In the wake of the playoff killing loss to the Miami Dolphins, Mike Tomlin made no bones about his singular objective for the balance of the Steelers 2013 season: Winning.
- The question remained – would the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room follow him?
Versus the Cincinnati Bengals, Steelers Nation only needed to wait 10 plays until they got their answer. An answer that came to them the form of a mirror image of the 2013 season, in which they saw a season of misfortune reversed and glimpsed, perhaps, hope for the future…
New Faces in New Places on the Steelers Defense Set the Tone
The 2013 season has taken the Pittsburgh Steelers on a series of hairpin turns.
3 starters were lost during the season opener. Players such as Troy Polamalu have been forced out of position. Its been feast and famine when its come to sacks and turnovers. Players, such as Jason Worilds, who many had essentially given up on, have marginalized 8 figure contract veterans. Triumphant returns have either been delayed (Matt Spaeth) or aborted all together (Sean Spence).
Such ups and downs have made it difficult to get a firm sense for which tendencies define this group of Pittsburgh Steelers. There simply haven’t been enough people in enough of the same spots for long enough to draw meaningful data points. With one exception:
- The once vaunted Steelers defense has slipped.
Of this, there can be little denying. Statistics might lie, but the missed tackles that cost the Steelers vs. Miami don’t. Yet, if this is a truth that must be rectified in the off season, against the Bengals one other contradictory fact was undeniable.
- The defense embraced Tomlin’s challenge to fight to the end, and they did it with vigor.
And it happened only 10 plays into the game. It was a single play. The kind that gets lost on a stat sheet. But nonetheless it was one that resonated through the rest of the night.
After the Steelers first drive went 38 yards and then was followed by a punt, Andy Dalton and company went to work from the Steelers 7. A quick pass to A.J. Green was aptly defended by Cortez Allen, but not after Green had gotten 9 yards. Polamalu defended the next pass to Marvin Jones. Ominously, that brought up 3rd and 1.
- “Ominous is the operative word” because opposing offenses have imposed their will on the Steelers all season long.
For those not educated in the term “Impose your will”= run the ball where you want, how you want, and when you need to. In short, this was a gimmie for Cincinnati. Giovanni Bernard took the snap. Al Woods and the Steeler defensive line succeeded in getting penetration, pushing the Bengals offensive line into the back field. But Bernard was on his feet. And despite the penetration there was a hole.
Rookie Vince Williams, oft singled out as one of the defense’s weak links in 2013, not only plugged the hole, he met Bernard behind the line of scrimmage and knocked him back.
- No forward progress. No measurement. No 4th and inches. Williams stopped him cold for no gain.
Standing at 4th and 1 from their own 16 left Cincinnati little chance but to punt. Kevin Huber bobbled the snap. Will Allen and Cortez Allen wasted little time in bringing him down in the end zone, although from some unknown reason the Steelers were denied a safety.
- Ironically enough, it would go down hill for Huber from there.
The Steelers might have been denied two, but Le’Veon Bell only needed two tries to give the Steelers 6.
The Steelers defense however, was only getting warmed up. Cincinnati got the ball back and, while they weren’t exactly establishing momentum, they did make a first down, and were looking at a third and 11, when Ziggy Hood, another player many had given up on, brought Dalton down for an eight yard loss.
- The score was 14-0, Steelers and the first quarter had not ended.
Again, the defense did its job as a one yard run followed by two incomplete passes to A.J. Green, defended alternatively by Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor, prompting another Bengals punt, paving the way for Terrance Garvin to make his introduction to the NFL.
Garvin’s contact with the helmet probably will an should draw a fine for the NFL, but the ferociousness of the hit, combined with several other blocks from the punt return team added a resounding bang to the Steelers already explosive 1st quarter, as the Antonio Brown burned through the center of the field for a touchdown.
The score was now Pittsburgh 21, Cincinnati 0, and the first quarter had yet to end.
3 Quarters in the Rear View Mirror
It would be both pretty and poetic to say that the Steelers finished the game in the same dominating fashion in which they started it. Except they didn’t.
- And ironically, that made the game all the more fitting.
Throughout 2013, when things have gone wrong, whether it has been in London, Baltimore, or Heinz Field, the Steelers formula has varied little.
- Their formula has been to start slow, get behind by a few scores, rally, and then fall short.
This time it was Cincinnati’s turn to follow the script. Credit Marv Lewis and his players for this – his team did not give up when down by 24-0 or 27-7. They fought on, and when they came within 10 points with 5:46 left in the fourth quarter, victory was plausibly within their reach.
- But, holding the cards that a 10 point lead gives you, the Steelers turned the tables and made the game a mirror image of 2013 thus far.
Instead of making mistakes to actively lose the game, the Steelers instead made the plays necessary to conserve victory.
- Jarvis Jones deflected a 2 point conversion attempt
- Emmanuel Sanders made just enough effort to convert a third down , burning clock and forcing the Bengals to burn time outs
- Polamalu, Worilds, Will and Cortez Allen shut AJ Green out on Cincinnati’s last possession
Taken individually, there was nothing spectacular about those plays.
Their collective beauty lies in the larger lesson they represented – for one night at least the Steelers veterans had not only succeed in teaching the younger players never to quit, they had also succeded in teaching him to make the plays necessary for victory.