In the 15th week of the NFL’s 2016 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals to the tune of 24-20 at Paul Brown Stadium. Officially, the victory gives the Steelers their 5th straight win, improves their record to 9-5 and keeps them one game ahead of the Baltimore Ravens.
- Each of those accomplishments represents a necessary step that advances the Steelers towards the playoffs.
But reaching the playoffs isn’t the Steelers goal, winning the Super Bowl is. And in the game against the Bengals, the Steelers also showed progress on another front that they must master if they are to bring home Lombardi Number 7 this season.
In scoring 15 unanswered second half points against the Bengals, the Steelers showed that they can muster the discipline to avoid the self-destructive penalties that have plagued them for the last several weeks.
Steelers vs. Bengals First Half: When in Doubt, Look for a Flag
As a team, the Pittsburgh Steelers improved on several fronts during their recent four game winning streak.
- The Steelers offensive line began playing complete games, simultaneously protecting Ben Roethlisberger and opening holes for Le’Veon Bell.
- The Steelers run defense began shutting down opposing ground attacks.
- Keith Butler found away both to turn up the pressure on opposing passers and secure turnovers.
- Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave stopped playing like rookies.
- Ladarius Green showed he could help add a vertical element to the passing game.
At first these milestones came with an asterisk – after all, the Steelers had “only” accomplished these feats by beating Cleveland or the Luckless Colts. The wins against the Giants and the Bills helped wipe away those asterisks, but Pittsburgh’s peevish penchant for self-destructive penalties persisted.
Whether the Steelers were screwing up field positions on special teams, or nullifying turnovers thanks to untimely penalties, the tendency continued as Pittsburgh stacked wins. The wiser scribes in Steelers Nation scolded that sooner or later, these penalties would come back to haunt the Steelers.
And during the first half against the Cincinnati Bengals, it looked like the Steelers were going to do themselves in with flags.
- A facemask against Stephon Tuitt on third down gave the Bengals new life and they scored.
- A pass-interference penalty on Artie Burns set up the Bengals first touchdown.
- A chop block called on Le’Veon Bell nullified an Antonio Brown touchdown.
- And so it was, as the first half drew to a close, the Pittsburgh Steelers were looking at a 20-9 deficit while the Baltimore Ravens were leading the Eagles over in Charm City.
On his way in the locker room, Mike Tomlin made no bones about the impact that the penalties had had on his team, and declared that the key to a second half rally lay in “playing cleanly.”
Steelers Play Clean, Bengals Revert to Form
The last time the Steelers played at Paul Brown Stadium, the Cincinnati Bengals were approximately 2 minutes away from their first playoff victory since 1990. But then the Bengals of discipline took over, as the Steelers forced a fumble, moved down the field, and then got into easy field goal range thanks to back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
- During the first half, it looked like the Steelers lack of discipline would lead to their undoing.
The Cincinnati Bengals went into the locker room holding an 11 point lead on a team that needed this win. Cincinnati was playing for pride, playing to be the spoiler. It would be unfair to say that Cincinnati became completely unhinged in the second half. After all, the Bengals defense continued to force the Steelers to settle for field goal after field goal.
But with Pittsburgh down by 2 in the 4th quarter, the Bengals suffered what Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer would call “Bengals moments.”
- First, it was an off sides penalty on a failed 3rd and one conversion by Ben Roethlisberger. First down, Pittsburgh.
- Roethlisberger followed with another incompletion, but Cincinnati matched with another defensive holding penalty. First down, Pittsburgh.
- Ben Roethlisberger’s next pass fell incomplete, and Cincinnati committed another defensive holding penalty. First down, Pittsburgh.
- Next, Le’Veon Bell ran for no gain. Cincinnati committed an unnecessary roughness penalty. 15 yards, first down Pittsburgh.
The Bengals did a fine job of blowing up a Sammie Coates reverse, but on the next play, Ben Roethlisberger fired a bullet to Eli Rogers through double coverage which put the Steelers up for good. While the Steelers did earn their share of flags in the second half, none of these were of the drive killing or drive sustaining nature that
While Butler’s Boys Set Table, Boswell Quietly Serves
Chris Boswell wins the Steelers MVP award in a no brainier landslide. Going six for six on field goals in any stadium is no simple task. But Boswell did it outdoors, on a cold December day along the Ohio River. And Boswell didn’t just knock in a couple of chip shot field goals because the Steelers stalled in the Red Zone.
- Boswell, kicked field goals of 45, 49, 49, 46, 49 and 30 yards.
These kicks, while impressive, weren’t even Boswell’s best performance of the day, which came with his shoe-string, touchdown saving tackle of Alex Erickson.
It took three and a half quarters for the Steelers offense to get in gear, and even when they did, the assist they got from the Bengals lack of discipline greatly facilitated their only touchdown. Thanks to Chris Boswell the Steelers stayed in this game.
- But Chris Boswell hardly acted alone.
The other side of the story was told by Keith Butler’s defense. Stephon Tuitt stepped up his play tremendously in the absence of Cameron Heyward, but the Steelers lost Tuitt’s services early in the game. Then they lost Ricardo Mathews.
That left L.T. Walton, Daniel McCullers and Javon Hargrave as the Steelers only healthy defensive lineman, forcing James Harrison into some spot defensive-end duty.
- The Bengals opened the game by scoring on all four of their first half possessions.
- In the second half, Andy Dalton’s crew went Punt, Interception, Punt, Punt.
They never even threatened to score in the second half, thanks to Lawrence Timmons’ interception, Ryan Shazier’s sack, timely passes tipped away by Ross Cockrell and Artie Burns, and solid tackling all around.
Steelers Have Positioned Themselves to Capitalize on Christmas
The win over the Bengals improves the Steelers record to 9-7, bringing up a Christmas Day show down against the Baltimore Ravens. The stakes in the game are simple:
- A Steelers win will assure them the AFC North Division Championship and a playoff spot.
A loss likely leads to the Ravens winning the division, while Steelers Nation passes the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day memorizing NFL playoff tie breakers. The Steelers have worked hard to put themselves in position for this. Now Mike Tomlin’s crew must capitalize.