The Pittsburgh Steelers took on the Bengals in Cincinnati Sunday and came away with their fifth consecutive win and fourth straight on the road. The win keeps the Steelers in first place in the AFC North and sets up a huge Christmas Day game at Heinz Field this coming Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. A win will clinch the AFC North and a spot in the playoffs.
For the first time during this current five-game win streak though, the Steelers found themselves trailing early against the Bengals. The Bengals came out as the more intense team and dominated both lines of scrimmage while the Steelers hurt themselves with three significant penalties. On the opening drive the Steelers defense appeared to force a three-and-out when they sacked Andy Dalton. However, Stephon Tuitt grabbed Dalton’s facemask, was penalized and the drive continued. To add injury to insult, Tuitt was hurt on the play and did not return. The Bengals kicked a field goal to go up 3-0. On the Bengals next drive, Artie Burns committed a 39-yard pass interference penalty in the end zone and, while it took four plays from the one, the Bengals punched it in to make it 10-3. Later in the half, with just over six minutes remaining and the Bengals leading 17-3, Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 13-yard touchdown. But, long after the play ended, the TD was nullified as Le’Veon Bell was flagged for a chop block. The Steelers ended up settling for FG and ended up going into the half down 20-9.
The second half was a completely different game as the Steelers dominated in all facets and the Bengals, reminiscent of so many Bengals teams of recent vintage, self-destructed. The North Siders outscored the Bengals 15-0 behind three more Chris Boswell field goals and a Ben to Eli Rogers TD. Most impressively, the Steelers got the ball back at their own 16 with 5:53 left, leading 24-20. The Bengals had all three of their TOs and the two-minute warning. And they never saw the ball again. Aggressive play-calling and great execution sealed the deal. The Steelers are now 8-2 in Cincinnati during the Tomlin Era, 9-5 on the season.
*Stephon Tuitt left with a knee injury on the third play from scrimmage and did not return, but early indications suggest the injury is not serious. Ricardo Mathews left with an ankle injury in the first half, but returned in the second. With just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Steelers leading 24-20 they faced a 3rd-and-8 from their own 29, Ben hit Ladarius Green for 28 yards down the middle. It was one of the biggest plays in the game, but Green took a hard helmet-to-helmet hit (no flag), was placed in concussion protocol and did not return.
The inactive list was straightforward. RB DeAngelo Williams and WR Darrius Hayward-Bey remained out while recovering from long-term knee and foot injuries. Shamarko Thomas remained inactive due to a concussion. QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Daryl Richardson, WR Demarcus Ayers and OT Brian Mihalik were all healthy inactives.
The last two weeks the Steelers have dominated time of possession. This week that happened again, but not until the second half. It wasn’t a vintage offensive performance—six field goals is as much bad as good, but the offense was excellent when the game hung in the balance.
*Ben has historically struggled at times against Cover 2 defenses and specifically the defensive schemes the Bengals use. Going back to 2012 Ben had thrown 12 interceptions in their last eight regular season matchups. On Sunday he was 21-36 for 286 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions and a 93.1 passer rating, his third best in eight road games this season. Ben also had a perfect touchdown pass to AB called back and drew a 16 yard pass interference penalty on a throw to AB. In the fourth quarter he was 7-9 for 105 yards and the TD. He led the Steelers on three drives. They ended with a FG, a TD, and, on the third, the scoreboard showing 24-20 and 00:00 and the Steelers kneeling inside the Bengals ten-yard line. Quarterbacks love that. A very solid road performance.
*The Steelers secondary group of receivers, basically everyone not named Antonio Brown, had a really good day, particularly Eli Rogers and Ladarius Green who combined for 10 catches on 14 targets, 147 and the touchdown. The two were able to exploit the intermediate middle-of-the-field, a vulnerable area in Cover 2. Hopefully Ben will continue to target them this frequently. Cobi Hamilton only had one catch but it was another big one, a 21-yarder on 3rd-and-7 from the Steelers own 40 with only 44 seconds left in the first half. It set up the end-of-the-half field goal.
*Le’Veon Bell got better as the game went on as did the offensive line, which struggled early. He finished with 93 rushing yards on 23 carries and 5 catches for another 38. This week’s amazing Bell stat: he leads the NFL in yards after catch (YAC) with 626 YAC on 72 receptions. He actually has more YAC than actual receiving yards 626 vs. 601 because he catches so many balls behind the line of scrimmage. As a point of reference Antonio Brown has 315 YAC on 96 catches. Bell is still a longshot MVP candidate and Offensive Player of the Year candidate, but two big weeks to close the season could change that.
*The Steelers were 1-5 in the red zone. Teams don’t often win when they are that unproductive punching it in for six.
*Sammie Coates was finally back on the field as a wide receiver, in a significant way for the first time since week 5, playing 30 snaps. He was targeted four times and only made one catch for 10 yards. Coates still has to get better at fighting for contested passes. With 51 seconds left in the first half Ben threw a deep ball down the right sideline to Coates who was being man-covered by Dre Kirkpatrick. The ball was underthrown but Coates didn’t fight through Kirkpatrick to get to it. The officials probably should have called PI as it was, but Sammie has to do a better job. Coates did have a nice 15-yard gain on an end around and his 44-yard kickoff return was the Steelers longest in three years.
The Steelers had won every game they held opponents to 20 points or less and lost everyone game they gave up 21 points or more going into the Cincy game. The Bengals rang up 20 points in the first 28 minutes. Then the defense got down to business. They completely shut down the Bengals in the second half limiting them to 38 yards on 19 plays. After going FG, TD, TD, FG on their first four drives, the Bengals went punt, INT, punt, punt on their four second half drives. For the game the Bengals gained just 222 yards, an average of 4.0 yards/play.
