While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have already been assured of a playoff spot, their regular season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals is a big one, as it determines the fate of the AFC North. Should the Steelers win, they will secure their first division title, and home playoff game, since 2010, and they would host the Baltimore Ravens. If they lose, they will be playing in Indianapolis next weekend. Obviously, Pittsburgh would love to host at least one more home game this season.
The Steelers are down two players in the secondary with Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu sitting, but the secondary has held up comparably well without them. The Bengals are banged up and ill, despite coming off an impressive victory last week, but the Steelers have won seven of their last nine games and held their last three opponents to 21 points or less.
The Steelers won the coin toss and received the ball, taking over just shy of the 20-yard line. Opening with three receivers, Le’Veon Bell got the opening handoff up the left side for a six-yard gain. Ben Roethlisberger threw to Bell on second down, and with a couple of downfield blocks, was able to gain 22 yards. The two connected again on the following play, but could only gain two yards. On second and eight, Roethlsiberger threw to Heath Miller, who failed to hang on to the pass over the middle. On third down, Roethlisberger’s pass over the top to Antonio Brown was tipped down the field and the receiver couldn’t adjust.
The Bengals were pinned inside their own 10 after the Brad Wing punt. Vince Williams started in the base defense. Brice McCain had good coverage down the field to A.J. Green on first down. Jeremy Hill had little room to run on second down to set up third and long. Will Allen wrapped up the back on a pass by the ankle to force the three and out. Brown, knocking Shamarko Thomas to the ground as he attempted to guide him to a block, returned the ensuing punt 71 yards for the touchdown.
The Bengals returned to offense starting at their own 23 after the special teams score. On first down, Hill found some room off the right side for 11 yards. Jermaine Gresham was tackled immediately after the catch for six yards. On second down, Hill took the read option for about seven yards. He stepped through a tackle across midfield before gaining 23 yards in total close to field goal range. Andy Dalton was under pressure on the following play and forced to throw the ball away. On second down, Dalton threw over the top, but Green stopped his route, and McCain easily picked the ball off, though he was ill advised to take the ball out of the end zone.
Backed up at their own five, Bell got the ball on first down for about four yards up the middle. He squeezed through a crease for another four yards on second down. Brown came off coverage to come back to the ball on third down, but the officials ruled that the ball was off the ground, which was correct. A drop. Wing’s second punt was short, fielded on the Steelers’ side.
On first down, Hill picked up two yards to the 40-yard line. Dalton ran for about four yards to set up a manageable third down situation. Williams made the stop on Hill on third down for no gain, forcing a three and out. However, the Bengals went for it on fourth and three to convert. Hill was smothered at the line after the conversion. He got inside the red zone on second down. On third and six, Dalton fled and pitched late to Giovani Bernard, hurdling William Gay at the goal line for the score to tie the game.
Taking over from the 20, Bell picked up six yards on first down, but Roethlisberger’s second down pass was wide. On third and four, he hit Miller on a roll out to move the chains. After an incompletion,Brown finally caught his first pass on his third target, setting up a third and three. Maurkice Pouncey‘s snap was low and early and bounced off Roethlisberger’s leg, recovered by the Bengals at the 34.
Allen came up to make a nice stop on Bernard at the line of scrimmage on the first play. On second and nine, Green spun out of Allen’s reach, but was still short of the first by five yards. On third and five, Dalton and Green easily connected to move the chains. Inside the 20, Bernard was tackled after a yard or two up the middle. On second down, Cameron Heyward busted through for his 7.5th sack of the season over the Bengals’ rookie center. On third and long, Gay was able to tackle Bernard off a checkdown for little gain as the Bengals settled for a field goal and a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
On first down, Roethlisberger connected with Brown at the first down marker, who evaded a tackle for another three yards. From the 32, Bell spun out of a tackle in the backfield but had nowhere to go, losing a good chunk on the play. On second and 15 now, with Bell split out, Roethlisberger pump faked and threw to Will Johnson to pick up 12 yards. On third and three, he hit Miller on the run down to the Bengals’ 42. Roethlisberger escaped pressure and checked down to Bell, who ran around the initial defender to turn upfield and find space for 26 yards.
From teh 16, Bell got the handoff but could only gain two yards. On second down, Roethlsiberger pump faked, but then threw high to Miller in the end zone. Bell only gained a few yards on the draw as Shaun Suisham tied the game at 10.
The Bengals returned the kickoff close to the 30-yard line after the Steelers’ field goal. Hill found a hole on first down, but Gay made a nice play to make the tackle and minimize the damage to about seven yards. On second down, Dalton went down the field to Green, but the pass was high and off his hands, and McCain was there to pick the ball off, returning it to the 28.
On first down, Brown crossed the middle of the field for an eight-yard reception, his third of the game. On second down, Martavis Bryant took a bubble screen 21 yards for his eighth touchdown of the season, giving the Steelers a 17-10 lead off the turnover.
Hill kept his legs churning for four yards up the middle after the Bryant touchdown. He barreled ahead to set up a third and short, converting on the following play with under five minutes to play in the half. After a timeout, Sean Spence was the first to get there in the backfield for his first career sack. Bernard only gained a few yards on third and 17 with plenty of time left on the clock.
Roethlisberger went to Markus Wheaton for a quick first down as the two minute warning hit. Bell picked up eight on the reception after the break. On second and two, Roethlisberger hit Wheaton across midfield to move the chains. Roethlisberger actually lost the ball on a pump fake for once. He made up for it with a strike to Brown for a first down on the next play out of a clean pocket. Dre Kirkpatrick tipped away a deep pass to Bryant in the end zone. The first penalty of the game was a defensive illegal hands to the face and an automatic first down.
From the 31, Roethlsiberger found Brown again for his fifth catch for 11 yards, with Kirkpatrick not far off, with an excellent throw. Now from the 20, with five wide, Roethlisberger went over the top, and Leon Hall was flagged for impeding Wheaton down the field. The pass interference moved the ball up to the 10. On first and goal, five wide again, Bell was hit for three yards as the Steelers used their second timeout with under a minute to play. Roethlisberger threw to Brown in the left corner of the end zone, but the pass pulled him out of bounds. Now on third and goal from the seven, Ben threw into tight coverage to Brown as the ball bounced into the air. Suisham gave the Steelers a two-possession lead, however, up 20-10 at the halfway point. The attempt bounced off the upright.