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Perspective Of An Average Steelers Fan: Sorrow Loss To The Bengals

GAME PRELUDE

The Steelers had a 7% chance of making the playoffs going into this game. The oddsmakers gave Cincinnati a 56% chance and they are coming off a bye. Ahkello Witherspoon is out but Minkah Fitzpatrick may play after an emergency appendectomy just one week ago. The Bengals missing Ja’Marr Chase but get DJ Reader back.

The Steelers won week one. But the dominant defensive performance did not lead to a runaway victory. Instead, an injured long snapper and missed PAT needed for Pittsburgh to secure a win in week one. So, can they stay in the ballpark with a strong Bengals team?

STEELERS OFFENSE

The Steelers offense scored points on four of five possessions in the first half. But only managed two scoring drives in eight second half opportunities.

Four Scoring Drives in First Half

The Steelers started their first drive on the five after a muffed punt return. Pressley Harvin punted after just three plays. The next drive began at the 35 after Bengals took a 3-0 lead. Kenny Pickett connected with George Pickens for 22 yards on second and five to reach Bengals 38-yard line. On third and eight, Pickett throws short right to Jaylen Warren who rumbles nine yards for the first down. Unfortunately, that is Warren’s last touch of the game due to injury. On third and seven, Najee Harris could not catch the pass. So, the Steelers settled for a field goal to tie the game.

The first quarter ends with Bengals up 10-3 but Pittsburgh at their own 47 with third down and seven to go. The second quarter begins with a 13-yard Pat Freiermuth reception. Najee up the middle for seven. On third down, Pickett gains 14 around the right side. Then Najee scores running to the left from 19 yards out. Game is tied again.

Pittsburgh 10-play Scoring Drive, Then Take Lead

Pittsburgh puts together a 10-play drive from the 35 to match the Bengals score. They convert four third downs. An incomplete pass on third and six is negated by Tre Flowers caught for defensive holding. Then on third and one, Diontae Johnson gains the necessary yard on a jet sweep. The Steelers recovered from first and 20 to third and five. Pickett overthrows Pickens. But wait. Mike Hilton called for defense pass interference. He protests pass not catchable. But of course, it’s not if you are holding Pickens from chasing down the pass. First down. The final third down happens when the officials call a phantom penalty on Kenny Pickett with no explanation. They just blow the whistle and place the ball at 24 making it third and nine. No worries. Pickett connects with Pickens for a 24-yard touchdown.

Robert Spillane tips a pass that Levi Wallace intercepts with 31 seconds left in the half. Najee short pass catch for 12 after Diontae false start. Freiermuth eight yards for first and out of bounds to stop clock. Mason Cole was injured at some point and JC Hassenauer in at center. Freiermuth another catches, this for 27 yards and within easy field goal range. It’s second down at 12 but only three seconds left. Steelers took a 20-17 lead to end half.

Offense Not Nearly as Successful in Second Half

The Steelers offense was not nearly as successful in the second half. They begin with three straight three and outs. The Steelers were in third and nine hole when Najee stopped for no gain running on second and long. Pat Freiermuth injured on next drive trying to catch a third down catch. Bengals go up 24-20, and Steelers punt a third time in response. The last drive starts with a jet sweep by Steve Sims that loses three yards on first down.

T.J. Watt intercepts a pass at Bengals 21 giving Pittsburgh a great scoring opportunity. Najee runs six yards on another second and long. That’s it. Three plays for fourth down and Steelers settle for field goal instead of punting due to such favorable field position. It’s 24-23.

The Steelers started the fourth quarter down 27-23. On third and four, Pickett to Pickens for 33 yards. But then the drive stalls. On second and ten, Najee loses two yards. Then Kenny Pickett sacked by Hendrickson rushes in untouched. Imagine a team letting T.J. Watt rush in from the edge without even a chip. Now back in their own territory after losing 12 yards in two plays, the Steelers punt.

Bizarre Play Call, Run on Third and 25

The defense finally holds the Bengals offense. And the Steelers got the ball at the Bengal 47. Najee runs 13 yards to the 34-yard line. But penalties on two straight plays negate the gain. Freiermuth called for offensive holding. Then J.C. Hassenauer caught too far downfield on an RPO. Suddenly it’s first and 25. Bizarrely, the Steelers opt to run the ball on third and 25. Even if Pickett is sacked on the play, it just gives Harvin more room to punt. It is incomprehensible that the Steelers don’t try a long pass when 25 yards needed to keep drive alive. Or 17 yards to attempt a field goal. Just plain stupid.

The defense allowed Cincinnati to score on a 93-yard drive. Down 34-23, Pickett tried to throw downfield but under heavy pressure. The Steelers gave the ball up on downs after three incompletions and a one-yard pass.

