PRELUDE TO STEELERS VERSUS BENGALS
The Cincinnati Bengals entered this game as the only winless team in the NFL. The Pittsburgh Steelers driving for a playoff spot with a fuel tank holding just fumes. Two top wide receivers suffered helmet to helmet hits. Will either JuJu Smith-Schuster or Diontae Johnson pass the concussion protocol and be healthy enough to play? Johnson played, JuJu did not. James Conner aggravated his shoulder injury. I doubted he would be ready to play. He wasn’t and Benny Snell Jr. entered the fray.
The oddsmakers favored the Steelers to win this game. But they were ripe to drop yet another contest to an underdog. The key to preventing this was the performance of Mason Rudolph. The ability of the offensive line to protect him. The skill of remaining receivers to catch catchable balls. The defense has done their job and must continue.
In addition to injuries, residual issues from the Cleveland Browns game include Maurkice Pouncey’s appeal of his three-game suspension. He is not available to play against the Bengals, but the NFL did reduce his sentence by one game. While the NFL fined 16 Browns for their transgressions, 20 Steelers are lighter in the wallet. Most for entering the fight area including some that were already on the field. Mason Rudolph received the largest fine of any player.
The Steelers uncharacteristically poached three players from the practice squads of other teams. Deon Cain joined the Steelers roster from the Indianapolis Colts practice squad. Pittsburgh signed Kerrith Whyte off the Chicago Bears practice squad. Finally, the Steelers reacquired Tuzar Skipper from the New York Giants practice squad. A sign of desperation?
The Steelers defense must carry the day.
THE STEELERS FORECAST
Steelers Depot gives us specific things we should look for during the game. I always read these articles prior to kickoff:
Matthew Marczi described what we should watch for in the game against the Bengals. Mason Rudolph’s response to the tumult centered on him is the story of this game. The ability of the defense to contain Ryan Finley is another area Matt wants us to watch for. Bengal offensive weapons include running back Joe Mixon, injured wide receiver Auden Tate and Tyler Boyd. The Steelers offensive line allowed a lot of pressure on the quarterback with Pouncey in the game. How will B.J. Finney and the line deal with Geno Atkins and Andrew Billings rushing through the middle?
Tom Mead identified the key matchup to watch this week. This week, Tom looked inward. Instead of an us versus them matchup he directs our attention to see how Randy Fichtner’s play calling syncs with Mason Rudolph’s quarterbacking skills.
Alex Kozora forecast what would happen in his Steelers versus Ravens prediction. Alex foresaw a win if the Steelers remain composed with few mistakes, the run defense stays disciplined, and Rudolph bounces back for a positive performance. On the other hand, the Steelers lose if Tyler Eifert burns them, Danny Smith lets the Bengals have a big special team play, or the Bengals defense stifles Snell and the Steelers run game. Alex predicts a Steelers 20-13 victory.
Dave Bryan identified the seven keys to a Steelers victory against the Bengals. First, Benny Snell Jr. jumpstarts the Steelers running attack. Second, the defense limits Joe Mixon’s success running the ball. Third, T.J. Watt exploits his mismatch to impact the game. Fourth, the offense and defense must improve on third and fourth down situations with two or less yards needed. Fifth, Rudolph must hit open receivers with accurate passes. Sixth, the defense must shutdown Tyler Eifert and Tyler Boyd on third downs. Seventh, special teams must outperform the Bengals in the return game including Brandon Wilson who averages 35 yards per kickoff return.
You can compare these pregame guides to Alex Kozora’s analysis of the game’s winners and losers which came out within minutes of the final whistle. How does his analysis compare with your view of the game?
The Steelers offense produced three points from the six possessions in the first half. Three punts and an interception as field position seesawed back and forth.
The second drive looked promising. The Steelers overcame Jaylen Samuels false start on third and three. Diontae Johnson diving to catch Mason Rudolph’s pass for a first down. The offense had first and goal from the nine-yard line but failed to score. The Bengals intercepted a tipped pass.
The Steelers had their best starting position on the fourth drive. Following a punt from the end zone, they had the ball just inside Bengals territory at the 48-yard line. Mason Rudolph’s 35-yard completion to Deon Cain on second and 21 was the key play. Cain caught the ball over former Steeler B.W. Webb. The Steelers gained another first down but could not get past the 13-yard line and settled for a field goal.
The slim 3-0 lead lasted just 1:24 as the Bengals scored at the two-minute warning.
The Steelers two-minute offense sputtered. Rudolph converted one first down on a keeper. Nick Vigil horse collared Jaylen Samuels following an eight-yard run for another. Later, on third and two Rudolph intentionally grounded the ball and the Steelers punted for the third time in the half.
