Another win against a contender has the Steelers sitting at the 5th seed in the AFC playoff picture. Keeping aside current Division leaders, 5 of 8 contenders looking for a Wild Card berth, or chasing division leaders, lost this Sunday (Browns, Bills, Dolphins, Chargers, and the Chiefs).
With 3 games left, the Steelers control their own destiny, while winning out will let them grab the Division Title. So far, the Steelers have locked, at least, their 11th consecutive non-losing season (since a 6-10 record in 2004). Playoff picture and scenarios will be discussed further, in a separate article later this week.
This game was a close one until mid-4th quarter, when the Steelers were able to gain control of it and put it out of the Bengals reach. While in the 1st half the Steelers had to settle for a couple of FGs after promising drives, the Steelers defense kept it close enough to be within reach as late as the beginning of the 4th quarter, when most of the game’s turning points happened.
- Start of the 4th quarter. Just after the Bengals scored on an 81 yard pass to AJ Green to make it 21-17, Le’veon Bell produced a 53 yard run, a momentum changer in the game. That run led to a Steelers FG to make it 21-20.
- 4th quarter, shortly after the Steelers scored that field goal, Andy Dalton called a read option play, where he fumbled the football. Credit to Moats’ awareness, as he recovered the fumble, giving the Steelers great field position (Cincinnati’s 24 yardline), leading to a Steelers TD (28-21).
- After that touchdown from the Steelers, the Bengals series was stalled at their 42. They punted the football and were able to down it at the Steelers 6 yardline. On the next play, Ben thew a playaction pass to Martavis Bryant’s for 94 yards, 35-21 Steelers, who never looked back again.
- If the Bengals had a shot at returning to the game, it would be with a long pass. Andy Dalton attempted one more to M Sanu, but Blake and Mitchell combined to break up the pass, while Tuitt was getting a clean shot at Dalton (who was injured on that play). After that play, the Bengals weren’t able to do any more damage to the Steelers.
Offense: Running effectively = effective playaction passes.
- Too much talk about Ben Roethlisberger’s hand this week. Even though he missed some throws early in the game, he was able to complete 64% of his attempts to 8 different receivers. Accuracy on slant routes would have been impossible with an injured wrist (which were called often on 3rd downs), while he also completed deep, accurate throws to Brown and Bryant (the later traveled almost 50 yards in the air). Injury concerns aside, Ben was able to gain confidence and spread it to his receivers.
- Bell is making a case for NFL Offensive MVP (or League MVP?). Not dressing Archer for the game meant the Steelers would give Bell as many runs as he could possibly handle if the game was close until the 4th quarter. He had 32 touches (26 runs, 6 catches) for a combined 235 yards an 3 touchdowns. He’s a patient back who knows when to wait for a lane to open, as well as running with determination into it when he sees one. This skillset is a very valuable asset in December, and will be in the Playoffs, too (If there’s such a fate for the Steelers). Of the 3 Steelers remaining games, only next week will be indoors (@ Atlanta), with the other 2 being played in the elements, at Heinz Field. By no means have I believed the football should be taken away from Bell in close games, but Harris and Archer should somehow get touches as soon as a game is away from the opponent’s reach. While Bell’s last TD put the game away, it was probably a good occasion to give Harris the football (he had 4 runs for 9 yards on the last Steelers series). It keeps Bell out of risk of injury, while giving them reps in real-game action. Bell’s health and durability will be key for this team’s chances to get into the Playoffs (and compete in them if so).
- Receivers accounted for 16 receptions, 286 yards, 6 3rd down conversions and a TD. Antonio Brown was double covered for portions of the game, but still was able to grab 9 passes for 117 yards. While some expect Brown to score each week, the plays he’s able to make are just as valuable: setting up great field position and converting 3rd downs helped the team keep it close for 3 quarters, and opened up space for other players to score. Credit to the running game on that Bryant TD: Cincinnati was expecting a run, while being aggressive. Their safeties were in bad position to cover a deep pass, while they bit on the playaction. Kudos to Bryant, his speed and concentration led to the longest pass this season in the NFL, and of all gamechangers this one was probably the most important. Wheaton had his chances too, and while he wasn’t targeted often, he produced when his number was called. His route running has improved, and his awareness seems to be gaining momentum (as shown on an early 3rd down conversion). Lance Moore has had very few chances this season, but has came up big with most of his grabs. Remember he was brought as a safety net, just in case Wheaton or Bryant weren’t up to the task. As a 4th receiver, he’s understood his role so far.
- Miller and Spaeth’s biggest contributions came in the running game, both of them making excellent blocks on counter plays. Their tempo with their offensive line and the running back was outstanding, developing the lead block on most of those runs. While they combined for only 3 catches, good for 14 yards, Miller scored 8 points (the first Steelers TD and the 2 point conversion).
- The offensive line unit is responsible for wearing down the Bengals, and letting the Steelers score during the 4th quarter. The offensive line kept Ben clean and gave him time to throw, while opening lanes to enable a strong running game. This was only the 2nd time this season when Roethlisberger didn’t get sacked. DeCastro, W Johnson, Miller and Spaeth featured a counter play that the Steelers ran over and over and over again, to the left side, on which Bell was able to gain more than 100 yards. Mike Adams showed improvement, as expected, not letting the pocket collapse or close, while Foster, Pouncey and Beachum had also an outstanding performance.
