In an excruciating 16-10 failure at the hands of the still undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers may have lost more than just a game. Pittsburgh’s division title dreams and star running back may have been by-products of one of the more devastating collapses in the team’s troubling 2015 season.
The Steelers started out on fire, as Pittsburgh’s offense utilized 7:14 of the 20:46 they have had all their first-team offensive skill players together this season (via Chris Adamski) to mount a 12-play, 80 yard drive to begin the game. Antonio Brown capped the possession with a one-yard touchdown catch from Ben Roethlisberger to give Pittsburgh the early 7-0 lead.
Cincinnati managed a lengthy drive in response, but Tyler Eifert dropped a third down conversion to force a Mike Nugent 44-yard field goal. The Steelers went three-and-out quickly, and a nice punt return by Adam Jones had the Bengals sitting pretty at the Steelers 39 yard-line. The Pittsburgh defense would respond when Bud Dupree sacked a scrambling Andy Dalton on third down to bring Nugent out for his second triple of the game.
Two Pittsburgh possessions later, Bell went down on the Steelers sideline with what appeared to be an excruciating knee injury on a hit by Vontaze Burfict. The running back remained down for awhile until he was helped to the table and then eventually carted off the sideline.
The Steelers defense held Cincinnati on the opening drive of the third quarter, but Roethlisberger quickly gave the ball back to Cincinnati by underthrowing an interception to safety Reggie Nelson three plays later. The return set Cincinnati up in business at the Steelers 33, but the Pittsburgh defense forced the Bengals offense back 17 yards to force a punt from midfield.
A series of brilliant plays by Heath Miller set up Chris Boswell for a 32-yard field goal and a 10-6 Steelers lead midway through the third quarter. The Bengals tried to respond, but Nugent’s 42-yard attempt was blocked by Cam Heyward near the end of the third quarter to give Pittsburgh the ball back. The Steelers drive ended with a Roethlisberger sack at the Bengals 35, but the coaching staff oddly elected not to try a 52-yard attempt with Boswell, who had nailed a 51-yarder a few weeks ago.
Instead Pittsburgh punted, and the Bengals launched an impressive 78-yard drive, only to have much-maligned cornerback Antwon Blake foil a scoring opportunity with an end zone interception and ensuing 42-yard return. The turnover gave Pittsburgh the ball back with nine minutes left, but the offense went three-and-out quickly, just another disappointing possession in a day full of them.
Dalton gave Pittsburgh the ball right back, tossing a deep shot to A.J. Green that was intercepted by Mike Mitchell. Roethlisberger, not about to be outdone by his AFC North counterpart, escaped the pocket only to throw an ill-advised pass to fullback Will Johnson that was picked off by Shawn Williams.
Unable to withstand being on the field almost the entire second half against one of the best offenses in football, the Steelers defense finally buckled, as Dalton and Green connected on a slant from nine yards out for the go-ahead score.
Down three, Roethlisberger’s horrendous second half continued, as he overthrew everyone right into Nelson’s arms for the safety’s second interception of the day. The return gave Cincinnati the ball at Pittsburgh’s 26, but three plays netted zero yards, forcing Nugent’s third field goal attempt of the game for a 16-10 lead.
Lost in that fine defensive stand was Mike Tomlin inexplicably letting nearly 40 seconds run off the clock after Pittsburgh stopped Jeremy Hill for just one yard on first down. Instead of using one of his three timeouts, Tomlin allowed the clock to run all the way down to the two-minute warning, which meant Pittsburgh ended up getting the ball back with 1:47 left, rather than 2:30-something. It was the kind of poor clock management that, sadly, Tomlin has become known for during his time in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers moved the ball well on the final drive, but Roethlisberger’s last gasp throw to the end zone was several yards out of bounds, capping a brutal 16-10 loss that all but eliminates Pittsburgh from AFC North title contention.
The mistakes were plentiful, and will be covered extensively here this week, but Miller had a great day with ten catches for 105 yards. The defense managed to sack Dalton three times, but were undone by offensive ineptitude that wasn’t expected with Roethlisberger back in the lineup after a four-game absence. The loss of Bell could only complicate what is quickly becoming a season of lost opportunity and players for Pittsburgh, as injuries have dismantled a once loaded offense.