The Steelers did reach the red zone twice on two decent drives but scored just three points. Rudolph’s throwing motion always seems restricted by his own offensive linemen or charging defenders. I am not sure if this was due to poor offensive line play or his failure to sidestep in the pocket.
The offense produced 13 points from their eight possessions in the second half. The Steelers opening drive was a three and out. Mason Rudolph was ineffectual, and Mike Tomlin yanked him.
THE DUCK FLIES TO THE RESCUE
The Outta the Way Café where I was watching the game erupted into cheers when Devlin “Duck” Hodges trotted onto the field for the second drive. Cheers again on his 11-yard completion to Jaylen Samuels. Jeers when officials called James Washington for offensive pass interference. Then the Café went wild on the Duck’s pass to Washington, who then stiff-armed a would-be defender on his way to the end zone. Four plays and the crowd chanting, “here we go.”
The Duck’s next two drives ended with punts. Then the Bengals assisted the Steelers with three penalties. B.W. Webb committed consecutive pass interference penalties to bring the Steelers to the 35-yard line. On third and nine, Carl Lawson’s neutral zone infraction put Chris Boswell in range for a 47-yard field goal.
Carlos Dunlap sacked the Duck on the next drive. Eventually forcing the Steelers to punt. What I liked was he protected the ball as he took the sack. Earlier in the game Rudolph would try to make plays as he was going down which leads to turnovers.
It was the Benny Snell show for the Steelers last scoring drive. He ran the ball five straight times for 35 yards. Hodges threw and incompletion on third and five, so the Steelers settled for another field goal. I was frustrated because it seemed like the Steelers were playing for three pints instead of 7 to make it a two-score game.
Snell ran 17 more yards to the four-yard line and the game ended in the Duck, also known as, the victory formation.
Duck Hodges sparked the Steelers offense just enough to relieve the pressure on the defense by scoring 13 points. He was able to move behind the line of scrimmage so that he had clear throwing lanes that did not hinder his throwing motion. He may not be a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback but was more effective than Mason Rudolph in this game.
Mike Tomlin coyly did not commit who would start the next game during the postgame interview. I wouldn’t either. There is no reason to telegraph which quarterback the Browns should prepare for. That said, Hodges was more composed than Rudolph. I would ride with the hotter player.
Before the game, I joked that the Steelers defense “would have to pitch a shutout” for the Steelers to win the game. Well, I was half-joking. In the first half, the defense forced the Bengals to punt on five of six of their possessions. Just a lapse on the Bengals next to last drive of the half.
The defense held the Bengals to less than 40 yards on the five drives ending with punts. The Steelers gave Finley little time to pass and Joe Mixon held to 16 net yards on eight carries.
The scoring drive came right after the Steelers took the lead with a field goal. On second and three, Ryan Finley had plenty of time to launch a deep pass to Tyler Boyd. Boyd burnt Terrell Edmunds and easily came down with a 47-yard reception to the 15-yard line. Finley found Boyd in the end zone who beat Joe Haden for the touchdown on the very next play.
The Bengals exploited a coverage lapse and weak Steelers pass rush on one play. Then, the defense failed to force a field goal in the red zone. A solid defensive performance marred by one broken defensive play. A superior performance but not good enough to win without help from the offense. The defense cannot win this game on their own.
In the second half, there were two frustrating drives, but the Bengals only scored three points. The Steelers forced the Bengals to punt four times. More impressively, the Steelers forced two turnovers at critical moments of the game.
Joe Haden made up for earlier miscues by defending two straight passes to force a three and out on the Bengals penultimate possession.
A critical defensive play occurred after a Steelers field goal had them leading 13-10. In response, Finley completed a 30-yard pass to Alex Erickson. Following a Bobby Hart false start, Joe Mixon ran twice for 20 yards. Then Finley connected with Tyler Boyd who started for the end zone. Devin Bush forced a fumble around the eight-yard line and the ball skittered toward the sideline. Minkah Fitzpatrick picked the ball up with his foot just inbounds and took off for 36 yards up the field. This turnover ended a scoring threat that could have put the Bengals back in the lead or in the very least tie the game.
The second critical defensive play occurred after the Steelers final field goal. The Bengals had 3:10 left on the clock but no timeouts at their own 21-yard line. A touchdown would eliminate the Steelers 16-10 lead. Giovani Bernard caught a ball for eight yards to set up second and two. Then, Bud Dupree strip-sacked Finley and recovered his own forced fumble. The game was over.
Overall, the Steelers defense played magnificently. There were lapses but the defense came up with the big plays at the critical moments to seal the victory. They got just enough help from the offense for the Steelers to win the game.
I break special teams play into six phases: Kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts, punt returns, field goals & blocking field goals (I’m not counting extra point plays).