Defense: Great stopping the run and limiting 3rd down conversions. But what’s going on with our secondary?
- Defensive linemen excelled against the run, but failed to create havoc on passing plays. This unit had one sack (Heyward, the team leader with 5) and stopped the run successfully, allowing the Bengals running backs to run for only 63 yards, who didn’t have a run longer than 15 yards. On most attempts Dalton had time to throw, even though Heyward and Tuitt managed to pressure and hit him occasionally. Going into next week’s game, getting to the QB is a must for this unit. Getting McLendon back helped stopping the run.
- Timmons and Spence both had critical tackles on 3rd down, keeping the Bengals out of conversion success, while Moats and Worilds recovered a fumble each. Moats had 2 sacks on his most extended gameplay since Harrison was introduced in the first team defense. Timmons was caught out of spot on Dalton’s TD run, which isn’t expected from a veteran LB. Keeping that single play aside, Timmons had a solid performance.
- Steelers starting CBs blew coverage on their 2 passing TDs: Gay bit on a playaction on the pass to Gresham, and Ike Taylor was absolutely lost, overrun and torched on that long AJ Green TD reception. Being physical on AJ Green had resulted in containing him for past couple of seasons, but clearly Talyor was not up for the competition, for the 2nd week in a row. Once substituted, he shouldn’t be accounted to shadow opposing top receivers (ask Josh Gordon or Calvin Johnson in 2013, or Stills & AJ Green this season). Blake and McCain both made plays (with Blake having outstanding coverage on Sanu on the 4th quarter), while Gay had his big play (interception) turned over because of a penalty. All three of them provide an upgrade from our starting CBs from the beginning of the season (C Allen and I Taylor), and should be our top 3 CBs.
- Do we have Safeties? Mitchell broke a couple of passes, but was lost in coverage in most of the long throws. Polamalu, while still a fan favorite, is clearly on his downside: Was caught out of spot on Dalton’s TD run (relying too much on his old instincts, when he could screw up and come back on time to make a play), and was lost too on a couple of deep throws. While many blame LeBeau for our inexistent pass coverage sometimes, misreads and blown opportunities from our Safeties have been an issue all season long. Shamarko Thomas and Will Allen should be playing a lot more on this Defense.
Steelers return team didn’t create anything special in this game, while Suisham converted 2 FGs (22 and 44 yards). Brad Wing had his longest punt of the season (a 74 yarder that ended in a touchback). Punt coverage unit allowed two punt returns for more than 10 yards (14 and 16 respectively). The biggest play from special teams came after the 1st Bengals offensive series, on a trick play that was stopped by the Steelers punt return team on an obscure ruling (which doesn’t allow an offensive player to recover a forward moving fumble, unless it’s recovered by the runner).
- Losses against Tampa Bay and the Jets are more difficult to understand after games like this.
- This team will go as far as their offense is able to carry them. If Ben and Bell are on the same page, the Steelers will succeed.
- Have the coaches given up on Dri Archer?
- And this raises asking price for season finale tickets, CIN @ PIT.
- What had the coaches seen in Heyward Bay and Justin Brown to activate them over Martavis Bryant for the start of the season?
- Does that performance shut down all rumors about Ben’s supposedly broken hand/wrist?
- And that should be the last time Ike Taylor is assigned to shadow the opponent’s best receiver.
- Is drafting a CB with the 1st round pick in the 2015 draft a lock right now?
- … And a safety with the 2nd round pick?
- Why isn’t Shamarko Thomas getting reps? Sometimes it seems it couldn’t be worse than what we’re seeing from starters.
- Do the Steelers have an NFL MVP candidate?
- Once Harrison gets back, will Dick LeBeau rotate his OLBs?
- Is LeBeau is hurting this defense? Not by scheme, but by starting Taylor and still letting Polamalu play off his instincts. Both are clearly not playing as gamechangers. Or even as top performers. Limit Polamalu’s risky moves. And wait until Taylor is 100% healthy before reinserting him in the lineup (which, ideally, would have him no greater than 3rd CB right now).
What comes next?
The Steelers will play this season’s last game as a visitor next week, at Atlanta (4-7, pending a Monday night game against Green Bay). While they have a losing record (and that should be enough reason for concern), their division title is still in the air (a mediocre NFC south with a 16-34 combined record, featuring no winning teams). Meanwhile, the Bengals will visit Cleveland and the Ravens receive the Jaguars.
By the numbers
2nd game this Season without allowing an opposing sack
3rd consecutive game featuring a 200+ yard performance from Le’veon Bell, (tying Walter Payton’s NFL record from 1977).
5th Win for the Steelers this season following a Loss (haven’t lose 2 straight so far).
7 times the Steelers have scored 30+ points this Season (3 of them scoring 40+).
7 games where Roethlisberger has passed for over 300 yards this season
7 number of TDs for Martavis Bryant so far, after 7 games as a pro
11 Consecutive non-losing seasons for the Steelers.
25 Points scored in the 4th quarter by the Steelers
29 Consecutive games where Antonio Brown has 5 receptions and 50 yards, an NFL record
94 yards, TD pass from Roethlisberger to Bryant, the longest in the NFL this season.
362 points scored this season by the Steelers, currently 6th in the league
4991 passing yards – Roethlisberger’s projection for 2014 season (311 yards per game).