Need Touchdown and Onside Kick Recovery

Now down 37-23, the Steelers need a touchdown then onside kick recovery to have a chance at stealing this game from the Bengals. From their 28, Pickett is sacked again for a loss of six. Pickett throws to Freiermuth for nine. Then to Najee for 11 and a first down. Another nine yards to Freiermuth and the two minute warning. On second and one, Kenny Pickett drops a deep pass to George Pickens. But the ball glances off his hands for what would have been a 49-yard touchdown. Back to old standby Freiermuth for another nine. Then Pickett throws deep to Gunner Olszewski. The pass is short and tipped by a defender, Gunner comes out of end zone to snatch the ball before it hits the ground. First and goal at the one after amazing concentration by Olszewski to save the play. Najee Harris leaps over the middle to break the plane of the goal line to score. 37-30. Unfortunately, the onside kick attempt was not close. The Bengals closed out the game in victory formation with George Pickens ejected for showing some emotions.

 

STEELERS DEFENSE

The Steelers defense intercepted Joe Burrow twice. But could not stop Tee Higgins nor Samaje Perine from scorching their coverage. According to Alex Kozora’s Stats of the Weird, “Since 2001, as far back as PFR’s data tracks, the Steelers have never allowed two 90+ yard TD drives in one game. Until Sunday, when they gave up 92 and 93-yard touchdown drives.”

Defense Gives Up 17 First Half Points …

The Steelers defense gave up 17 first half points. But ended the half with a takeaway. Steelers start well forcing a punt after Hayden Hurst can’t catch Joe Burrow pass with Minkah Fitzpatrick in coverage. But Hurst gains 21 yards from a short pass on the first play of the next drive that started at the Bengal 43. T.J. Watt pressuring Burrow. Bengals take a timeout. Then try running Samaje Perine off left guard on third and seven. But Robert Spillane and Minkah Fitzpatrick tackle him before the sticks. Bengals kick field goal for 3-0 lead.

Steelers tied game. Robert Spillane stops Perine for no gain on third and one. However, officials flag him for facemask to extend the drive. The replay shows he did briefly have the facemask and let go. But still a penalty. I wish the NFL would transition to clear face shields to eliminate the hand hold and this type of needless infraction. Burrow exploits the fresh set of downs with a 24 yard catch and run to Joe Mixon. On second and nine, Burrow connects with Perine who scores from 29 yards out. The defense gave up explosive passing plays to running backs. It’s 10-3 Bengals.

Steelers offense ties game again. The Bengals started at their eight yard line after a penalty on the kickoff return. Burrow connects with Higgins four times for 55 yards on this ten-play scoring drive. Joe Mixon adds 18 yards on three carries. And Perine ices it with his second touchdown reception. Way too easily, the Bengals march 92 yards to retake the lead 17-10.

… But End Half with a Takeaway

The offense ties the game again. Burrow hits Higgins with Arthur Maulet in coverage for 17. Then again to Higgins for 12, this time with Cam Sutton in coverage. Then on second and two, Burrow targets Michael Thomas. Spillane tips the ball and Levi Wallace steps in front to intercept the tipped ball at the Pittsburgh 47 with 31 seconds left. The offense will score off the takeaway to take a 20-17 halftime lead.

Steelers Give Up 20 Second Half Points

The defense made a couple good plays in the second half. But give up 20 points including a long 93-yard touchdown drive. Higgins starts the Bengals first drive with a 16-yard catch with Myles Jack tackling him. Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt combine to sack Burrow for a six-yard loss. On third down, Cam Heyward tips a pass intended for Higgins to force a punt to preserve Steelers narrow 20-17 lead.

Next, Burrow throws to Hurst on third and five. Spillane and Damontae Kazee tackled him but not before getting the first down. Perine in for Joe Mixon runs eight yards. Then Burrow connects deep to Higgins with Wallace in coverage for 33 yards on second and two. Now first and goal at the six, Burrow scrambles five yards with Fitzpatrick and Heyward preventing a score. But Burrow connects with Trenton Irwin for a touchdown. The Bengals took a 24-20 lead with 7:07 left in the third quarter.

Steelers punt and Bengals start next drive at their 23. Burrow throws for Tyler Boyd. But Watt comes down with the ball wrestling it out of the hands of a Bengal lineman. The interception leads to a field goal putting the Steelers within one point of tying.

A long kickoff return starts Bengals at their 42. Burrow to Higgins for 15 with Maulet in coverage on second down. Then Perine up the middle on third and one. Jack and Heyward tackle him, but Perine gets the first. On third and ten, Heyward sacks Burrow. McPherson hit a 54-yard field goal to extend the lead to 27-23 near the end of third quarter.

