The Pittsburgh Steelers opened the home portion of their 2016 schedule at a rain-soaked Heinz Field Sunday with a 24-16 win of the Cincinnati Bengals. Weather conditions were a big factor as both quarterbacks struggled to deliver the football accurately and each team’s star receiver was basically a non-factor. The difference came down to the Steelers offense’s ability to run the football and score touchdowns and their defense’s ability to stuff the run, got off on third down and keep the Bengals out of the end zone inside the red zone.
The Steelers-Bengals rivalry has risen to one of the marquee rivalries in the NFL, but last year’s three match-ups were marred by numerous personal fouls, injuries and off-the-field barbs and insults. There was little of that Sunday as both teams focused on football, attempting to go one-up in the battle for the AFC North. The Steelers offense never really got untracked as weather conditions forced them to rely heavily on the running game, so much so that they came out running on their first five offensive plays and DeAngelo Williams ended with a career-high 32 carries. The Ben Roethlisberger–Antonio Brown connection was held to just 4 completions for 39 yards while being targeted 11 times, their lowest output since 2012. But, as was the case last year against the Bengals, the Steelers tight ends proved to be a big part of the offense with Ben throwing touchdown passes to Xavier Grimble and Jesse James while a third went to Williams to cap an uneven day for the QB.
The Steelers defense was outstanding. For the second week in a row they held their opponent to 16 points on three field goals and a touchdown. After two weeks they rank first in the NFL in red zone defense, holding the Bengals without a touchdown following Washington’s 1-for-4 conversion rate last week. They used their newly-installed dime defense heavily with first round pick Artie Burns seeing extensive action and held the Bengals to 4-16 on third down, recovering two fumbles in the last two minutes to seal the victory.
*There were no injuries to speak of according to Mike Tomlin after the game. Ryan Shazier was a force after being listed as questionable to play coming into the game.
For the second week in a row Markus Wheaton, Cody Wallace, Roosevelt Nix and Senquez Golson were inactive due to injury. Golson is likely to miss the first half of the season with a lisfranc injury.
The good news is that the Steelers offense was able to put up 24 points against a good Bengals defense while playing in adverse weather conditions. The offense continues to be productive in the red zone, scoring touchdowns both times they got inside the Bengals 20 while also adding another touchdown from the 20. However, they started slowly again—going three-and-out on their first drive and being intercepted on their second, replicating their opening drives last week vs. Washington. They also had five drives that went three plays-and-punt, including two when they were trying to close out the game in the last four minutes. But when they needed it earlier, they were able to put together a 12-play, 6:54 minute touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter which proved decisive.
*DeAngelo Williams finished with 94 yards on a career-high 32 carries and four catches for 38 yards and a touchdown. He is the oldest RB back to have 30+ carries since Marcus Allen in 1994. His rushing yardage moved him past James Brooks and Garrison Hearst to 50th on the all-time career rushing yardage list with 7,990 yards and he also went over 10,000 yards from scrimmage. After two weeks he leads the league in rushing and is second in yards from scrimmage with 303. Williams big play came early in the fourth quarter when he took a swing-pass from Ben on the right side and juked two Bengals out of their cleats, going for 20 yards. He got rewarded with the 5-yard TD pass that put the Steelers up 15 to culminate the drive. Williams was also able to get to the edge and turn the corner repeatedly. It will be interesting to see how Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley incorporate Williams into the offense when Le’Veon Bell gets back in two weeks. He has proven to be, arguably, the best free agent signing of the Colbert-Tomlin Era.
*It was a big day for the Steelers tight ends. Last year after the season-opener Heath Miller didn’t have a game where he was targeted more than 7 times or made more than 5 catches other than the two games vs. Cincinnati. In the first he was targeted 13 times and made 10 catches (career-high) and in the second he was targeted 10 times with 10 catches. The Bengals defensive scheme was and is designed to limit Antonio Brown and make the other guys beat them in the passing game. In this one, tight ends Jesse James and Xavier Grimble combined for 5 catches, 55 yards and 2 TDs. James made two outstanding catches in traffic, high-pointing the football and scored his second career TD. He has capably filled in for Miller in the early going in the passing game. Grimble’s first two career catches were also impactful. He made a great hands catch on the Steelers first TD, culminating it with a great lunging effort for the score. His second catch came on a 3rd-and-1 on a low throw from Ben that resulted in a 6-yard gain in a first down. It was immediately followed by a 53-yard pass to Sammie Coates and the James touchdown. David Johnson was excellent blocking as well. Great production from a position that has been a concern.
