In one of the craziest and most-dramatic games I’ve ever seen, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 18-16 at rain-soaked Paul Brown Stadium Saturday night in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs. As a boy I attended the Immaculate Reception game which, for me, will never be topped as a dramatic, incredibly unlikely ending. Ten years ago I watched Jerome Bettis fumble and Ben Roethlisberger make a temporarily game-saving tackle followed by the game’s most-accurate career field goal kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, shank a game-tying 46 yard field goal to put the Steelers one step closer to the Super Bowl. Straight nuts. Saturday’s game will join those and a few others in the Pantheon of Incredible Steelers Endings. But while the drama was off the charts, there was a lot not to like about this game. I’m sure for the League and most fans, this isn’t what they want to see—a game marred by personal fouls, serious injuries and officials having a huge impact on the outcome.
The Steelers defense played as well as they’ve played all season in the first half, but in the second all of a sudden they couldn’t get a stop when they needed one. The offense moved the ball, but was ineffective in the red zone and couldn’t get a three score lead. But in the end both units, and special teams, came through big. The defense got the most unlikely of turnovers, it’s fourth, to give the Steelers the slimmest of hope. The offense, with an injured Ben Roethlisberger returning to the game, drove to a point on the field where maybe there would be the chance for a Hail Mary or, best-case, a long-range, game-winning field goal attempt. And then the Steelers got a little help.
The Bengals imploded.
But it’s not as if we couldn’t see this coming. Right before the Martavis Bryant TD I tweeted:
— David Todd (@DavidMTodd) January 10, 2016
— David Todd (@DavidMTodd) January 10, 2016
And then it actually happened. A personal foul on Vontaze Burfict for this hit on Antonio Brown, coupled with an unsportsmanlike penalty on Adam Jones, and the Steelers went from the Bengals 47 to their 17 with 18 seconds left. Chris Boswell, as he has done all season, came on and calmly knocked a 35-yard field goal dead through the middle of the uprights securing an 18-16 Steelers victory. (How calm and composed is Boswell by the way? He didn’t even raise his arms after the game-winner. Ho-hum.)
The win means the Steelers will advance to take on the Broncos in Denver next Sunday in the Divisional Playoff round. The Steelers beat the Broncos on December 20, 34-27 at Heinz Field. This time Peyton Manning will be at the helm in place of Brock Osweiler. But there is this. Manning is 0-5 in playoff games with the temperature is below 40 degrees. The high Sunday at Mile High? Expected to be 35.
*After losing running back DeAngelo Williams last week, the Steelers suffered two more potentially devastating injuries this week. Late in the third quarter Ben Roethlisberger was sacked by Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict, landing hard on his throwing shoulder. The tackle by Burfict was hard, but clean. However, after getting Roethlisberger on the ground, Burfict rotated his body and appeared to jam his left knee intentionally into Ben’s right shoulder while trying to take the ball away.
I can’t imagine this goes unnoticed by the League Office. Roethlisberger left the game, only returning when the Steelers got the ball back with just over a minute remaining. Various reports suggest he suffered an acromioclavicular joint separation or AC separation, more commonly a sprained or separated shoulder (here is a primer). It’s no surprise the Steelers aren’t saying much more. My expectation is that Ben will do very little during the week and most likely try to do some throwing on Friday. Even if he plays, he’s unlikely to be 100%. Having said that, I do expect him to start in Denver and give it a try.
Antonio Brown went into the concussion protocol after suffering this hit, also from Burfict, in the last minute of the game. Some have defended Burfict, but I really can’t see how. Even ignoring his extended rap sheet, to me this seem like clear intent. The good news is that teammates said Brown appeared fine in the locker room after the game. I expect him to be full-go on Sunday.
Will Johnson suffered what is being termed a Grade 2 hamstring injury in the first quarter and did not return. He had an injection in his right leg Sunday and is hoping to play, but I would put his chances at less than 10%. This injury generally takes multiple weeks for a full recovery. Robert Golden suffered a shoulder sprain and had his arm in a sling on Sunday. He expects to play this week. We’ll see. Fitzgerald Toussaint was said to be in the concussion protocol during the game, but was back playing almost immediately after it was announced.
