The NFL’s week 13 marquee match up saw the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 33-20 at Paul Brown Stadium to improve their record to 8-5. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin might have delivered the ultimate irony to this win even before the game began.
Late in the game CBS commentators Greg Gumbel and Trent Green revealed that Mike Tomlin had told them it wasn’t important whether turn overs occur, but when those turnovers came. While there’s a certain logic to Tomlin’s philosophy, the truth is that the Steelers AFC North title hopes remain alive today because the Steelers secured turnovers early and often vs. the Bengals.
Not Your Father’s Cincinnati Bengals
For a long, long time the Cincinnati Bengals have served as the AFC North’s whipping boy. Before that they paid more than their fair share of dues as the whipping boys of the AFC Central. But Cincinnati has now logged 5 straight winning seasons and posted winning efforts in 6 out of their last 7 campaigns.
- But for as strong as Cincinnati has started, their edge has always seemed to dull in December.
When James Harrison signed with Cincinnati in 2013, my good friend Bob (the same “Bob” who forecast Bill Belichick’s rise when Belichick’s reputation was defined by his abysmal failure in his stint as the Cleveland Browns head coach) opined that the Bengals lacked attitude, and suggested that perhaps James Harrison would rectify that reality. My friend Ivan Cole, who is normally quite politically correct, once suggested that Bengals simply get “pimp slapped” come December.
- Today’s game at Paul Brown Stadium suggests that Cincinnati has found its mojo.
This is a team that lost Andy Dalton, lost Tyler Eifert, lost George Iloka and saw Vontaze Burfict go on and off the field with injuries, yet Marv Lewis’ boys fought tooth and nail until the bitter end. Dalton’s status for the rest of 2015 maybe dicey, but these Cincinnati Bengals seem to have the Eye of the Tiger.
Steelers, Bengals Fight Chess Match in the Trenches
Todd Haley’s calling card throughout the 2015 season has been the vertical passing game. When healthy, the combinations of Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger to Martavis Bryant and, of late, Roethlisberger to Markus Wheaton have mercilessly wreaked havoc on just about every NFL secondary they’ve played.
- Except Cincinnati.
Against the rest of the league, Ben Roethlisberger has averaged 8.9 yards per pass attempt. In the Steelers loss to the Bengals at Heinz Field, Paul Guenther and the Bengals defense shaved more than four yards off that average. They also limited Antonio Brown to 47 yards. Coming into the matchup at Paul Brown Stadium, there was no secret to Cincinnati’s defensive game plan; they were going to try to take the deep sideline routes away from the Steelers.
The Bengals did a respectable job of doing that, although the Steelers countered by making them pay by getting Brown open in the middle. Still, Brown looked mortal vs. the Bengals, and that’s not something too many defenses can boast.
Heath Miller did his damage in the middle, and DeAngelo Williams did his part on the ground and, to slip into Tomin speak, the Steelers offense made the necessary plays to win, alone their efforts were not sufficient.
Turnovers Key Steelers Win Over Bengals
Against the Bengals, the Steelers defense slipped back into their “bend but don’t break mode.” That stat sheet does not lie, without their starting quarterback and their top tight end, the Bengals outgained the vaunted Steelers defense.
- That’s not to say that the Steelers defense was bad.
The Steelers defense was tough on third down, holding the Bengals to 3 third down conversions on eight tries. The Steelers also got enough pressure on Dalton and AJ McCarron to keep both quarterbacks honest, with Cam Heyward and Will Allen recording solo sacks, while Vince Williams and Daniel McCullers tag teamed to bag another.
But those were not the difference making plays against the Bengals. The difference making plays boil down to these:
- Stephon Tuitt reading a Dalton screen near the goal line
- William Gay reading and intended McCarron bubble screen and taking it to the house
- Robert Golden picking off McCarron midway through the 4th quarter with the score at 26-13
Chris Boswell’s field goal transformed Tuitt’s interception into at least a six-point swing for the Steelers. Big Play Willie Gay’s latest pick six added another seven points to Pittsburgh’s column. Four straight runs by DeAngelo Williams led to the Steelers final touchdown.
- That’s 17 points secured off of turnovers in a game that the Steelers only won by 13.
Turnovers indeed pack a bigger punch when they happen late in the game, (think Troy Polamalu in the Steelers-Ravens AFC Championship game) but the critical issue is to transform them into points. The Steelers did that vs. the Bengals, and that is why they won at yet again at Paul Brown Stadium.