What a difference a week makes. The Steelers limped out of Heinz Field after losing to the Baltimore Ravens for the second time this season in heartbreaking fashion, knowing they faced a two-game deficit in the AFC North and what approached a must-win game in Cincinnnati. A week later, the Steelers find themselves at 7-3 and very much in the race for the division title as they head into their bye week. A look at today’s 24-17 win over the Bengals:
1. The Steelers finally forced some turnovers. Through the season’s first 9 and 3/4 games, the Steelers had forced only 4 turnovers, the fewest in the NFL history through 9 games. In the 4th quarter today, however, the Steelers picked off Andy Dalton twice, the first caused by a William Gay deflection and the second by Gay himself. The turnovers were huge in of themselves, as the Steelers’ offense had gone into hibernation after taking a 24-17 lead with 3 consecutive 3-and-outs. The plays also were vindication of sorts for Gay, who was burned repeatedly on the Ravens’ game-winning drive last Sunday. The Steelers are still -10 for the season, a figure that is the worst in the NFL, and the Steelers are the only team with a winning record that is any worse than -6.
2. Antonio Brown continues to emerge as a budding star. The Steelers still start Hines Ward, at least when he’s healthy enough to play, in what really seems like more of a courtesy to Ward than anything else. Antonio Brown has blown by Ward (as well as Emmanuel Sanders) to become the 2nd WR on this team, and Brown hauled in 5 more balls for 86 yards today. Over the Steelers’ last 4 games, Brown has racked up 26 catches for 364 yards and a TD, and the Bengals actually began rotating Leon Hall onto Brown rather than Mike Wallace (at least until Hall blew out his Achilles’). Many felt that the Steelers were robbed when they received only a 6th round draft choice when they dumped the troubled Santonio Holmes after the 2009 season. That pick was used on Brown in the draft a few months later and Brown has more catches for more yards with far fewer headaches than Holmes in 2011.
3. The Steelers made Andy Dalton’s life way too easy. The Steelers hit Dalton only twice in 30 pass attempts today, not coming particularly close to sacking Dalton at any point and generating little pressure all day. Yes, the Steelers played without LaMarr Woodley and yes, the Bengals primarily ran short, quick routes to help Dalton avoid pressure, but the lack of a pass rush is concerning. Last year’s 2nd round pick OLB Jason Worilds is looking more and more like a bust, invisible most of the day and benched at times in favor of Larry Foote (with Lawrence Timmons moved outside), and James Harrison was largely controlled a week after wreaking havoc against the Ravens. The Bengals came into the game having allowed only 13 sacks through 8 games, but the Steelers are too talented to apply so little pressure.
4. Special teams have cleaned up their act. After a stretch in the early season marred by blocked FG’s, missed FG’s, poor punting, onside kicks against, and numerous other special teams’ mishaps, the special teams played a very clean game today. P Jeremy Kapinos was particularly impressive, averaging over 50 yards a punt and pinning the Bengals inside their own 10 late in the 4th quarter. The return game didn’t do much, but for the second straight week, the special teams weren’t a problem. Baby steps.
5. The offensive line took a step backward today. The Cincinnati defense deserves some credit, as it’s a very good front seven that came into the game 2nd in the NFL against the run and 4th overall. That said, the Steelers’ offensive line struggled the most it has since the first four weeks of the season. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 5 times and hit 8 more, with Chris Kemoeatu and Marcus Gilbert particularly struggling in pass protection. The Steelers averaged only 3.5 yards a carry on the ground and, if you take out the two reverses run by Mike Wallace, they compiled only 74 yards on 28 carries, a 3.0 yard average. The offensive line had progressed a great deal since its early season struggles, but the unit was largely handled all day today by the Bengals’ front seven.
6. Sooooo, where do things stand? A week after appearing to be left for dead in the divisional race, the Steelers head into the bye with a 1/2 game lead over Baltimore and Cincinnati thanks to today’s win and the Ravens’ loss in Seattle (for the second time this season, the Ravens were handled by a crap team the week after playing the Steelers, exposing one of the issues with gearing your season toward beating one team). Baltimore still possesses the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh as it heads into a relatively easy stretch of its schedule, but today’s events put the division back into play for the Steelers. The Steelers have 14 days to heal, rest, and prepare for a Sunday Night game in Kansas City (although rumor has it that NBC will flex out of the game) before a rematch with the Bengals in Pittsburgh.