… and 16 games later, the Steelers beat the odds and are Division Champions at 11-5. It was a long way to hosting a playoff game, finishing as the 3rd seed in the AFC. Just 10 games ago, sitting at 3-3, another 8-8 season seemed probable for a Steelers team who was battling to find an offensive identity, struggling to create turnovers and making former backup QBs look like hall of famers.
An 8-2 finish, beating three playoff teams (Colts, Ravens and sweeping the Bengals) and winning against three at-the-time contenders (Chiefs, Falcons, Texans) helped secure a Playoff game at Heinz Field, hosting divisional foes on what is called –still- the best rivalry in football. And those wins happened while dealing with injuries to 6 defensive starters (Taylor, Allen, Polamalu, Shazier, Kiesel and Jones).
The win against the Bengals closed the Season turnaround and clinched the Divison Title, but it wouldn’t come without a couple of scares:
- Before the game, Roethlisberger wasn’t able to warm-up with his teammates due to an upset stomach. 10 minutes before kickoff, Ben was able to play catch and warm up a bit, just to start his 158th game as a Steelers QB (tying Bradshaw for most in team history).
- In the middle of the 3rd quarter, Le’veon Bell took a legal –but cheap- shot to the knees in open field by Reggie Nelson. A lot can be said of this play, but apparently not by Coach Tomlin or Nelson. One day later, an MRI showed no structural damage but keeping his status for the Wild Card game up in the air, probably until minutes before kickoff.
- The offense struggled on the first series, which stalled at the Steelers 49 yardline. The Defense got on the field and stopped the Bengals (3 & out), which led to AB’s tone-setting 71 yard punt return for a touchdown.
- With 40 seconds left in the first half, down 20-10, the Bengals –surprisingly- tried to move into FG territory from their 30 yardline. Dalton began the series with a short pass to Bernard, who was trying to get out of bounds. While running into the sidelines, A Blake delivered a big hit, preventing him from stopping the clock, and killing any opportunity the Bengals were looking for to score points just before the intermission.
- Nelson’s hit on Bell, which delivered a blow to the rhythm of the Steelers offense. That drive ended with an interception, which led to a Bengals TD. After that, the Steelers attempted 6 rushes (5 from Harris, 1 from Archer) for a total of 6 yards.
Turning points. In a game featuring several turning points, and as expected before the game by several analysts, AJ Green would be a defining man in this game. All 3 top turning points of the game featured plays in which he was involved.
- McCain’s interceptions: 1) Down 7-0, the Bengals were at the Steelers 28 yardline. On a miscommunication issue, Dalton overthrew AJ Green, while McCain never lost sight of the football, grabbing his first interception of the game and preventing the Bengals from getting points on what looked to be a scoring drive. 2) Later on, with the score tied 10-10 at the Bengals’ 35 yardline, Dalton looked for AJ Green again, and overthrew him once more, which would lead to another McCain interception. Two plays later, Bryant scored the go-ahead TD to give the Steelers the lead 17-10.
- A Blake: With Le’veon Bell injured, and the score 20-17, the Steelers drive stalled at the Bengals 45 yardline, where the Steelers attempted a fake punt, which was intercepted. Two plays later, AJ Green caught a pass and ranto the Steelers 31 yardline, within FG range, but just before falling down, A Blake striped the football from his hands, to recover himself the fumble and give the Steelers the football at their own 30 yardline. Four plays later, Brown scored on a 63 yard pass from Roethlisberger, to make it 27-17 with under 3 minutes in the 4th quarter, sealing the lead and the Division Title for the Steelers.