The Steelers longest kick return is 26 yards so far this season. Brandon Wilson came into this game averaging 35 yards a return. A clear advantage for the Browns. A commonsense tactic would be Boswell kicking off deep into the end zone to force touchbacks
Boswell kicked off five times. His first three kickoffs did not reach the goal line. Wilson returned Boswell’s first kick from the four-yard line to his own 23 when Ola Adeniyi hit him to force a fumble. He recovered his own fumble, but they were starting behind the 25-yard line. Wilson fielded Boswell’s second kick at the 4-yard line. Wilson returned it 27 yards with Robert Spillane and Johnny Holton tackling him at the 31-yard line. Wilson’s third return just made it to the 23 when Spillane tackled him again. Boswell finally reached the end zone on his fourth kickoff which was a touchback. His final kick went five yards deep into the endzone, but Wilson decided to bring it out and Spillane tackles him at the 21-yard line. Wilson ended up averaging 23.5 yards a return.
Former Steeler Randy Bullock (he played one game in 2016 wearing the Black and Gold) kicked off three times. Brand new Steeler Kerrith Whyte fielded the game’s opening kickoff three yards deep returning the ball just 15 yards. Trey Edmunds committed an illegal block which pinned the Steelers at their own six-yard line to start the game. The next two kicks were returnable but believe Danny Smith gave the order to let them go for touchbacks. Advantage Bengals. However, when you consider the disparity of the units coming into the game, I believe the Steelers exceeded expectations especially in limiting the Bengals return weapon.
Jordan Berry punted seven times averaging 45.1 yards a punt. Alex Erickson returned four punts for 18 yards. His best return was 9 yards. Boswell’s first punt went 60 yards with Justin Layne making an ankle tackle to hold Erickson for no gain. That punt reversed field position to the Steelers favor. Four punts ended up behind the 20. Berry only netted 41.9 yards per punt when the 18 return yards and a five-yard penalty are factored in. His last punt only travelled 37 yards, but the Steelers downed the ball at the seven-yard line pinning the Bengals deep in their own territory. That mitigates his low net average punt.
Kevin Huber punted nine times averaging 46.4 yards a punt. Diontae Johnson returned four punts for 21 yards. He also fair caught three. One was notable as he made a diving catch which made me catch my breath, but he came up with the ball. Four Huber punts put Pittsburgh behind the 20-yard line. The first went out of bounds at the two-yard line after a sideward bounce. Huber netted 44.1 yards a punt. Both punters punted the ball respectably. No big returns so kept the ball within range of the coverage units. Advantage even.
Chris Boswell made all three of his field goal attempts. Two were chip shots. His 47-yard kick put Pittsburgh in the lead for good. Bullock was one for one. He tied the game with his 27 yarder. A game winner for Boswell is always nice. Advantage Steelers.
REVIEWING THE SEVEN KEYS TO A STEELERS VICTORY
I will compare the outcome of the game to Dave Bryan’s punch list for a Steelers victory.
DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST
- Benny Snell Jr. jumpstarting the Steelers running attack. He gained 98 yards on 21 carries including seven carries for 52 yards in the last two Pittsburgh drives. Check.
- The defense limits Joe Mixon’s success running the ball. He gained 79 yards on 18 carries. Early in the game he was mostly stuffed. He did have two gins for ten or more yards (14, 11). However, he was never able to take over the game. Check.
- J. Watt exploits his mismatch to impact the game. He strip-sacked Finley once in the first quarter. He bruised a bone but came back in to finish the game. Fail.
- The offense and defense must improve on third and fourth down situations with two or less yards needed. The Steelers were one for two. Rudolph intentionally grounded the ball on third and two. Late in the game, Benny Snell ran 21 yards on a third and one play. 50% is a significant improvement. Check.
- Rudolph must hit open receivers with accurate passes. He completed only 50% of his 16 passes. Fail.
- The defense must shutdown Tyler Eifert and Tyler Boyd on third downs. Boyd had a big day. 5 receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown. Eifert just one catch for seven yards. The Bengals made two first downs out of 12 third downs. However, Boyd was not targeted on third down until twice in the fourth quarter. Mike Hilton defended one, Joe Haden the other. Check.
- Special teams must outperform the Bengals in the return game including Brandon Wilson who averages 35 yards per kickoff return. Wilson held to 23.5 yards a return. His long of 27 yards reached the 31-yard line. The Steelers stopped Wilson behind the 25-yard line on his three other attempts. Check.
Five out of Seven does the trick
The Steelers successfully completed five of seven punch list sevens. Two were fails but compensated for by a quarterback substitution and other defenders like Bud Dupree making big plays at the end of the game.
YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME
FIRST HALF READER COMMENTS
Steelers Depot readers commented 1234 times on the game’s first half Live Update and Discussion Thread. Above the 1000 comment standard and understandable with the winless Bengals holding a 7-3 lead at the half.
Predictably, many of our comments centered on the play of Mason Rudolph.
