The Steelers offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage and kept Ben Roethlisberger clean all day and the defense, bolstered by the return of Steve McLendon, held the Bengals running game in-check and was able to harass Andy Dalton. The defense continues to give up big plays in the passing game including 56 and 81-yard completions to A.J. Green, but they also forced two fourth quarter turnovers to help seal the victory. This one wasn’t technically a must-win for the Steelers, but it sure felt that way and the Steelers delivered in a big way to keep themselves squarely in the picture for the AFC North title and the playoffs.
Ike Taylor suffered shoulder and knee injuries (and probably a pretty severe bruise to his ego as he was torched by A.J. Green). He left the game in the fourth quarter.
Steve McLendon, Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier returned to action. Shazier was limited to special teams duty. Marcus Gilbert and James Harrison were inactive due to injury. Dri Archer was a healthy inactive. Cortez Allen was placed on season-ending injured reserve on Saturday.
*Last week the statistical numbers were impressive, but much of the damage was done in the fourth quarter when the outcome was no longer in doubt. This week a lot of it was again done in the final quarter, but it mattered. The Steelers finished with 42 points, their third highest total of the season and 538 total yards. They rushed for 193 yards against a Bengals defense that has been very stout against the run in recent weeks and were able to control the line of scrimmage and close things out just as they had in Tennessee. They also converted 3 of 4 red zone opportunities.
*I’m running out of superlatives for Le’Veon Bell. I’m not sure Bell’s done enough to insert himself in the league MVP discussion, but I have to believe today’s effort sealed the deal for him to be first team All-Pro. Bell finished with 185 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 26 carries and added six catches for 50 yards and another TD. It’s Bell’s fourth 100-yard game of the season and he now has 1,924 yards from scrimmage second most in Steelers history, trailing only Barry Foster who amassed 2,034 in 1992. Bell’s patience, power and vision were again all on display. His three touchdowns showed the versatility to his game. The first came on a read-route option where he was matched up with a linebacker on a pass route. Mismatch, touchdown. The second was a 13-yard run where he was contacted just inside the 10-yard line and basically just ran through/over Bengals linebacker Ray Maualuga and the third was a 22-yard run over the left side where he burst around end and outran everyone to the goal line. If I’m trying to find a flaw in Bell’s game, and believe me this is nitpicking, he doesn’t have all-world elite speed. But I’m not sure I can come up with a comparable player in the league over the last 30 years. Some combination of Eddie George and Marshall Faulk? Marcus Allen? Edgerrin James? Bell is a star.
*The Steelers run blocking was exceptional. They ran the counter over their left side all day and the Bengals couldn’t stop it. David DeCastro was a beast pulling, Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and Will Johnson all did an excellent job in scraping and sealing to create lanes for Bell. The Steelers finished with 193 yards on the ground averaging 6.2 yards/attempt.
*No sacks. The pass blocking wasn’t perfect as Ben was under pressure on multiple occasions, but they finished the game with a clean sheet.
*The Steelers opening touchdown drive gets lost in the flurry of fourth quarter points, but was one of the better drives of the season. They converted a 3rd-and-6 to Markus Wheaton, bringing him across the formation in a well-designed play that gained 16 yards with Wheaton doing a great job getting extra yardage after the catch. On the next play Ben hit Lance Moore on play-action for 29 yards down the middle. Four plays later, after a heavy dose of Bell, they again went play-action and found Heath Miller wide open for the score. 9 plays, 75 yards.
*Roethlisberger has had accuracy issues over the past month and hadn’t connected on any of his deep throws of late, but he made a perfect throw to Martavis Bryant on the 94-yard touchdown.
*Ben Roethlisberger was solid finishing 25-39 for 350 yards, 3 TDs and no INTs, but he did have some accuracy issues again early and the Steelers didn’t convert on three chances just form the Bengals 4 yard line just before the half. Ben threw three uncatchable balls and on third down didn’t see a wide-open Heath Miller crossing at the goal line.