The offense was able to move the football, but their ineffectiveness on third downs and in the red zone kept Cincinnati in the game. They were surprisingly effective running the football with the tandem of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman (and a big gain by Martavis Bryant) averaging 5.8 yards/att and they made enough big plays to provide themselves opportunities deep in Bengals territory. But they finished the game 1-4 in the red zone and needed some help from the Bengals to pull it out at the end. They did convert a third down and a fourth down on the final drive and that proved crucial for the win.
*Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman introduced themselves to the football-watching public in a big way. Unless you are a die-hard follower of the Big Ten you probably never heard of Toussaint until a week ago. In his regular-season career, with Baltimore last year and the Steelers this year, he’s had 24 carries for 54 yards. He did appear in the playoffs for the Ravens last year, carrying twice for 5 yards. His biggest claim to fame before Saturday is that he is the University of Michigan’s last 1,000 yard rusher, accomplishing the feat in 2011. On Saturday he carried 17 for 58 yards, constantly using two hands to protect the football and, as importantly and somewhat surprisingly, he caught 4 balls for 60 yards. On the final drive he made what might be the most overlooked play of the game. With 54 seconds left the Steelers faced a 3rd-and-2 from their own 17. Ben lofted a pass over Fitzgerald’s head on the right sideline and he made an excellent adjustment and catch for a 7-yard gain and a first down. He was also excellent in pass protection providing the key block on the play where Markus Wheaton caught a pass over the middle and the Bengals were called for unnecessary roughness.
In his first career playoff game Todman was great spelling Toussaint. After being inactive the last five games of the regular season, he gained 65 yards on just 11 carries after just gaining 22 yards on 4 carries during the season. The Steelers running back depth has been tested all season and each guy has met the challenge. Toussaint and Todman did it in a big way on Saturday.
*Antonio Brown finished with 7 catches for 119 yards, but the play that will be remembered is the one where Ben overthrew him at the end of the game and he was drilled in the head by Burfict. Brown’s best play occurred when the Bengals came with a blitz in the third quarter and Ben was able to get rid of the ball quickly and find AB in space. There is nothing like watching him in the open field. 60 yards later he was tackled at the 10 and the Steelers scored their only TD two plays later.
*We often hear the phrase, “solid, but not spectacular,” and that may describe Ben Roethlisberger’s evening. Martavis Bryant’s night was the opposite. Bryant was a non-factor for much of the game, but had a huge impact because of two plays. On the Steelers first play of the second half they ran what really should be described as a toss-sweep to the left side. Bryant got the edge and exploded for 44 yards down to the Bengals 20 leading to a FG that would put the Steelers up 9-0. His TD catch, the Steelers only TD of the game, defies description. Have a look.
*Ben coming back with an arm held in place with duct tape is the stuff of lore. And he did lead the Steelers to a game-winning drive which supersedes all else. But while last week Ben was erratic with some really good and really bad throws, this week he was “solid, but not spectacular.” Until the end it was a pedestrian performance highlighted by the fact that he didn’t turn the ball over (although at the end of the first half Vincent Rey drop an easy pick as Ben tried to force one to AB in the red zone.) He only threw deep five times, completing one. His QB rating of 43.1 is probably a truer reflection of his play than his passer rating of 92.0
*The offensive line dominated in the run game after struggling last week.
*Not the best night for Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Wheaton only caught 2 balls in 5 targets for 23 yards, although he did do an excellent job of holding on when he was crushed by Shawn Williams on his second catch. On his first catch he fumbled, one of two Steelers turnovers. Heyward-Bey dropped a pass on the Steelers opening drive and finished with no catches on two targets.
*After going just 2-8 on third down conversions in each of the last two weeks of the regular season, the offense was just 2-13 in this one. The silver lining? One of those conversion came on the game-winning drive with 54 seconds left and they then converted their only fourth down attempt with just 28 seconds left.
*It is hard to come in off-the-bench in those weather conditions and perform at a high-level. But after what we had seen from Landry Jones during the regular season I expected better. His interception should have cost the Steelers the game. It was an excellent play by Burfict, but it was a poor throw by Jones.
