On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers went into Paul Brown Stadium and beat the Cincinnati Bengals 33-20 in a game where what happened on the field was at least partially overshadowed by lingering animosity from their prior meeting in Pittsburgh six weeks ago. The bad feelings manifested themselves in a pregame dustup, multiple on-field skirmishes and postgame comments/tweets (NSFW). The Bengals won the first matchup 16-10, a game where neither quarterback played well and the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell for the season to a knee injury suffered on a tackle by Vontaze Burfict. While many Steelers said there would be no carryover from that game to this one, that certainly wasn’t the case. Burfict got things started by straying onto the Steelers half of the field in pregame warmups, a big no-no in the NFL. The Steelers were there to “defend their territory” as Mike Tomlin noted in his postgame comments and when Burfict initiated a helmet-to-helmet “chat” with Vince Williams both teams became involved. Burfict continued his antics during the game, constantly playing past the whistle, trying to instigate and antagonize. Most egregiously he appeared to dive at the lower legs of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger in an attempt to injure, a clear cheap shot that somehow wasn’t penalized.
The Steelers weren’t choir boys and multiple players are going to get fined—Antonio Brown who got into a first quarter slapfest with Dre Kirkpatrick, Mike Mitchell who was flagged for targeting Tyler Eifert, a somewhat dubious call as Eifert was going to the ground while making a catch and William Gay who got an excessive celebration penalty, one that will live in Steelers’ lore. He certainly got his money’s worth, still celebrating even as the officials were announcing the penalty.
As for the game on the field, give this one to the defense. Their bend-but-don’t-break ways re-appeared as they picked off three passes which were the key to victory. The Bengals lost two of their offensive stars when QB Andy Dalton left early with a broken thumb suffered tackling Stephon Tuitt after his red zone interception and Tyler Eifert left with a concussion after the Mitchell hit. The Steelers offense started strong, scoring on their opening drive as they did in the first matchup between these two, but they struggled finding the end zone the rest of the way until DeAngelo Williams finally sealed things with his second TD with just under four minutes remaining. Big picture the Steelers won for the 21st time in their last 26 meetings in Cincinnati and this was another step forward in trying to lock-up a playoff spot. They didn’t get much help as both Kansas City and the Jets won, so they are still on the outside looking in. But, next week’s opponent the Denver Broncos lost, so where the Steelers will ultimately end up in the wild card race is a little cloudier, in a good way. Suffice it to say if the Steelers win out they are in and a win over the Broncos will make it much more likely that they are the fifth seed and would play the winner of the AFC South, the draw every wild card team wants.
*Mike Mitchell suffered a shoulder injury and Bud Dupree suffered a lower back/tailbone injury, but neither are considered serious according to Mike Tomlin in the postgame press conference.
The Steelers put up 30+ for the fifth game in a row, but this one was less impressive. They put together a magnificent 11-play, 80-yard opening drive, converting all three third downs, and then went 13 plays and 66 yards on their next drive. But that drive was stalled by a 15-yard personal foul penalty by Antonio Brown and resulted in one of Chris Boswell’s four FGs. From there the Steelers weren’t able to sustain any consistent offensive momentum with only one drive gaining more than 33 yards and Ben Roethlisberger facing more pressure in the second half than he has seen virtually any time this season.
*Ben was very good in this one, but found himself under constant pressure in the second half. He went 20-27 for 190 yards in the first half, breaking his streak of four straight games with 200+ passing in first halves, but did a great job of taking what the Bengals defense gave him. He also again did a solid job of getting the team in position for a FG at the end of the half while operating with no timeouts. In the second half Ben was 10-12 for 92 yards and an interception as he went deep on what turned out to be his last throw of the game. The only question is did he get greedy when the underneath stuff continued to be available and the Steelers were protecting a 16-point lead. For the second week in a row he contributed another nice scramble for a first down.
*Heath Miller tied his career high in receptions with 10, the second time he’s done that this season. He continues to be as dependable as ever catching all 10 targets thrown his way and he’s tough as hell.
*DeAngelo Williams had 91 all-purpose yards, including 23 carries for 76 yards and two rushing TDs. On the first TD he made a nifty cut to avoid a flying Rey Maualuga coming over the top of the pile. Williams has clearly been the Steelers number one offseason addition and is also under contract for next year. A great signing by Kevin Colbert and his staff.
*The Steelers stayed true to their new offensive identity on the opening drive. They got man coverage on the outside on Markus Wheaton on a 3rd-and-1. Ben made a perfect throw down the left sideline and hit him in stride for a 31-yard gain. Shortage yardage generally brings out man coverage in pass defense and the Steelers are looking to exploit it. They did again there.
