Where the hell was this team during the months of August-November?
Sure, there were some hiccups (2-10 on third downs, 2.9 yards per carry, 2-4 in red zone, etc.) here and there for Pittsburgh during their 30-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Nitpicking aside, the Steelers rode the wave to a division victory after they played one of the best first quarters in team history.
After some idiotic, run-heavy play-calling by Todd Haley forced Pittsburgh’s first drive to stall, the Steelers’ got a lucky break when Cincinnati’s punter Kevin Huber fumbled a snap and was tackled inside his own one-yard line. Le’Veon Bell (107 total yards) gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead two plays later when he capitalized on the miscue and rumbled into the end zone.
The Steelers weren’t done with their first quarter onslaught and proceeded to score on their following drive. Ben Roethlisberger took his offense 47 yards on eight plays, converted an important 4th and 4, and finally found Antonio Brown on a 12-yard touchdown pass.
Brown’s touchdown catch was not his last moment in the spotlight either. After the Bengals went three-and-out on their following drive, Brown fielded the ensuing punt on his own 33-yard line. Thanks to some terrific blocks by Shamarko Thomas, Antwon Blake, Cortez Allen and a jaw-breaking smash of Huber by Terence Garvin, Brown put the Steelers ahead 21-0 after his fantastic return.
The 9-4 Bengals were thunderstruck at that point, and they didn’t even get on the board until they were down 24-0 with just over five minutes left in the first half. To their credit, Pittsburgh’s offense answered Giovani Bernard’s one-yard touchdown plunge with a scoring drive of their own. While it only ended with a 45-yard Shaun Suisham field goal, the fact that the drive took four minutes off of the clock prevented the Bengals from scoring before half time.
After trading turnovers (fumble recovery by Ziggy Hood and interception by Adam Jones), the third quarter remained scoreless until Suisham kicked his third and final field goal of the night from 26 yards. Like his first field goal of the game, which was from 25 yards, Pittsburgh missed a golden opportunity to blow the game wide open with a touchdown.
Unfortunately, the play-calling and execution in the red zone prevented them from doing so, and the Bengals still had life when Tyler Eifert made a one-yard touchdown catch with just over 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Still in the game and only down 30-14, the Bengals smelled blood when they got the ball back with just over 10 minutes left to play.
Andy Dalton shredded Dick LeBeau’s soft zone through the air, and the dink-and-dunk eventually resulted in a 13-yard touchdown reception by Marvin Jones with just under six minutes remaining. To their credit, the Steelers’ defense hunkered down on the two-point conversion attempt when Jarvis Jones batted down a pass by Dalton.
Up 30-20, the Steelers managed to run almost two and a half minutes off of the clock before they punted the ball back to the Bengals. After a 13-yard pass to Eifert on first down, Pittsburgh’s defense stifled Dalton on the next four plays. Jason Worilds created some solid pocket-collapse on the first two incomplete passes, Cortez Allen batted down a pass on third down and Troy Polamalu got in AJ Green’s way just enough for Dalton’s final pass to hit the turf.
Although the Steelers are only 6-8, there were plenty of positives to take away from this game. On defense, Al Woods and Ziggy Hood were more than formidable as substitutes for Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel. Rookie linebackers Vince Williams and Jarvis Jones made some nice plays as well. Best of all, Cortez Allen more than held his own out on the edge against Green in what could turn out to be a confidence-building performance.
Despite the fact that the offense was not running at its highest efficiency this evening (290 total yards), Roethlisberger was only sacked once and completed 20 of his 25 passing attempts. Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer did well with their backup carries, and Emmanuel Sanders converted an important third down after a tremendous effort as well.
Happiness aside, the Steelers are still 6-8 and on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason picture. Although their 2013 season might not extend into January, I hope that their most recent performance illustrates to them that they can compete with some of the league’s most formidable teams.
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