Super Sean wrote the “best” comment. “CAN WE ADMIT THAT RUDY SUCKS NOW? With one of the best defenses in the NFL, we’re losing to the WORST TEAM IN THE NFL.” Tom White responded, “Yeah we should take it game by game, but I have seen enough and here is why: The Steelers traded for Minkah and Vannett showing that this season wasn’t experimental for them and that they thought we could still win. Clearly Rudolph isn’t there yet so they can’t both be all in on winning and still playing Rudolph. Time to bench him.”
Steeler4ever exhorted, “For God’s sake Rudolph, MOVE AWAY FROM THE PRESSURE!!!” While Chris opined “Their qb is better than Mason!!!”
Alevin16 imagined this conversation: “Fichtner is sitting with Mason, ‘Ok it is almost halftime, do you want nachos or a foot-long dog?’”
Live discussion commenters noticed the play of the defense too. El Sweet Lee (A Jam Up Guy): “TJ Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are the only reasons this team isn’t 1-9.”
Mr. KnowItAll noted “Cam is having a PHENOMENAL Season…Absolutely PHENOMENAL”
Half the game over, it’s a three-point game but most everyone sees that Mason Rudolph’s play is deteriorating as the game goes on.
SECOND HALF READER COMMENTS
A strong showing of 1438 comments in the 2nd half live discussion.
Mason Rudolph played the first series of the second half before the Duck replaced him. Chris92021 knew what he wanted as soon as the half started. “Please replace the quarterback”
“I like the effort from duck.” Many agreed with Joshwa.
Toward the end of the game, the Steelers were nursing a 13-10 lead. They had the ball but suddenly appeared very conservative. Beaver Falls Hosiery Company (that’s me) got a commented noted with “Need the 7, not 3.” I was not alone. Chris92021 identified the source of the problem, “Fichtner is the worst offensive coordinator in the AFC.” Afrazier9 observed “So conservative on offense you have already benched Rudolph go for it and stop be so predictable on second down.”
SeventhHeavan has no quarterback controversy in his mind. “We need to stick with Duck for next week. Get him all the reps this week and we get back Juju and Conner….come on!”
The Steelers managed to win this game. Should be lots of commenters next week in the rematch!
I wonder how many teams can say they won a game with their 4th string practice squad QB, back up center, a WR & RB who hadn’t been there a week w/#1 RB & #1 WR out? And that the win would put them in control of their playoff destiny? It’s been a crazy crazy year #SteelerNation
— Trai Essex (@TraiDay79) November 25, 2019
A TEAM WIN
Mike Tomlin’s decision to replace Mason Rudolph with Duck was obviously the right decision. Many folks see it as an easy decision but to me it is a difficult to make in the middle of a game. The defense kept the Steelers in this game but were not good enough to win it by themselves.
Following last week’s debacle in Cleveland, pundits agreed that the fate of the Steelers lay in Rudolph’s response to the adversity. In the end, Rudolph did not have the ability o carry the Steelers offense. It was not due to a lack of effort. He tried to make plays where there was none, grounding the ball while in the grasp of defenders. Duck Hodges came in and sparked the offense just enough to score to regain the lead. Then led two drives for field goals to score enough points to win it. The receivers helped both quarterbacks by coming back from their routes to catch balls. James Washington got us rocking with his catch, stiff-arm and score. Benny Snell got he run game on track with 98 yards rushing due in no small part to the offensive line.
However, the defense came up big with two turnovers in the fourth quarter to preserve the slim lead. Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick working together on one. Bud Dupree doing it on his own on another. Defenders like Joe Haden made mistakes earlier in the game but then came back to knock two passes in a row down to stymie the Bengals.
Special teams played above my expectations by limiting the Bengals return game and keeping the field position in the Steelers favor. Boswell and Berry were solid. In sum, this was a team win.
WHO ARE THEY (THE STEELERS)?
Social media is going off on Rudolph. One Steelers “fan” wanted to know where all the Mason Rudolph supporters had disappeared to. My response. I support all players wearing the Black and Gold regardless if they are a starter or on the practice squad. I wish them all success. To wish otherwise is detrimental to the Steelers fortunes as a team.
A big game is coming up this Sunday. Brown’s fans claim they are going to “takeover” Heinz Field. I will be there. I have seen stadia taken over by Steelers fans but never recall such a thing happening in Pittsburgh. Time for the Steelers to find an identity. Who are they? I’m ready to find out. Let’s go!
YOUR MUSIC SELECTION
I always like to offer a music selection. Here is Who Are You? by The Who. I’d say this is an appropriate song as the Steelers strive for an identity on offense. May need a Crime Scenes Investigator to determine it. A bonus, Wings of Pegasus reviews country musician Glen Campbell’s guitar playing of the William Tell Overture.