*The Steelers need to be better than 1-4 in the red zone.
The Steelers defense continues to be incredibly enigmatic, but the formula for success never changes. Create turnovers. In this one they got four. In the first half they played as well as they have all year—flying around, tackling well, stuffing the run game, and getting pressure on QB. It resembled what they did in the second half against Denver. In the second half turnovers saved the day as the Steelers couldn’t stop the Bengals. it was good enough and in the end I give the nod to the defense for winning the game.
*Ryan Shazier was a monster and the Steelers best player on the night. We saw Shazier’s potential with his dominating performance against the 49ers in the home opener. This one was even better and on a bigger stage. He finished the game with 13 tackles, 9 solos, 2 for loss, 2 passes defensed, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble one fumble recovery and a partridge in a pear tree. He made the play of the game stripping Jeremy Hill when it seemed a lost cause in the last two minutes (and he would’ve recovered it too if Mike Mitchell didn’t knock it out of his hands). He also delivered a crushing blow on Gio Bernard (I think it should have been flagged, more below) knocking him out and recovering the fumble which showed have gone for a TD, but the refs blew the whistle. Great game.
*It was a big night for some other former first-round picks as well. I’ve seen many suggest that Jarvis Jones had a “great” game. I wouldn’t go that far, but Jones did make probably the biggest play of his career with a strip-sack of A.J. McCarron leading to a FG. Bud Dupree also had probably his best game as a pro registering three tackles, one for loss. I’ve been critical of the OLBs production for much of the season. They were better Saturday.
*Last week the Steelers had a ton of missed tackles against the Browns. I asked Mike Tomlin at his Tuesday presser about practicing tackling expecting a brief, “they are professionals, they know how to tackle, they just have to do it better,” type answer. Surprisingly he gave a very expansive answer talking about all the work they do every day, practicing form, technique, positioning, etc. It paid off Saturday as the Steelers tackled as well as they have all year.
*A largely unnoticed but significant defensive play occurred on the Bengals second drive. They moved the football into Steelers territory and faced a 3rd-and-3 from the Steelers 38. A.J. McCarron threw right to the sticks to Tyler Eifert, but Robert Golden was there and made an excellent play to break up the pass. This is the type of play the Steelers defense has not made enough of over the recent years, conceding way too many first downs. Good on Golden for knowing the game situation, down and distance. A first down there and the Bengals are in FG range. (Although I think Marvin Lewis made an horrific decision to punt in that situation. No guts.)
*The Steelers were 4th in NFL in fewest 3-and-outs this season (16.32% of drives). Six Bengals drives (not including the two at the end of each half) ended with a punt or turnover after three plays, including five in the first half. Big improvement.
*Run defense was excellent giving up 91 yards on 24 carries with included a 14-yard gain on 3rd-and-23.
*The Steelers only forced the Bengals to punt one time in the second half. They did get three turnovers, but on their last three drives before the Hill fumble they went TD, FG, TD. When the Steelers needed a stop most, with the game on the line, they couldn’t get one. Until, of course, they did.
*William Gay likes to take chances and it often pays off in a big way. He got burned a few times with his aggressive approach in the second half looking to “sit on” or anticipate routes. He and Mike Mitchell did a poor job on A.J. Green on the Bengals second TD. I’m guessing Mitchell was mostly at fault, but that just can’t happen at that point in the game.
*Chris Boswell was great. All you had to see was Blair Walsh hook a routine 27-yard game winner past the uprights on Sunday to appreciate what Boswell has done this season. 4-4 Saturday night in not-ideal conditions. Boswell. Bingo. He also had 4 touchbacks in 5 kickoffs. Best we’ve seen all season.
*Vince Williams made a crushing hit on the opening kickoff of the second half.
*The Steelers coverage units have been very good this year, but the punt unit was not on Saturday. With 3:42 left leading 15-10 the Steelers punted from their own 27. Jordan Berry’s 42-yard punt was returned 24 yards by Adam Jones to the Steelers 45 yard line, setting the Bengals up to take the lead.