*The Steelers defensive line, buoyed by the return of Steve McLendon, did a good job of stopping the Bengals running game limiting them to 86 yards on 21 carries. Stephon Tuitt got by far the most playing time of his career and acquitted himself well and Cameron Heyward was his usual solid self. This may thankfully mark the end of the Cam Thomas Era.
*Arthur Moats played well filling in for James Harrison and was involved in both Steelers turnovers. He finished the day with four tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
*Antwon Blake came in late for an injured/benched Ike Taylor and had a big third down pass break up on a deep pass to A.J. Green in the fourth quarter. The Bengals punted and on the next play Ben connected with Bryant for the 94-yard touchdown.
*The Steelers secondary. For the fourth game in a row the Steelers gave up a touchdown pass over 65 yards. Andy Dalton connected on two long passes to Green. The first was a 56-yarder where Troy Polamalu couldn’t keep up with Green and Mike Mitchell was caught out of position. Neither safety even bothered to look back and find the football as they tried to catch up to Green. The second was an 81-yard touchdown where Ike Taylor missed his chuck at the line, Green blew by him and Mitchell again got caught leaning the wrong way. When Mitchell tried to recover to make the tackle he fell and Green strolled into the end zone. The Steelers pass defense continues to be terrible. The safeties have been awful all year (and for a couple years running now) and Ike Taylor has been a disaster since returning from injury. With Cortez Allen out for the year, the Steelers don’t have many options. Opposing QBs should be licking their chops the rest of the season.
*Andy Dalton scored on a 20-yard read-option touchdown run in the second quarter that marked the longest TD run by a Bengals quarterback in their history. Jason Worilds got caught crashing down on the line of scrimmage, but Troy Polamalu is the player who really got victimized. 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage Polamalu bit on the play fake and attacked toward the right side of the line of scrimmage. That left the whole middle of the field open and Dalton scored without a Steelers defender in the same zip code. Teams have repeatedly used Polamalu’s aggressiveness against him this year and he doesn’t have the speed to make up for it.
*Shaun Suisham’s 44-yard field goal in the fourth quarter got the Steelers within one, 21-20. He continues to be one of the most dependable in the game.
*Antwon Blake had an opportunity to down a Brad Wing punt inside the three yard line but inexplicably slowed up after the ball bounced and it ended up rolling into the end zone. The Bengals immediately went 80 yards for a touchdown.
*Mike Tomlin became only the 7th coach to lead his team to at least eight wins in each of his first eight seasons. He joins George Allen, Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren, John Madden, George Seifert and Don Shula as the only coaches to accomplish the feat and is only the fourth to do it with the same team.
*Todd Haley’s play calling was excellent. The Steelers were able to establish the run and had great success mixing in play-action.
*The Steelers were only called for three penalties for 20 yards.
*In the game’s least surprising news, the Steelers mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half. After completing a 15-yard pass to Markus Wheaton for a first down at the Bengals 23 with 1:33 left, they burned their second timeout. It was a terrible decision and impacted how everything played out the rest of the drive which saw the Steelers settle for a field goal. The Steelers should have let the clock run. They had plenty of time to run their offense and would have had two timeouts to manage the clock. Sean Payton did it expertly just last week against the Steelers, but they obviously weren’t taking notes.
*The Steelers twice opted not to challenge when they may have won. On the play before Heath Miller’s opening touchdown, Le’Veon Bell appeared to score but was marked down inches short. It was a first down, but with the Steelers difficulties in the red zone I would have challenged. Later in the game it appeared the Steelers might have picked off a pass that was juggled and returned it for a touchdown. The whistles were blown and the touchdown never would have stood, but it appeared the ball never hit the ground and the Steelers might have been awarded possession.
Big Officiating Calls
*The officials didn’t have a big impact in this one.
The Steelers will take on the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, December 14 at The Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Kick-off is scheduled for 1:00 EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & 970 ESPN before every Steelers game and on weekdays on 970 ESPN from 3-6 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.