- Ben wasn’t accurate early, but was helped with field position after McCain’s interception and Haley’s understanding of his slow tempo: Ben didn’t warm up before the game, and he did so while on his first series. After that, short routes helped his passing game. A shame he fell short of 5,000 passing yards. He was helped by his Offensive linemen, being barely touched and having enough time to look at his options most of the game. After Bell went down, the Bengals defense was expecting a passing oriented offense from the Steelers, and Roethlisberger was able to pick them apart to score another TD through the air. He also threw his first pick in 4 games, on a miscommunication and bad throw. His confidence in his receivers is growing, being explicit on throws where coverage seems close, and betting for his receivers to fight for the football.
- Bell continued to struggle on the running game, but was a factor on the offense, with 100 total yards (20 running, 80 receiving) before he was injured. Lack of reps from Harris and Archer didn’t prevent the Steelers to use them in the 4th quarter, while both combined for 6 carries for 7 yards, and a big 59 yard gain that was called back due to a penalty. RBs not named Bell accounted for 9 touches (6 carries, 2 receptions by Archer, one by Johnson). Archer struggled in pass protection, and could be substituted on 3rd downs if Bell isn’t able to play by either Johnson, Miller or Spaeth on passing situations. After an MRI showed Bell has no structural damage on his knee, it will probably come down to a gametime decision if he’s able to play or not, depending on the amount of pain he’s able to support.
- Posting several NFL and Steelers record, Antonio Brown had another great game. While statistically (7 receptions, 128 yards, 1 receiving TD, 1 return TD) it was an impressive performance, he had a great timing making them: opening the score after both offenses were stopped on the opening drives, and clinching the game on the last TD. This guy is a model of consistency.
- Bryant and Wheaton also had a nice game, with valuable contributions. While both combined for only 4 receptions and 48 yards, Bryant scored a TD on which Miller and Wheaton developed textbook blocks. Not to say the same about Brown’s reception, where Bryant almost tackled Brown. Bryant continues to get behind defenders, but unfortunately wasn’t on the same page than Roethlisberger: he had a shot at 2 more TD passes, but was underthrown in one, and overthrown in the other. Heath Miller continues to get open, and got 3 receptions for 41 yards, while also spotting several good blocks. This guy deserved a Pro Bowl berth based on performance. Although, Miller seemed to drop a pass, same as Spaeth.
- Credit to the offensive line for keeping Ben clean one more week. However, once again this unit failed to open lanes for the RBs. The biggest running play from scrimmage was negated by a Ramon Foster penalty; while the Steelers first turnover, in their own territory, came after a bad snap from Pouncey (shouldn’t it have been an offside?). Noticeable development from the offensive line since coach Munchak arrived: he’s working with basically the same unit from last season, and has managed to keep them going uphill.
Defense: who said this Defense is soft? It is, in fact, getting hot while approaching the playoffs, closing games and creating opportunities against Atlanta, KC and Cincinnati twice.
- Heyward and Tuitt are the future of the Defense, the ones with whom LeBeau –or whoever takes his spot- should build a Defense around. Tuitt is only getting better, and Heyward is now a seasoned veteran, who tied for team lead in sacks (6.5, getting one against Dalton). The Steelers allowed the Bengals to run for 116 yard, with 55 of them on their first two series. After that, and while playing most of the game from behind, the Bengals weren’t able to run comfortably again to the Steelers.
- Lawrence Timmons, playing the best football of his career, led the Steelers with 7 tackles this game (and 132 for the Season). Spence and V. Williams made great plays with a sack the former and a big stop on 3rd down the later. Worilds created pressure and had one sack, while Harrison wasn’t able to approach Dalton frequently, but managed to compact the pocket.
- McCain, Gay and Blake provide a clear upgrade of what the Steelers had at the beginning of the Season. All 3 have combined for huge takeaways, providing turning points in several games this season. While none of them are pro-bowl caliber players, their game seems to be way ahead of where Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor were playing. McCain has ball skills, and doesn’t get lost in coverage, while Blake has that spark to be in the right place at the right time (last week, he broke up a TD pass) and for sure this guy can tackle: he provided two of the game’s most ferocious hits.
