The Pittsburgh Steelers punctuated their regular season Sunday night at Heinz Field with a 27-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, clinching their first AFC North title since 2010. The Steelers finished the season on an impressive 8-2 run in their final ten games including winning their last four. Sunday night’s game wasn’t the prettiest, but the Steelers forced three turnovers and came up with the explosive plays that proved to be decisive. The defense continued its improved performance and has now held opponents to 21 or fewer points in four straight and the highlight reel that is Antonio Brown made the two biggest plays of the game. AB opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown and closed it with a 63-yard catch-and-run score with 2:50 left in the fourth to seal the deal. Ben Roethlisberger came into the game with a stomach virus and wasn’t at his best, but still managed to throw for 317 yards and two TDs. However, the biggest news of the night was the injury suffered by running back Le’Veon Bell in the third quarter. Bell was tackled low by Bengals safety Reggie Nelson on a 19-yard reception near midfield and stayed on the ground for an extended time after the hit to his right knee. In his postgame presser Mike Tomlin said Bell suffered a hyperextension of the knee, but no structural damage. He did add he felt the hit was legal. Already short at running back, losing Bell would be a massive blow to the Steelers playoff hopes which will start Saturday night at home against the Baltimore Ravens. The Steelers split with Baltimore during the regular season, losing 26-6 in Baltimore week 2 and winning 43-23 in Pittsburgh week 9. The two teams have met three times in the postseason and the Steelers are 3-0, winning 27-10 in 2001, 23-14 in 2008 and 31-24 in 2010. The saying doesn’t go, “The fourth time’s the charm.”
The injury to Bell appeared to be the only one of note and it’s hard to overstate the impact it could have on the team. The encouraging news is that Bell texted fellow back Josh Harris after the game and said he “was good.” But as always, players are the last ones to consult about an injury.
Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Michael Palmer were inactive due to injury. Matt Spaeth and Dri Archer were active.
*Antonio Brown finished a monster season with another monster performance. After a slow start where he couldn’t pull in a tipped ball for a first down on the Steelers opening drive and a third down drop on the second drive, it felt like AB accounted for virtually the entire Steelers offense. He finished with 7-128 and a 63-yard touchdown, although I’d like to hear either Ben or AB discuss the touchdown as it looked like they may have gotten a little lucky. I can’t believe that was how the play was designed. On the season Brown finished with 129 catches, second-most in NFL history and 1,698 yards, fifth-most in league history. He also added a 71-yard punt return for a TD. It was his third career punt return for a score and all three have come against the Bengals at Heinz Field. More on that TD below.
*The Steelers pass protection was fantastic. Zero sacks on 38 drop backs. Marcus Gilbert and Kelvin Beachum both stood out on the first run through the tape. Beachum, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro each started all 16 games this season.
*I’m not sure any play epitomized Le’Veon Bell’s elusiveness this season more than a simple dump pass he took from Ben in the left flat in the second quarter. Ben was under pressure and Bell was his last outlet. Bell had his a back to the Bengals as he took the pass with Vincent Rey closing fast. In one move he spun away from Rey and ripped off 26 yards down the sideline. Bell only played 2 1/2 quarters but he added another 100 yards from scrimmage, finishing with 2,215 yards the 22nd best season in NFL history. (The Cowboys DeMarco Murray finished with 2,261, 13th best.) Bell also showed his Football IQ at the end of the first half. He caught a ball in the middle of the field, surveyed his options and realized his best choice was to get to the sideline to conserve clock. Smart.
*You won’t see a play blocked better by skilled players than the 21-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant. Bryant caught a wide receiver screen from Ben with Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller out to block. Both locked up their defenders and Bryant got to top speed in just a few strides and went in untouched. Exactly how you draw it up and Bryant’s elite speed continues to mesmerize.
*The Steelers showed great quick-strike capability scoring a touchdown on 2 plays after Brice McCain’s second INT and 3 plays after Antwon Blake’s fumble recovery. Points off of turnovers (POOTOs as my Terrible Podcast partner Dave Bryan has dubbed them) were the difference in this one.
*Steelers are the first team in NFL history with 4,500-yard passer, 1,500-yard receiver & 1,300-yard rusher in same season. The numbers are somewhat arbitrary, but hey, smoke’em if you got’em.
*While the individual stats continue to tantalize, it’s hard not to feel the Steelers offense has underperformed over the last six or seven games. They’ve only put up more than 20 points one time (excluding garbage points vs New Orleans). They are going to need to score more to have success in the playoffs.
*The Steelers turned it over three times. Once on a bad exchange between Pouncey & Ben, once on a bad throw or miscommunication between Ben & AB and once on a botched fake punt. To win in the playoffs they most-likely are going to have to play error-free football.
*I’m sure Ben’s illness played a part, but he wasn’t sharp early and he didn’t throw the deep ball well. He was late and underthrew deep balls to Antonio Brown & Martavis Bryant, among others, that could have resulted in points.
*For the third week in a row the Steelers faced a defense geared to contain Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers running game and for the third week in a row the Steelers haven’t had an answer. Bell finished with 20 yards on eight carries and the offense only gained 29 yards in 18 carries. The Steelers longest run of the day was six yards. That’s consecutive weeks they haven’t had a ten-yard run.
