The Pittsburgh Steelers are back in the playoffs in the Wildcard round this year, having made it back there for two consecutive years, but they are looking for their first playoff victory since the 2011 season. You might not want to whine about that to a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals fan, however, a franchise that has been bereft of a playoff victory for the past 25 years.
In the modern era, the Steelers have been very successful in games in which they have met the same team for the third time in a season, with their first loss in such situations coming just last year to the Ravens. They are overall 9-2 in such games, dating back to a 1947 loss to the Eagles. That includes three victories over the Houston Oilers in the 70s and 80s.
While Pittsburgh is down to its third-string running back, Cincinnati is being forced to go with AJ McCarron at quarterback, a second-year late-round draft pick. He has played reasonably well, having started the past three games and played most of the game against the Steelers, but there is no doubt that the Bengals are a worse team with him at quarterback than with Andy Dalton. The playoff experience differential between him and Ben Roethlisberger is significant.
For the Steelers, Williams is the only player down who is not a healthy scratch. The Bengals have Dalton and tight end Ryan Hewitt out due to injury.
RB DeAngelo Williams
QB Mike Vick
T Byron Stingily
DE L.T. Walton
WR Sammie Coates
LB L.J. Fort
CB Doran Grant
QB Andy Dalton
WR Mario Alford
DT DeShawn Williams
T Eric Winston
TE Ryan Hewit
DT Marcus Hardison
DE Margus Hunt
The Steelers, as with nearly every game this season, began the game with the football. Markus Wheaton was back to return, but the kickoff went out of the back of the end zone, so the Steelers started from the 20.
On the first play of the playoffs, Roethlisberger fired off a quick screen pass to Martavis Bryant that picked up four yards up the left sideline. Fitzgerald Toussaint was smothered by Vontaze Burfict, who was not fooled by Roethlisberger’s read-option look. On third and eight after a loss of two, the Steelers went with four wide receivers, and could not connect with Darrius Heyward-Bey against Adam Jones after a hard pump fake. Jordan Berry‘s punt was fair caught at the 36-yard line after a net of 42 yards.
On first down, McCarron fired off a quick pass to AJ Green for five yards, tackled immediately by William Gay, who opened on the left side. In the base, with a fullback, Ryan Shazier was the first to get on Jeremy Hill for a short loss to set up third and six. After a false start, McCarron scrambled out of pressure to find Tyler Eifert, who was able to pick up 10 yards, but was stopped short of the first down. Antonio Brown returned the ensuing put a few yards to about the 19.
On first down, on the second series, Toussaint got the carry again and ran for nine yards up the left side, the longest of his tenure with the Steelers. On second and short, Roethlisberger completed a short screen to Brown, who just barely picked up the yard for the first down.
On the following play, Roethlisberger overthrew Bryant on a bubble screen, the pass sailing out of bounds. Another designed screen went to Brown, who followed his blocks for five yards to make for a manageable third-down opportunity with five yards to go. Set five wide, with three tight ends, the pass went to Heath Miller, but he was held well short of the first down. Berry came on again as the rain poured down, bouncing back up the field before being downed just past the 20, but Shamarko Thomas drew his third flag of the season for interfering with the catch.
Starting from the 29 after the penalty, the Steelers were able to make the stop on first down, but McCarron connected with Marvin Jones for 13 yards on second down. From the 36 after a false start, a seven-yard reception was picked up after a delay of game penalty on James Harrison, making it first and 10 again at the 41. Cameron Heyward bowled his way into the backfield to force a throwaway. On second down, the Steelers blitzed, with Lawrence Timmons coming in. McCarron escaped initially, but Harrison eventually was the one to bring him down for the sack and a loss of two. Timmons came off the field for the third down play, a screen to Eifert that was able to pick up the first down with quality downfield blocking.
From the Steelers’ 45, the defense was able to stop Hill for a loss of one, but Eifert came up with a tough catch to set up third and three. From the 38, Robert Golden made an excellent play to break on the throw and bat the pass down in front of the receiver to force a punt after a quality drive. The punt bounced in the favor of the Bengals, downed at the six.
Out of a three-tight end set, Toussaint found space for another nine-yard run up the middle. On second and one, however, he was popped by George Iloka coming off the edge on a run blitz for a loss. On third and two, Roethlisberger waited for Toussaint to clear his blocking responsibility to hit him in stride with running room for the conversion and a big gain.
On the following play, Toussaint went for six yards up the middle to the 47. Jordan Todman entered the game and made two nice cuts for an impressive run that fired him up, his first game active since Week 12. After the play, Mike Munchak was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after grabbing Reggie Nelson, who escorted Todman out of bounds.
The loss of 15 yards put the Steelers back to their own 46, but Todman picked up another nine on first down. Toussaint back on the field showed a bit of patience looking for the hole to punch through for the first down. Will Johnson was deemed doubtful to return with a hamstring injury, leaving the Steelers with no fullback bodies.