*Though I don’t think it was a great performance, the offense was 8-14 on 3rd down and 2-3 in the red zone. Solid numbers.
*For the first time in a recent memory the offensive line struggled. They didn’t play poorly as a group, but were likely caught off-guard by the Bengals consistently sending more than four in the pass rush particularly in the second half. Marcus Gilbert gave up his first sack of the season to Carlos Dunlap, but the Steelers did do a good job of controlling Geno Atkins.
*Martavis Bryant still has to do a better job of making the tough catches.
The three turnovers were the key to the Steelers defensive performance. This defense is rarely going to shutdown good offenses, but with sacks and turnovers they have proven they can hold teams to 20 points or less, which should be good enough.
*The defense generated three turnovers for the second week in a row and recorded their first three interception game since 2011. The season total of 14 interceptions is the most by a Steelers defense since snagging 21 in 2010. The defense now has 6 red zone takeaways which has been a huge key to their success.
*The Steelers defense continues to take away the opponent’s run-game forcing them to be one-dimensional. They limited the Bengals to 64 yards on 16 carries. They have yet to allow an opponent 100 yards rushing on the season.
*Stephon Tuitt’s interception was a great play. Tuitt read Gio Bernard not chipping and instead immediately going into the “pattern.” Then Tuitt showed great reaction and hands to actually make the play.
*Late in the first half the Bengals faced a 3rd-and-3 on their own 9 with 1:52 left in the half and the Steelers having no timeouts. A first down and they could run out the half. A.J. McCarron threw a bubble screen to Mohamed Sanu which Ryan Shazier read perfectly and made a great tackle for a 1-yard gain setting up a fourth down. The Bengals were forced to punt and the Steelers drove for a FG. That was a 3-point play by Shazier. Lawrence Timmons had made a very good tackle on the prior play as well.
*William Gay’s pick six was a really good read. Gay is now tied with Rod Woodson for the franchise record of five interceptions returned for TDs. But don’t overlook the pressure by James Harrison on the play. He came off the right edge and forced McCarron to throw before he could get a clean read. Nice job. (Gay almost got burned in a similar situation later in the half as Green went by him as he played the flat, but A.J. missed an open A.J. Green when Mitchell was late with help over the top.)
*Early in the 4th quarter down 26-10 the Bengals had a 3rd-and-goal at the Steelers 5. Cameron Heyward sacked McCarron for a 4-yard loss and the Bengals settled for a FG. Another big play by the Steelers best defensive player.
*Antwon Blake got beat deep again. This time A.J. Green, one of the best in the game, gave him a double move and he bit for just a second. That was enough. It was a really good throw by A.J. McCarron over the top and then both Blake and Mitchell missed the tackle. I really can’t imagine that Blake will continue to get more opportunities.
*Missed tackles continue to be the issue that lead to the opponent’s biggest plays. We saw it again on Sunday.
*Great performance by the specialists. Chris Boswell was 4-4 including three of 40+ and is now 24-26 on the season. When the Steelers media votes on the Steelers rookie of the year Boswell won’t be eligible because he is a first-year guy, but he might be the second most important newcomer behind DeAngelo Williams.
*Jordan Berry only punted twice but the first was a 45-yarder to the Bengals 2 and the second was 53-yarder with no return to the Bengals 27. Great day.
*Nothing of note.
*With the win Mike Tomlin has now won eight games in each of his first nine seasons. Only Dennis Green with Minnesota and John Madden with Oakland have also accomplished that with the same team. Yes, I know they haven’t won a playoff game in five years, but that is impressive.
*Both at the half and after the game I thought Tomlin’s comments about the extracurricular activities between the two teams were appropriate. His team wasn’t blameless, but I certainly think the Bengals instigated much of what went on.
*After the success achieved last week with Brandon Boykin in the slot, it’s baffling that the Steelers started the game with Gay in the slot and Blake and Ross Cockrell on the outside. After the TD over Blake, that changed for the rest of the game.
*It’s now more surprising to see the Steelers not go for two when they score early. They opted to kick the extra point after their opening possession TD again in this one. Why?
Big Officiating Calls:
*Too many to mention and I talked about some up top, but how do the officials miss A.J. Green punting the ball into the stands immediately after his TD? The most egregious miss, though, was Burfict diving at Roethlisberger’s lower legs. Had Ben been injured that game might have completely broken down right there. There has to be a flag for that.
Up Next: Sunday the Steelers host the Denver Broncos (10-3) at Heinz Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:25 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE before every Steelers game and on weekdays on ESPN Pittsburgh 970 and 106.3 FM from 4-7 pm. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.