*Sammie Coates continues to be a big-play guy. He only had 2 catches, but they went for 97 yards and were followed by touchdowns two plays and one play later. On the season he has 4 catches for 153 yards and leads the NFL in catches of 40+ yards with 3.
*The offensive line was solid against an excellent Bengals front four/seven. They only allowed one sack and were able to create holes in the run game. They didn’t dominate the way they did in week one, but they were good enough.
*I’m guessing I won’t be listing Ben and Antonio Brown on the bad side of the ledger too often and certainly when viewing their performances everything is relative to expectations. Ben finished 19/37 for 259 yards with 3 TDs, 2 INTs and a 78.5 passer rating. Ben was repeatedly off-target, missing open receivers throughout the game as the weather conditions never really improved. In week 1 Ben had a passer rating of 150.0 when targeting Brown and 87.7 when targeting his other pass catchers. Sunday he had a 9.3 rating when targeting AB and 107.9 rating throwing to his other targets. His two interceptions weren’t overly damaging, but his decision-making throughout the game was questionable. He did throw 3 touchdown passes and has now thrown a TD in 39 straight games tying Dan Marino for the third-longest streak in NFL history and his scramble for 14 yards set-up the third TD. “We got an ugly win,” Roethlisberger said after the game, “but a win in the AFC North is never an ugly win.”
*Also not a good day for Antonio Brown. Most-notably he allowed his frustration to get the best of him when he gestured and appeared to be shouting at Roethlisberger after a long incompletion targeted Sammie Coates when Brown thought he was open over the middle early in the second half. We saw that on occasion last year when Landry Jones was quarterbacking the offense, but I don’t ever remember seeing it with Ben. Brown also had a bad drop on a second quarter 3rd down pass that would have resulted in a first down. I’m guessing we’ll be able to count Brown’s drops on the season on one hand. The Bengals continue to have success bottling up Brown. He’ll get another chance at them in week 15.
It was another very solid outing for the Steelers defense. They again shut down the opposition running game, holding the Bengals to 46 yards on 18 carries with Cincinnati’s long-gain of 10 yards coming with just 2:20 left and the Steelers in prevent-mode. They were great in the red zone, forcing the Bengals to settle for FGs all three times they got inside the 20 and they got a big turnover when they needed it late in the game. The pass rush remains a concern as they got just one sack on an Andy Dalton scramble, but they did pressure him repeatedly and forced five three-and-outs for the Bengals. They also used the dime extensively in this game, something I’ve been lobbying for, with good success.
*Ross Cockrell was given the job of shadowing A.J. Green all over the field. (Interesting they Steelers used Cockrell to shadow Green and the Skins didn’t use Norman to shadow Brown last week.) Tomlin made sure in his postgame comments not to give Cockrell too much credit. “He did a nice job, but it wasn’t just him on A.J. Green. I don’t want to make it out to be something it’s not. We liked the match-up because of the physical stature, but we still did a lot of things schematically to hopefully minimize his (Green) impact on the game.” Ok, sure, but Cockrell lined up over him and Green finished with 2 catches for 38 yards. Gold star.
*Ryan Shazier is dynamite. After a pass interference call against Artie Burns in the end zone (I thought it was a legit call), the Bengals lined up on the Steelers 1, down 17-6 with under three minutes to go in the third quarter. Dalton turned and handed to Jeremy Hill. Enter Ryan Shazier. He flew through the line and dropped Hill for a 2-yard loss. Three plays later the Bengals had settled for a FG. Shazier finished with 11 total tackles and that, to me, was the play of the game.