*Brice McCain and Antwon Blake created three turnovers. McCain starting in place of a benched Cortez Allen and injured Ike Taylor was the star with two interceptions. He’ll never have two easier ones. On the first A.J. Green gave up on the pass from Andy Dalton down the right sideline near the end zone leaving McCain all alone. On the second Dalton threw high and it hit off the hands of Green to a waiting McCain. To his credit McCain made the plays. The Steelers haven’t had many gifts this year. The got a couple on Sunday. Blake forced and recovered a fumble by A.J. Green. After the game Blake said he noticed in film study that Green is reckless with the ball. Initially, was going to tackle him but went for strip. It worked. The Steelers scored the clinching touchdown three plays later. Blake finished with seven tackles and a bunch of big hits.
*In their last meeting the Steelers gave up pass plays of 56 and 81 yards to Green. In this one they didn’t give up one pass play of over 20 yards for the first time all season. They also limited the Bengals to 4.8 yards/play (while averaging 6.1 themselves), 5.4 yards/pass attempt (vs. 8.1), sacked Dalton three times (gave up none) and hurried him numerous others. Solid work.
*The Steelers red zone defense wasn’t as good this week as it has been the past couple as the Bengals scored touchdowns on two of three opportunities. But with the score tied 7-7 near the end of the first quarter. Pouncey & Roethlisberger had a bad exchange and the Bengals recovered on the Steelers 34. A big sack by Cameron Heyward on a second down and an excellent open field tackle by William Gay on Gio Bernard on third forced the Bengals to settle for a 39-yard field goal.
*In the redundant category Lawrence Timmons, Heyward and a coming-on Jason Worilds led the defense. Timmons had a team-high 11 tackles, Heyward added seven with a sack, a tackle for loss, a pass defensed and a QB hit and Worlds and five tackles, a sack and a tackle for loss. They are clearly the best players on an improving defense.
*Stephon Tuitt and Will Allen had solid games. Tuitt feels like a star-in-the-making with great quickness and pursuit to the ball. He had a rough start, but settled in as the game moved on. Allen was a force in the run game down in the box, finishing with seven tackles and disrupting a bunch of other run plays.
*Sean Spence ran over Jeremy Hill for his first career sack.
*Ryan Shazier got the most playing time he’s gotten since early in the season and continues to improve. He took most of the snaps in the second half.
*The left side of the Steelers D got run over early, but, to their credit they made adjustments and got better as the game went on.
*Jason Worilds and Blake had a chance to make a big tackle for loss on a third down in third quarter but were unable to make it. The Bengals ran a QB sneak on fourth down to convert.
*The Bengals converted 2-3 red zone opportunities and 2-3 third downs.
*Antonio Brown returned a punt 71-yards for a touchdown. It was Brown’s third career punt return TD & the third the Bengals have given up since 2011. All by Brown at Heinz Field. Terence Garvin threw two big blocks on the play, but other than that it was mostly AB who managed to toss Shamarko Thomas at the punter before blowing by both of them.
*The Steelers did an excellent job controlling Adam Jones and the Bengals return game.
*As always, fakes that don’t work will get criticized. The Steelers ran a fake punt against Cleveland in week 1 with the scored tied at 27, facing 4th-and-10 from their own 20 with 9:25 left in the game. It went for 25. This one involved a lot more movement and it was diagnosed quickly by the Bengals. It didn’t work
*Brad Wing’s punting can most-charitably be described as inconsistent of late.
*The Steelers finished 8-2 in their last ten after going 6-2 in the second half last year. Mike Tomlin said at the beginning of the year, the team wasn’t a finished product. He and his staff deserve a lot of credit for coaching the team up as the season has gone on each of the last two seasons.
*The Steelers made some nice defense adjustments to slow down the Bengals running game after getting gouged early. They also didn’t let Dalton beat them with his feet on the read-option or scrambling from the pocket.
*They were only called for one penalty for 10 yards (although it was a big one). That now makes it a total of only eleven penalties the last four weeks. Penalties were a huge issue early in the season and Mike Tomlin vowed to fix it. He has.
*The Steelers again won the toss and took the ball for the third week in a row. Good idea. Seems like Tomlin has had a philosophical change of heart.
*Clock management. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Bad use of timeouts at the end of the first half. It was a mistake to use the second timeout on the Bengals 7-yard line with 54 seconds left facing a 2nd-and-goal. The offense followed with two incomplete passes which used up only ten seconds and then kicked a field goal. There was no reason to leave the Bengals that much time to operate. *Bangs head against wall*
*When it works you’re a genius. When it fails, you’re the goat. Tomlin got bailed out by the defense creating a turnover.
*On the Bengals side, if you are going to throw a deep post to A.J. Green wouldn’t you rather have your $100 million quarterback do it rather than your wide receiver?
Big Officiating Calls
*It sure looked like Heath Miller was a defenseless receiver when he was crushed by safety George Iloka trying to catch a pass in the end zone. Even the quiet Miller had something to say to the official. No call.
The Steelers will take on the Baltimore Ravens at 8:15, Saturday, January 3rd at Heinz Field in a wild card playoff game.
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.