Bengals false start with shifting front plus very loud crowd contributing to the miscue. On third and 13, Highsmith defends pass intended for Tyler Boyd and Cincinnati punts on next possession.

Another 90+ Yard Scoring Drive

The Pittsburgh offense ran on third and 25. So, Bengals got ball back at the seven again. Burrow connects with Boyd who gains 27 yards with Maulet in coverage. Then a 34 yard pass to Irwin who stays in bounds to gain 32 yards before Wallace pushes him out of bounds. Back to Boyd for 15 with Maulet in coverage. Perine runs for a first down. Then Burrow to Perine for yet another touchdown catch. More unanswered points on a 93-yard scoring drive for Cincinnati. 34-23.

The defense faced the Bengals offense one more time after Pittsburgh gave up the ball on downs at the 28. They ran the ball three times forcing Mike Tomlin to use up all three of his timeouts. A field goal put Bengals ahead 37-23 with 3:22 to play. The Steelers scored to make it 37-30 but could not convert the onside kick. With no timeouts the defense had to watch Joe Burrow kneel twice as the final seconds came off the clock.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams are an underappreciated facet of the game where one big play can shift momentum or even decide the game winner.

I break special teams into three phases: Kickoffs, punting, and field goals including extra point attempts. Here is an overview of the special teams play during the game:

KICKOFFS

Matthew Wright kicked off six times. His first kick in windy conditions reached the nine-yard line. Trayveon Williams returned the kick 29 yards to the 38. His next three kicks closer to the goal line. All three gave Bengals starting position behind the 25. Bengals caught holding on the third kick that pinned them to the eight. Unfortunately, the defense allowed a 92-yard touchdown drive squandering the favorable field position. In the third quarter, Wright kicked to the goal line, but Williams got a huge 42 yard return. Wright had to make the tackle. A breakdown in the coverage. Wright attempted an onside kick at end of game but Tyler Boyd field the ball with no Steeler near him.

Evan McPherson kicked off eight times. Steven Sims returned seven including a 37 yard return to the 44 on the second kickoff. The offense exploited the great starting position for a touchdown. In the second half, the Bengals coverage limited to shorter returns. The Steelers average starting position was 30 compared to the short of the 27 for the Bengals.

With the CBA limited practices, Steelers probably haven’t practiced onsides kicks that much with Wright as their replacement kicker.

THE STATS

Kickoffs KOs RTN TB OB IN25 Pen Start Avg
Matthew Wright 6* 5 0 0 3 0 CIN 26.6
Evan McPherson 8 7 1 0 2 0 PGH 30.0

*Unsuccessful onside kick on last kickoff

Kickoff Returns KR Yds AVG Long Pen TD
Stephen Sims 7 154 22.0 37 0 0
Trayveon Williams 5 124 24.8 42 0 0

 

Advantage Steelers.

PUNTING

Pressley Harvin punted six times averaging 45.5 yards. Trent Taylor returned the first four, but his long return was just 11 yards. Taylor penalized on another for an invalid fair catch signal, but he probably saved field position since it’s just a five yard penalty. Taylor fair caught the last two Harvin punts. Harvin’s shortest punt was only 35 yards, but fair caught at the seven which is an excellent result. But the defense failed to hold giving up a 93 yard touchdown drive.

In his NFL debut, Drue Chrisman punted three times averaging 50 yards a punt. Steven Sims muffed the first punt at the seven. He recovered the 53 yard punt five yards deep in the end zone and returned it ten yards to the five to avoid a safety. Chrisman boomed another 57 yards to the three. Sims returned it six yards to the nine. His last punt from deep in his own territory only went 40 yards and was fair caught at the Bengals 47. But the Steelers failed to take advantage of the favorable field position.

I’m giving the Steelers the edge here. They should have been able to take advantage of Chrisman’s last punt that was fielded within 47 yards of the goal line. The fault lays with the offense and not special team’s play for failing to exploit the great field position.

THE STATS

Punting Punts AVG Net TB OB/D IN20 Pen Long
Pressley Harvin 6 45.5 41.8 0 0 2 0 56
Drue Chrisman 3 50.0 44.7 0 0 2 0 57

 

Punt Returns PR Yds AVG FC Pen Long TD
Stephen Sims 2 16 8.0 1 0 10 0
Trent Taylor 4 22 5.5 2 1 11 0

 

Advantage Steelers

FIELD GOALS and EXTRA POINTS

Wright made all of his kicks. Three for three on PATs. Plus, three for three on field goals.