*Shamarko Thomas was flagged for his third punt-catch interference penalty on the season. One is bad enough. Three?
*Not AB’s best night returning punts. Early on he made a very dangerous catch of a punt for a short return and later he let two punts bounce with players in the area that could have been disastrous. There is rarely any concern with him back there, but Saturday was not good.
*With the Steelers down 16-15 they could have used a big return from Markus Wheaton to give them good field position. He took it two yards deep and only got out to the 14.
*The defensive gameplan was a great success in the first half. Now Keith Butler has to figure out a way to be creative enough to stymie offenses for a full four quarters.
*I mentioned the tackling was much improved. Some of that credit has to go to the coaches and the continued emphasis they put on getting it right.
*Mike Tomlin showed faith in Toussaint and Todman and they delivered. Credit Kevin Colbert and his staff as well for finding those guys and adding much needed depth to the position.
*Last week I wrote, “I continue to be completely at a loss in explaining Mike Tomlin’s decisions in going for the 2-point conversion.” More of the same. After the Martavis Bryant TD the Steelers were up 15-0, pending the extra point. I understand the logic in going for 2 and making it a three score game, but didn’t agree with it in this situation. With less than six minutes to go in the third quarter and the Bengals having yet to score, I would have kicked the extra point, putting them down 2 TDs and 2 2-pt conversions.
*10 penalties for 142 yards isn’t acceptable.
*One of those penalties was a 15-yard excessive celebration penalty on William Gay and Bud Dupree on a TD that was eventually overturned. Those penalties are selfish and undisciplined, yet they continue to happen. I’m sure Tomlin has told the players repeatedly. I don’t know the right answer to this one.
*Marvin Lewis punted on the Steelers 38 on 4th-and-3 on the Bengals second possession and he kicked a field goal down 15-7 on 4th-and-3 from the Steelers 17 with 5:12 left. Fortune favors the bold. Lewis wasn’t.
Big Officiating Calls:
*Tons of big calls in this one and I imagine Steelers fans are going to disagree with my opinions on some of them. Let me get this out of the way first. Vontaze Burfict is a great player and also maybe the dirtiest player I’ve ever seen. I expect the league to come down with an unprecedented suspension to start next season. There were multiple dirty plays/intent-to-injure situations by Burfict in this one. If you want to see some of his plays that happened before this game, check this out.
*I don’t want to spend too much time going through each of the seven personal fouls but I will give my opinion on the big ones:
*The call against Mike Munchak was fine. I don’t know his intent, but in real time it didn’t look good. I don’t think it was a big deal but I don’t have a problem with the flag.
*The personal foul on Williams for his hit on Wheaton was a bad call. Wheaton made the catch, took three steps and Williams hit him with his shoulder. He wasn’t defenseless and he didn’t lead with the crown of his helmet.
*Ryan Shazier should have been flagged for his hit on Gio Bernard. Shazier clearly led with the crown of his helmet. This is the rule that pertains to that type of play
Straight from the NFL Operations page… pic.twitter.com/00yIZZ3lkN
— The Concussion Blog (@concussionblog) January 10, 2016
Having said that, the refs did blow the rest of the call as well. If they didn’t flag it, they shouldn’t have blown the whistle. I suspect they didn’t see the ball came out, (I didn’t see it in real time) and the realized Bernard might be seriously injured so they blew the whistle quickly so he could get medical attention. A mistake that cost the Steelers a TD, but at least somewhat understandable.
*Burfict absolutely should have been flagged for his hit on AB (And he should have been flagged for excessive celebration after his interception).
*I had no problem with Joey Porter being on the field. It happens all the time. Look at this picture from earlier in the game.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 11, 2016
You can’t even count all the coaches on the field. Adam Jones deserved the penalty he got as well. It was idiotic and unnecessary, but hey, that’s the Bengals.
Up Next: The divisional round of the playoffs. The Steelers will travel to Denver to take on the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, January 17. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:40. I will be hosting the pregame show on WDVE starting at 2:30.
Reminder: You can hear me on the pregame show on WDVE & ESPN 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.