*Singling players out seems a bit unfair because this was a collective effort of both bad (early) and good (late). Ryan Shazier is quicker/faster than any linebacker in the game. He finished with 8 tackles, 2 TFLs, a sack, a pass defensed and 2 QB hits. Ho-hum. He’s the Le’Veon Bell of the defense. He can do everything.
*James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons were excellent. Harrison led the team in tackles and Timmons got his second INT in four weeks. Timmons is as good as anybody on the team at catching balls over his head. His pick was as significant as any play in the game. He was also a beast on the goal line, twice turning back Jeremy Hill from the one before Dalton snuck it in on the Bengals fourth attempt. (Note: Hill scored a touchdown later in the second quarter and picked up a loose Terrible Towel near the stands. He tried to tear it in half, unsuccessfully, and apparently may have stepped and/or spit on it. From that point his remaining carries were: 4 yds, -3, 1, 2, -1, -4. 6 carries, -1 yard. And he got dinged up. Karma’s a bitch?)
*Bud Dupree doesn’t have it all figured out yet but he is fast and disruptive. He needs to work on his pass rushing moves and technique, but he has been a big addition to the defense.
*The three rookies continue to shine.
*The penalties on the Bengals two opening drives cost the Steelers 10 points. Tuitt was unlucky with the facemask, Burns just got beat on a scramble drill and his technique broke down as he chased the receiver into the end zone.
*The Steelers run defense was porous early as they were gouged up the middle, but they stiffened as the game went on. Nice in-game adjustment.
Chris Boswell was the story with six field goals. But after seeing improvement in the coverage units last week, the Steelers were poor against the Bengals.
*Boswell made FGs of 45, 49, 49, 40, 49 and 30 yards. During the postgame show a caller asked if anyone had ever checked what the most yards of made field goals was in a single game. I had never heard of that idea, so along with a listener, we did some research. I assumed Boswell’s 262 yards of field goals would be the record. It isn’t. It is the most ever by a kicker with six made FGs in a single game. However it has been surpassed three times by kickers who have made seven. The “record” is held by Chris Boniol who kicked seven for 271 yards in the Cowboys win over the Green Bay Packers in 1996.
*Boswell deserves a special entry for the touchdown-saving tackle he made on a kickoff in the second quarter. The Bengals ended up with a field goal on the drive, so give Boswell 18 points with his foot and four more, the difference in the game, with his hand.
*After the Bengals made it 3-0 on the opening drive, Sammie Coates returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards to the 45 to setup the Steelers first points. It was the longest Steelers kickoff return since 2013.
*The Steelers gave up 166 yards on five kick returns, a 33.2 yard average, including a long of 72. Not good.
Steelers fans reflexively reach for the undisciplined, unprepared meme any time anything goes wrong for the Steelers. There are times when that is a legitimate line of questioning to pursue, but it wasn’t yesterday. The Steelers just got out-played on both lines early, but they performed much better as the game went on. We continue to see an ability for the coaching staff to make positive in-game adjustments.
*The Steelers close-out drive to finish off the last 5:53 was very impressive. I’m not sure who was responsible for the play-calling, but I loved the aggressiveness and the mix of run-pass rather than just coming out with a predictable run-run-pass sequence. Including the play with the pass interference penalty they passed six times and ran five. Excellent job.
*The use of personnel and in-game adjustments by the staff has been excellent.
*The Steelers clock management on the FG drive at the end of the first half was abhorrent. Again. They were down 14 points and after a penalty to start the drive they were starting on their own 10-yard line. They had 2:51, three timeouts and the two minute warning. I understand initially being conservative because of the field position. Out of the two-minute warning they faced a 2nd-and-11 at their own 14. Ben completed a 13-yard pass to AB. Now it was time to get moving. But out of the clock stoppage at 2:00, they didn’t get the next play off until 1:33 remained. We could go through the play-by-play, but the gist of it is the Steelers just don’t move quickly enough. They spiked the ball to stop the clock late, had to kick the FG after only two shots at a first down because of the spike, never had a shot at the end zone because of the use of timeouts and went into the locker room with a TO in their pocket. I’m not sure what else to say at this point.
*Having praised the Steelers closing drive, if you wanted to question a call this would be it. The Steelers faced a 2nd-and-11 at the Bengals 20 with 1:55 left in the game. Ben went deep down the right side to AB who drew the pass interference penalty. The Bengals had no timeouts and the Steelers were up four. it’s not a high percentage pass and you do want to keep the clock running. Two run plays would have gotten the clock down around 25 seconds on fourth down. had the pass just gone incomplete the Bengals were likely to have around a minute. Cincy’s offense is no where as good as Dallas’, but the Cowboys needed less that that to beat the Steelers earlier this season. Tomlin’s line should really be “We only occasionally live in our fears.” The didn’t this time and it worked out.
Big Officiating Calls:
*If you are an NFL official this is not the assignment you are looking for. The officials were not good. They missed facemasks, pass interference, holding, personal fouls. I don’t think one side had a clear advantage
Up Next: The Steelers will take on the Baltimore Ravens (8-6) on Christmas day at Heinz Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 EST. The game will be carried on the NFL Network nationally and WPXI locally. This one is essentially for the AFC North title.
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 also see me frequently on the Sports Showdown on CBS-TV on Sunday nights at 11:30. You can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.