McPherson also perfect. Made all four PAT’s and three field goals. The 54-yard kick was impressive.

THE STATS

FGs and PATs XPM XPA FGM FGA Long 2PTM 2PTA
Matthew Wright 3 3 3 3 42 0 0
Evan McPherson 4 4 3 3 54 0 0

 

Advantage Bengals

DAVE BRYAN’S VICTORY PUNCH LIST

Dave Bryan provided five keys for a Steelers victory. Here is how the Steelers performed them:

  1. Hold Tee Higgins under 93 receiving yards. Tee Higgins caught nine of 13 targets for 148 yards. The secondary could not shut him down. Mission Failure.
  2. Score at least two touchdowns from within the red zone. The offense scored three touchdowns in five trips to the red zone. Mission Accomplished.
  3. Run effectively up the middle. Overall, nine of Najee’s 20 runs were successful. However, he was successful on only two of seven runs up the middle between the guards. He scored his second touchdown leaping over the middle. But still …  Mission Failure.
  4. Diontae Johnson gains 100 receiving yards and adds a touchdown. Only 21 receiving yards on four catches for Diontae. Mission Failure.
  5. Myles Jack and Devin Bush combine for tackles for loss, sacks, or force takeaways. They combined for 16 tackles. But none for a loss. No takeaways though Jack tipped a pass. Mission Failure.

The Steelers accomplished only one of the five keys to victory.

YOUR HOT TAKES DURING THE GAME

Thank you, Ross McCorkle, for keeping us posted on the game’s first and second half Live Update and Discussion Threads. Steelers Depot respondents contributed  1061 first half comments.  Respondents added  1237 more second half comments.  Here are the “best comments” of the game. I don’t know the algorithm used by Disqus but here is how they stacked it up:

The best first half comment came at Diontae Johnson’s expense. GrumpyHighlander observed, “DJ tried to run backwards but the Bengals wouldn’t let him.”

Chris92021 wasn’t asking for too much. “Just control the ball for the rest of the half. I don’t want Burrow to get the ball until after halftime.” The offense even contributed three more points to end the half. Nice finish.

A draw play on third and 25 led to the top comment of the game. Nunya wanted to know: “Someone explain to me why you don’t throw the ball deep on the third and 25 from the 50. Who cares if it’s intercepted at the 5 yard line? Take a chance! That’s been the dumbest play of the game so far.”

More criticism of the play calling. Bobby Orehoski was exasperated by the play calling. “How many second and 10 runs up the middle is that??? He’s pathetic!!! He has NO business being an NFL coordinator!!!”

Nelsonator762 continued with the theme. “We wouldn’t be in this position if Matt Canada would have stayed aggressive and not gone back to playing wussy ball.” Taylor Williams responded, “Tomlins idea. Every single OC under him gets conservative outta the half.”

What I’m not sure of is how losing Mason Cole near end of first half impacted the play calling.

CONCLUSIONS

The Steelers offense and defense contributed equally to this loss. They made it close at the end. But not close enough.

The offense showed some potential with long drives and Kenny Pickett connecting on long passes. Despite dropping a long pass at end of game, George Pickens demonstrated potential as a number one receiver. He and Freiermuth great targets as Diontae Johnson muzzled by the Bengals secondary. Najee Harris ran for 90 yards with nine of 20 being successful runs. Kenny Pickett is learning but so far he appears to be an adequate NFL starter. I have not seen the talent that makes me think he is a franchise quarterback. But still more games for him to develop.

Defense Showed a Few Flashes

The defense showed a few flashes. Multiple passes tipped at the line of scrimmage. Two interceptions that the offense could only generate field goals off of. But worrying me were two 90+ yard touchdown drives by the Bengals. They were sustained drives with running backs getting explosive passing plays. Plus, Tre Higgins seemingly unstoppable. T.J. Watt magnificent interception. But Steelers only managed to sack Joe Burrow twice. Disappointing performance by a defense with almost all their weapons back.

The kickoff coverage unit needs work. But Matthew Wright recovered well from his first game making all his kicks this time. Pressley Harvin punted well, and the punt coverage team kept the lid on.

A deflating loss. Now the Steelers have Thanksgiving then an extra day to prepare for the Indianapolis Colts Monday Night. I’m not one of those fans hoping for Steelers losses to improve next year’s draft positions. The Colts just barely lost 17-16 to an Eagles team that blew the Steelers out a couple weeks ago. Now is the time to see what players are still in the game when playoff hopes are a dim memory. Here we go.

YOUR MUSIC SELECTION

I always like to offer a music selection. Will it be six long years before we see the Steelers where they need to be again?  Here is Constant Sorrow by the Soggy Bottom Boys

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