- Will Allen was another addition by subtraction, stopping the run and keeping the football in front of him, while taking the big play away. Mitchell seems to understand better his style than Polamalu’s, and that has given another look to our secondary. Hope I don’t wake up some demons with this, but Mitchell could be fined for the hit he took at AJ Green. Wonder, if Green hadn’t fumbled because of Blake’s strip, if he would have after that Mitchell hit.
Special teams: Something special, at last.
- Finally, a return TD from our special teams. With exceptional blocks by Garvin and Heyward Bey, AB had his 3rd punt return for a TD in his career, all of them against the Bengals. Suisham, on a perfect 2 for 2, and our coverage units not allowing the Bengals to have good field position from big returns helped the Steelers chances to win the game. That fake punt call, even if it didn’t work, showed confidence on the Defense. Last time it was attempted, A. Blake caught a Robert Golden pass, and it worked. Here’s hoping to see that approach again on close games. Nuggent’s miss was huge, since it came on the opening drive of the 2nd half, preventing the lead from being cut to 20-13.
- And this postseason berth ends the debate about Tomlin being fired.
- … Does this end the debate about him winning only because of the Roster he inherited from Coach Cowher too?
- Gotta give credit to coach Munchak: Roethlisberger was sacked 33 times this season, after being sacked 40 times last year.
- And to the whole Staff, for discipline: after 5 games the Steelers lead the league in penalties. At the end of the Season, the Steelers ranked 20th.
- And WWW’s unsung heroes, candidates for Season team’s MUP (most underrated player) award finalists: McCain, Blake, Heyward, Bryant, V. Williams and Spence.
- Just teasing with other nominees for my awards: for comeback story of the year award finalists, I have James Harrison and Sean Spence in bold letters.
- Next-man-up award could be a close call, too. This award should be called “the standard is the standard”.
- And, just to end with the tease of my nominees: worst offseason move: well, it’s easy and getting easier. Just look at what the CBs have brought to the table recently, and what we expected at the beginning of the season.
- Tickle-tackle-TD. Antonio Brown managed to tackle his own teammates on both of his TDs: Shamarko Thomas on the punt return, and Martavis Bryant on his TD reception.
- Addition by subtraction: Will Allen, and a combo from McCain and Blake have played way better than Polamalu and Taylor. Just sayin’.
- Great comeback story: From barely being able to walk two years ago, to having an impactful performance as an alternate on Defense, Sean Spence finally recorded his first sack. Kudos to this guy, that’s an inspiring story.
- Ok, so we have 5 Pro-Bowlers. But how many All Pro’s? Bell and Brown seem to be locks on that.
- How many near-misses for the ProBowl? Heyward, Miller and DeCastro deserve credit for personal accomplishments and team contributions this season, too.
- Big mistake from whoever thought all winds blow the same way all across the Ohio River: It’s not the same to attempt a 50 yarder at Paul Brown Stadium than at Heinz Field. Also, missing the attempt gives the football to the other team at the 40 yardline.
- Even while called back, that Harris run for 59 yards says something about what the Coaching Staff and FO were pondering while letting Blount walk away: he showed that ability to break free, and could help Bell get a breathe if he’s healthy enough to play.
- …And that’s the reason why I’ve been calling for Arhcer and Harris to get reps since 4 weeks ago.
- Continuing with Bell’s injury impact on the team: this opens a spot for… Lance Moore / Heyward Bey on 5 receiver sets? Formerly: Brown, Wheaton, Bryant, Miller, Bell (HB/5th receiver). Now: Brown, Wheaton and Bryant, with Miller at RB/5th receiver / extra protection, and Arhcer/Heyward Bey / Moore?
- Smart money? Steelers spent $8.9 million in season opener starting CB’s salary -Ike Taylor (2.75m) and Cortez Allen (6.15m)-, while former backups McCain and Blake, now starters, account for a total $1.27m -McCain (0.79m), Blake (0.48m).
