It’s not often a team loses after the defense comes up with interceptions on back-to-back drives in the fourth quarter of a four-point game. Yet, this is what happened to the Steelers on Sunday, thanks to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s ineffective play for most of the afternoon that included two interceptions on two straight passes late in the final period that set-up Cincinnati’s final 10 points in a 16-10 defeat. After going five of six for 43 yards on the game’s opening drive that resulted in a one-yard touchdown pass to receiver Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger was 23 of 39 for 219 yards the rest of the game. He threw three interceptions in total and made many poor decisions. Grade: D
It’s obviously hard to accurately evaluate the performance of the running backs on Sunday, considering Le’Veon Bell left the game early with what was later determined to be a season-ending MCL tear. Before Bell left, he looked to be on his way to another stellar performance, as he picked up 45 yards on 10 carries and another 13 yards on two receptions. DeAngelo Williams, Bell’s replacement down-the-stretch, added 71 yards on on nine carries, but 55 of those came on one run. Grade: C+
Heath Miller had his best game of the season on Sunday, catching 10 passes for 105 yards. He was clearly the most effective target for Roethlisberger, as the wide receivers did very little most of the day. Miller was called for two penalties, including a holding penalty early in the fourth quarter on first and 10 from Cincinnati’s 25 that effectively knocked the Steelers out of field-goal range. Grade: B+
It was basically a bad day for the Steelers receivers, going up against Cincinnati’s decent corps of defensive backs. While Miller posted 105 yards, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton combined for 104 yards on 11 receptions. Not good. Furthermore, there were some key drops, including one in the end zone by Martavis Bryant. Grade: D
Roethlisberger was sacked three times on 45 passing attempts but was harassed a good bit of the afternoon. However, the line did do a decent enough job opening holes for the running game, as the backs averaged 6.1 yards on 19 carries.
Unfortunately, penalties proved to be huge for the hogs up front. Pittsburgh totaled 91 penalty yards as a team on Sunday, and several of those were holding calls on the offense–including a critical one by guard Ramon Foster midway through the third quarter, on a play where Roethlisberger scrambled up the middle for 10 yards down to the Bengals eight yard-line on third and six. Instead of having a first and goal situation, the offense was pushed back to the 28 and ultimately had to settle for a Chris Boswell 32-yard field-goal. One will never know if that drive would have resulted in a touchdown, but in a close game, it certainly could have changed the outcome. Grade: C-
Despite missing defensive end Stephon Tuitt for a second-straight game, the Steelers defensive line was a disruptive force. Steve McLendon, who normally plays nose tackle in the base defense, filled in for Tuitt at defensive end, while second-year man Daniel McCullers played nose tackle. The results were pretty stellar, as the front-seven pressured Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton all afternoon, sacking him three times–including one by McLendon. Cincinnati managed just 78 yards on the ground and averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. Grade: A-
There was some fear that Tyler Eifert, the Bengals budding star of a tight end, would have a field-day against a Pittsburgh defense that normally struggles to defend high-pedigree tight ends. However, Eifert was held to just 39 yards on four catches. On the pass-rushing front, Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and rookie Bud Dupree were credited with two of the defense’s three sacks. Grade: B
Much like Cincinnati’s defensive backs, the Steelers secondary held the Bengals explosive receivers in-check most of the afternoon. A.J. Green did rack-up 118 yards on 11 catches and scored the game-winning touchdown, but his longest reception of the day was 38 yards (also the longest the defense allowed all afternoon) and averaged just 10.7 yards a catch. Aside from Green, Cincinnati’s other targets combined for just 113 yards on 12 receptions and averaged just 9.4 yards per catch. The interception that cornerback Antwon Blake came up with early in the fourth quarter, when he picked off a Dalton pass in the end zone on third and goal from the five and returned it to Pittsburgh’s 40 would be something fans and reporters would be talking about at great-length had the Steelers won the game. It was a great all-around effort by a unit that has rightly been criticized a lot in recent years. Grade: A-
Kicker Chris Boswell was perfect again–converting an extra point and a field goal–and punter Jordan Berry placed three kicks inside the 20. Defensive end Cam Heyward blocked a field-goal late in the third quarter, when Cincinnati was trying to pull to-within a single point. On the return front, Dri Archer didn’t make it out to the 20 on his only two kickoff returns, and Antonio Brown was held in-check on punt returns, as the team wasn’t credited with a single return on the day. The coverage unit was decent enough, but Adam Jones did average 16.5 yards on two punt returns. Grade: C+
You have to give credit to defensive coordinator Keith Butler for calling a great game. His defense really did deserve better, after limiting the Bengals to just six points until late in the fourth quarter when Roethlisberger threw his back-to-back interceptions.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has been widely criticized (and rightfully so) for too many deep passes against a Bengals secondary that clearly had that play covered all afternoon. Again, while Miller was totalling 105 yards, many on underneath routes, the receivers could do very little downfield all afternoon.
For the second time in a month, head coach Mike Tomlin’s team had a division rival on the ropes late in a game at Heinz Field and let that rival off the hook, thanks to self-inflicted wounds. Now, instead of the Steelers being 2-0 in the AFC North, they’re 0-2 and three-and-a-half games back of first place.
And while it wasn’t necessarily Tomlin’s fault that Roethlisberger threw those two picks at the end of the game, you can question his decision to punt from the 35-yard line early in the fourth quarter, rather than send Boswell out to try a 52 yard field-goal. Sure, it was at the open-end of the stadium, and yes, a miss would have given the Bengals premium field-position in a close game, but Pittsburgh was up by four-points at the time. Considering Boswell’s range early in his Steelers career, it was worth the risk at that juncture. Grade: C-