From the Bengals’ 40, Todman was just able to fall forward for one yard. He was good for just three on a second-down draw. With both backs on the sideline for third and six, Roethlisberger was sacked by a blitzing Nelson, but the Pro Bowl safety hobbled away injured after the play.
Punting from the 46, Tate fair caught the pass at the 13, but a hold on the Bengals pushed them back to half the distance. From the six-ish, Bud Dupree made the tackle after a two-yard gain. Brandon Boykin made the second-down tackle to set up a third and three. McCarron’s pass to Eifert was incomplete. A deep punt bounced and rolled all the way down to the 35.
Toussaint got the carry trying to bounce it outside for two yards. On second and eight, with the pressure building on a blown screen, Roethlisberger grounded the ball. His third-down pass was errant in the direction of Wheaton, out of bounds. A three-and-out for the offense set Berry back on the field, his kick caught at the 20 and returned to the 29.
McCarron bobbled the snap on first down, but recovered for a short loss. On second down, Heyward was able to sack McCarron, knocking the ball out, but recovered by the Bengals 12 yards back. On third and 23, Giovani Bernard picked up 14, but well short of the first down as the defense recorded another three-and-out. Brown fielded the ball at about the 28 and was tackled at the 34.
Toussaint found some space for four yards on first down. Roethlisberger found Brown, but Dre Kirkpatrick made a nice tackle on Brown to hold him short of the first down. But a defensive hold wiped the play off the board and gave the Steelers a first down. From the 43, Toussaint was fortunate to just get back to the line of scrimmage. On second down, Roethlisberger held on to the ball for too long looking for something opening, hammered for a sack and a loss of five. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Domata Peko, however, gave the Steelers 15 yards and a first down, a potentially big momentum swing.
Moving to the Bengals’ 46, Roethlisberger looked to check down to Toussaint, but the ball was batted down. Another screen pass went to Wheaton, who was bottled up by the Bengals defense. He dodged the first defender, but he lost control of the ball trying to balance himself. He fumbled and the Bengals recovered.
Following the turnover, Dupree made the run stop on first down for a loss of two. Heyward pressured McCarron up the middle to force an incompletion to set up third and 12. On the play, McCarron badly underthrew an ill-advised pass that was easily intercepted by Antwon Blake, who was able to return the ball to the Bengals’ 46.
Toussaint picked up four yards on first down. Todman checked in and made a nice cutback run for the first down to the 29-yard line. Now in field goal range, Todman was stopped near the line after just a yard, but Ramon Foster was flagged for a personal foul, backing the Steelers up 15 to the 43, a big swing of momentum. On second and 25, play action helped open Brown for an explosive play for 23 yards to set up third and two. Roethlisberger just threw down the field hot under pressure, hoping to draw a flag, but none was thrown as Brown and Jones hand fought. Chris Boswell entered the field to kick the 39-yard field goal in the rain from the left hash mark, which was true and good for the first points of the Steelers’ postseason, producing a 3-0 lead with less than three minutes to play in the half.
Boswell’s first kickoff of the game was sent out of the back of the end zone for the touchback with 2:27 to play. Shazier was immediately on Bernard after a short reception to make the tackle in the middle of the field. On second and six, he very nearly intercepted McCarron, in great position in coverage, to set up third and six. His third-down pass was high and incomplete in the direction of Green, forcing a punt, as the Steelers get plenty of time to try to add to their lead in advance of the conclusion of the half.
In the meantime, Toussaint was reported to have been taken to the locker room to go through the concussion protocol. Already down Johnson, everything is down to Todman. Brown fair caught the punt at the 26-yard line.
But Toussaint just caught a check down for 16 yards, so…nevermind? On the next play, Miller caught his second pass of the game for four yards, with Kirkpatrick staying down after making the tackle. On second and six, Roethlisberger hit Brown in motion for the first down and a bit more, getting out of bounds to conserve the clock, though with three timeouts in hand.
From past midfield, at the 44, Roethlisberger tried to check down to Toussaint, but could not secure the slightly misfired pass. A sharp pass to Brown for the first down was negated by an illegal formation penalty, wiping out a 17-yard catch. On second and 15, Wheaton made a very tough catch in traffic, taking a big hit from Shaun Williams, which also drew an unnecessary roughness penalty for hitting a defenseless player. The penalty was unquestionable upon replay, drawing half the distance to the goal.
From the 12, Roethlisberger tried to find Brown running away from him, but the pass fell incomplete. On second down, Toussaint got the draw, but for just a yard, as the Steelers used their first timeout, setting up third and nine. Roethlisberger threw directly to Vincent Rey on third down, which he evidently never saw, who fortunately dropped the pass, which should have been an easy interception. Boswell came on to make his second field goal to give the Steelers a 6-0 lead, but not coming away with a touchdown there still felt like a failure. With 33 seconds left in the half, the Bengals have a chance to score.
Boswell’s second kickoff went through the end zone again. The Bengals chose to end the half, knowing they will start with the ball.