- And this opens the debate: are McCain and Blake an answer to CB problems? Do KC and the Staff think this position needs to be fixed in the draft?
- Will Allen provided experience and made big plays, stopping the run and keeping the receivers in front of him. But, once again, shouldn’t Shamarko be taking reps here?
- All that said, my starting DBs would be: Gay, McCain and Blake as CBs, with Allen and Mitchell (probably, inserting Shamarko Thomas in specific situations). No way Taylor and Polamalu bring to the table the same level of football of what these young guys are providing to the defense .
- I’m struggling to name the best block in the game: Miller/Wheaton on Bryant’s TD, or Garvin/Heyward Bey on Brown’s punt TD return. But, definitely, Bryant is not on that list!
- Talking about that, memo to Bryant: when a fellow teammate catches the football and is running to the endzone, please block the closest guy to him, not him. Ask Wheaton or Miller, they can provide free advice to you.
- And still talking about Bryant: targeted twice on deep routes, while one pass fell too short and the other one was too long. But this guy continues to get behind defenders, and that will mean 6 points soon. Hope it happens next week.
- And that makes it Garvin 2 – Bengals 0. Last season, Garvin broke Bengals’ punter jaw with a vicious hit, while AB was taking it to the house. This time, he delivered 2 big blocks to let him run away with the football all his way to the endzone.
- Legal, yes. But cheap, too. Say whatever you want, but there are unwritten rules in sports, and you’re not supposed to break them. If it was baseball, I’d be looking for a hit by pitch to Nelson on his next at bat. Un-classy.
- Is it just me, or have we’ve seen a much more emotional Tomlin on the sidelines the last 5 or so weeks? He’s providing me a clearer definition of what he thinks about these two words: Unleash Hell. And I like his attitude.
- While the fake punt has been a league wide criticized call, it shows aggressiveness (with emphasis on Coach Tomlin’s words: Not live on our fears) and confidence on the Defense. It has worked before, and for sure it will keep rivals with an eye on trick plays.
- If someone had told you that a discussion was going to happen and Coach Porter was in the middle of it, most probably everyone would have thought he was the one arguing or fighting. Instead, we saw a mature Porter being perfectly calm and just in front of his Head Coach, trying to end the discussion. Classy.
What comes next?
The Steelers will host Ravens Saturday night, after splitting season series with them. This will be the 4th time these foes face each other in the postseason, with the Steelers hosting and winning the first three.
If the Steelers win, they’ll be heading to Denver, to face Manning’s Broncos. If the Ravens win, they’ll be facing New England at Foxboro. So, if the Steelers are going to make it to the Superbowl, their flight itinerary will be, after the game at Heinz Field: @Denver, @New England, @Arizona.
By the numbers
0 Turnover differential for the Steelers this season
1 Roethlisberger rank in Passing yards, 4,952, tied with Drew Brees (firs Steeler to achieve it)
1 Brown’s Rank in receptions (129) and receiving yards (1,698)
1 Player in NFL history with 2000+ yards from Scrimmage without losing the football: Le’veon Bell
2 Steelers rank in total offense (411.1 yds/game) and passing offense (301.6 yds/game)
3 Punts returned for TD’s by Antonio Brown in his career. All against the Bengals.
5 Steelers selected to the Pro Bowl (Ben, Brown, Bell, Pouncey, Timmons).
15 Passes of 40 or more yards by Roethlisberger this season, league high (tied with Luck and Rodgers).
19 Carries. Amount of NFL experience in carries, combined, for Archer and Harris, Bell’s backups.
20 Steelers NFL rank in penalties, after dealing with them for the first 5 weeks of the Season while leading the league in that span.
32 consecutive regular season games with 5+ receptions and 50+ receiving yards for Antonio Brown, an NFL record (and counting).
48 yards separated Ben Roethlisberger from being the 6th QB in NFL history to throw for 5,000 yards in a Season.