*Robert Golden, William Gay and Mike Mitchell were all laying the wood. Golden has been very solid in his new starting role and Mitchell showed a maturity that occasionally has been missing. On one pass that was broken up Mitchell had the receiver lined up for a big hit. But seeing the deflection, he mostly pulled up and didn’t get penalized. Later in the game he did deliver a legal, crushing blow on C.J. Uzomah to cause an incompletion. Solid job.
*Artie Burns. Welcome to the NFL. Burns saw limited action in week 1, but was a full participant as the Steelers went to their dime defense repeatedly on Sunday. Burns played 32 snaps vs. 9 in week one and he acquitted himself well. He broke up a would-be TD pass in the end zone late in the first half and generally appeared to be assignment-sound.
*Cameron Heyward knocked down to passes in crucial situations, one of which was most certainly going for a first down.
*The Steelers held the Bengals to 4-16 on third down and rank fourth in the NFL through two weeks.
*The Steelers two rookies DBs were victimized by Giovani Bernard on the Bengals lone touchdown. Bernard got a short pass out in the left flat, faked-out Burns and then beat Sean Davis, who took a terrible angle, down the sideline.
*The Steelers gave up seven plays of 20+ yards and six different receivers had a catch of 20+.
*The Steelers need more from their outside linebackers.
*Jarvis Jones had an opportunity for an interception, but couldn’t pull it in. Hit him in a bad spot, as they say. Right in the numbers.
*Jordan Berry and Chris Boswell are out to prove they are the best kicking duo in the NFL. Berry in particular was outstanding in this one. He averaged 47.1 yards on 8 punts and helped the Steelers to a big advantage in the field position game. His directional punting was excellent and he repeatedly forced the Bengals to start drives inside their own 15. Boswell drilled a 49-yard field, all three extra points and all five of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. Boswell. Bingo.
*Antonio Brown and Eli Rogers averaged a solid 9.0 yards each on their punt returns, but Rogers got a break when he fumbled and it wasn’t called. DHB recovered the punt, so the Bengals did not challenge.
*The Steelers defensive game plan was similar to last week. They chose not to blitz Dalton heavily, instead relying on a stout run defense and a dime defense that was generally effective in limiting A.J. Green and the Bengals offense.
I did like Tomlin’s decision to go for it on 4th down on the Steelers second drive. AB was open but Ben threw it behind him for an interception. The pic actually benefited the Steelers as the Bengals lost 13 yards from where the Adam Jones was downed vs. where they would have gotten it on an incompletion and change of possession.
*In the middle of the third quarter the Bengals started a drive 1st-and-25 from their own 10. Inexplicably the Steelers didn’t go to their dime package and Dalton made a great throw to Tyler Boyd for a 29-yard gain. Tip your cap to Dalton and Boyd, but the Steelers had the wrong personnel on the field as Dalton threw over Lawrence Timmons (who had a strong game).
*It’s a little surprising we have yet to see Mike Tomlin attempt a 2-point conversion, although the game situations yesterday didn’t really warrant it.
*The Bengals should have challenged the pass to Uzomah in the back of the end zone last in the third quarter. He may have gotten a knee down before Robert Golden pushed him out. They had to settle for a FG.
Big Officiating Calls:
*I thought the officiating was adequate/poor. It appeared they missed a couple helmet -to-helmet shots, one on Ben and one on DHB, there was another poor pass interference call against Ross Cockrell and they missed a blatant hold on Ryan Shazier late in the game. On the Bengals side, I thought Tyler Boyd was down on his fumble which was obviously was huge coming on what could have been a game-tying drive in the last two minutes and it looked as if the Steeler could have been flagged for holding repeatedly as well.
Up Next: The Steelers go back on the road to play the Philadelphia Eagles. They’ll be coming off a short week. Kickoff at Lincoln Financial Field is scheduled for 4:25 pm EST.
Reminder: You can hear me on the postgame show with Charlie Batch across the Steelers Football Network (WDVE, ESPN, steelers.com or the Steelers Gameday app) after 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.