NFL Divisions are like animal packs. By nature, teams vie against each other to determine who claims a spot atop the pecking order.
For a decade, the two top dogs in the AFC North have been the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. The Cincinnati Bengals have never earned a place in the conversation. Early playoff exits after their ’05 and ’09 division crowns merely confirmed Cincinnati ambitious underdogs.
After photo-finish losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Bengals coach Marv Lewis suggested his rookies Andy Dalton and AJ Green were about to effect a change in the pecking order.
But whenever a perennial underling challenges the Alpha Male and realizes he has the upper hand, he has to make a gut check that determines whether he’s really ready to be the top dog or not.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field the Bengals faced their gut check on their very first drive at the Steelers nine yard line. Unfortunately for Queen City faithful, when that moment arrived, the Bengals flinched.
It was one flinch too many allow against a Steelers team unhappy to be on the outside looking in at the AFC North Alpha Male slot….
The Bengals started the game with the look of a team that had every intention of challenging for AFC North supremacy. They forced a quick Pittsburgh three and out and then proceeded to march into the Red Zone on the strength of the longest pass play allowed by the Steelers this season.
They drove all the way to the Steelers 4 and appeared to draw blood with a beautifully executed touchdown pass. Cincinnat nullified its score with a penalty.
- The issue is never really whether a team takes points of off the board with a penalty, but how well they bounce back.
Cincinnati followed with another pass attempt, this one too high, forcing them to settle for a field goal.
Cincinnati appeared to make good on its field goal attempt, but wait, they took too long in getting it off.
- Again, the issue is never really whether a team takes points of off the board with a penalty, but how well they bounce back.
Cameron Heyward was there when Cincinnati lied up to kick again, and instead of Cincinnati bouncing back, Heyward bounced the ball off his hands blocking the field goal. The would-be contender flinched, and the Steelers took advantage by knocking them silly.
Arians’ Chameleon Ariseth….
Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer posses one of the finest defensive minds in the game. In the 2009 match up at Heinz Field he not only gave Ben Roethlisberger fits, but almost seemed to issue a template for shutting him down.
Zimmer frustrated the Steelers offense early and often in the first quarter.
But the Steelers responded with a dynamism on offense that heretofore they had only hinted at, and their first scoring drive provides a perfect example. In nine plays:
- Isaac Redman pounded the ball for gains of 7 and 9 yards (plus a couple of shorter ones)
- Ben Roethlisberger hit Hines Ward for a short 5 yard gain
- Weslye Saunders posted a medium gain of 14 yards
- And Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for 45 yards, the longest gain of the season
And as if to make a statement that all of his aerial weapons hadn’t relegated the Steelers to the status of a “finesse” offense, Bruce Arians called four straight runs in the Red Zone, resulting in Mendenhall’s 3 yard touchdown scamper.
After forcing a quick three and out by Cincinnati, Mike Wallace drew a pass interference call which brought the Steelers into the red zone again and again the Steelers pounded it in, as Mendenhall rushed for 20 yards on 3 carries to put the Steelers up by 14.
Long ago, Mike Tomlin disavowed any a desire to have a “running” or a “passing” offense, but rather an offense that transformed itself into what it needed to be given the circumstances. The Steelers have flashed this ability before, but against Cincinnati, the men in Black and Gold to a first step towards making that goal a reality.
Cincinnati’s Wiley E. Coyote Moment
The Steelers of course, failed to shut out the Bengals. Down 21 to zip, Andy Dalton put together a ten play touchdown drive, getting Cincinnati on the board with less than 4 minutes in the half. Zimmer’s defense quickly forced the Steelers to punt.
Could the Bengals get on the board again and make a game of it?
Naw, this was nothing more than their Wiley E. Coyote moment – Pittsburgh already pushed Cincinnati off of the cliff, the Bengals just hadn’t stopped to look down.
The Steelers defense forced them to look down on the next drive and for good measure Antonio Brown gave them a downward push with his 60 yard punt return.
The Stat sheet says the two teams played for 30 more minutes – Steel Curtain Rising says the game ended here.
Late Season Stride?
The victory over the Bengals gives the Steelers a 8-3 record, tying them for best in the AFC. But that’s window dressing. The Ravens of course beat the Cleveland Browns and hold the decisive tiebreaker over Pittsburgh.
The Bengals started the day playing like a contender. In rebuffing them the Steelers gave them the familiar appearance of the division doormat that they used to be.
- That’s ironic, because the Steelers’ AFC North hopes require Cincinnati to regain its contender form and smartly enough to beat the Ravens on the final week of the season.
But the Steelers can’t control that. Their focus now must solely be on playing their “Best Football.”
Because if the execution and focus that Pittsburgh displayed at Heinz Field vs. the Bengals is any indication, the Steelers “Best Football” can carry them to Lombardi Number Seven, regardless of how the AFC North race finishes.