The Bengals beat the Steelers 27-17, but Pittsburgh was far more dramatic than the 10 point margin that Cincinnati inflicted suggests. It not that…
- They suffered their 3rd loss after 11 straight wins
- Pittsburgh lost to a 2-10 Cincinnati team
- The Bengals were fielding a third string quarterback and missing many starters
- Steelers fumbled their chance to grab a division title
No. All of those factors are symptoms of a far more troubling trend: The Ben Roethlisberger era appears to be ending in front of our eyes. Yes, we saw a different, better Ben Roethlisberger in the 2nd half. Could that offer hope for the rest of the season?
Time will tell. But one thing is certain right now: Watching this happen is real time is painful.
1st Half Steelers Nation Suffers its Ali-Holmes Moment
The “Super Steelers” were my heroes growing up in Maryland in the late 70’s. Really. We’d play “Super Steelers” as if Lynn Swann and Joe Greene had super powers. But they weren’t my only heroes
- Another big one was Muhammad Ali.
I’d never seen him fight. Didn’t matter. Popular culture filled the void. Ali could do no wrong. I woke up gleefully on the morning of October 3rd, 1980 expecting good news and still remember my disappointment at hearing my mom tell me that Ali had lost to Larry Holmes.
- Disappointment wasn’t limited to 8 year old boys.
Veteran boxing correspondent Jack Newfield confessed that he was “… literally crying. I was– there were tears on my notebook as I watched that.” The first half of the Bengals game felt like Steelers Nations’ own Ali-Holmes moment.
- Sometimes the best way to break out of a slump is to confront your weakness head on.
Credit Randy Fichtner for doing just that. The Steelers have struggled both the long ball and play action this year. So on the very first play Fichtner had Ben Roethlisberger fake the handoff to Benny Snell, rollout of the pocket to his right and target James Washington 40 yards downfield.
- It was a beautiful sight. It would have been a tone setter
- It could have even been a game changer
- Except that the pass was 3-4 yards too short
- So short that Darius Phillips should have intercepted it
More bad things happened. On the next snap Benny Snell ran the ball for real and only got 2 years. On third down Ben Roethlisberger hit Diontae Johnson with a pass that was high yet catchable. Diontae dropped it. Not that this really mattered — it was a 4 yard pass when the Steelers needed 8.
Things got worse. On the next possession a four yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster simply set up 2 more deep incompletions and a punt. Next the tried to use “Jet Motion” with Ben Roethlisberger under center – where he promptly fumbled. The Bengals recovered.
The Steelers defense did well to limit Cincinnati to a field goal. But the worst was yet to come. Before the 2nd half was over:
- JuJu Smith-Schuster would get his noodle rocked, fumbling the ball back to the Bengals
- Ben Roethlisberger would toss an ugly interception to Mackensie Alexander
- The Bengals would convert both of those into touchdowns
By the end of the first half, Pittsburgh had just 40 yards from scrimmage. Ben Roethlisberger had 19 yards passing and two turnovers. In other words, the Steelers offense had 3 turnovers and had made just two first downs.
Damning numbers indeed. But they looked and felt worse in real time. The Bengals have one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses, yet here was Ben Roethlisberger struggling to connect on simple throws. He didn’t look like a two- time Super Bowl winner; he looked like a hapless rookie 4th string quarterback going up against the ’85 Bears.
Indeed, although Ben wasn’t taking a beating, in the first half he looked every bit as out of control as Ali had against Larry Holmes on the fateful night in Las Vegas.
Roethlisberger Redux? Meh, Not Quite
For the first time ever, I honestly thought that Mike Tomlin should consider pulling Ben Roethlisberger for performance. In Latin America, ESPN Deportes commentators thought it might happen, advising that Mason Rudolph had warmed up after half time.
It didn’t happen. Stout play by Cam Heyward, Avery Williamson and Alex Highsmith forced a 3 and out and the when the Steelers offense came out, Ben Roethlisberger was at the helm.
And for a time, the Steelers looked like the team that went 11-0 in September, October and November and not December’s 3 and 0er. Behind a crushing block from Vance McDonald, Chase Claypool transformed a simple screen pass on 3rd and 3 into to a thirty seven yard sideline scamper. One play later, Ben Roethlisberger threw a laser to Diontae Johnson.
On the next series, it was Benny Snell’s turn to shine as he ripped off runs of 29 and 13 yards. The Steelers had to settle for a Chris Boswell field goal, but still, it was a 1 score game and 5 minutes remained in the third quarter.
Out Muscled on the Line, Defense Out Foxed by Finley
Before the game, no one in Steelers Nation knew the names “Ryan Finley” and “Josh Bynes.” We’ll probably never hear their names again. But together the tandem snuffed out the Steelers 2nd half comeback.
- In the first half, the Steelers mustered their will to convert a 4th and 1. That was a small but symbolic moment.
Symbolism only gets you so far. When the next time the Steelers faced a 3rd and 1 after Chris Boswell’s field goal, Benny Snell got stoned by Josh Bynes. Instead continuing to fight to tie the score the Steelers punted and asked their defense to bail them out. Again.
- Out foxed by Ryan Finley, the defense couldn’t deliver.
Ryan Finley completed just 7 passes, but he ran for 47 yards. Three of those runs converted 3rd downs and another other gave Cincinnati a touchdown.
T.J. Watt, Stephon Tuitt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Steven Nelson all made excellent plays against the Bengals. But the Steelers defense couldn’t prevent Ryan Finley from looking like the 2nd coming of Fran Tarkenton. Disappointing?
Yes, but hardly surprising given that the Steelers were missing 3 of their 4 starting linebackers, their top backup and were forced to play a safety at inside linebacker.
One Last Hurrah?
Christmas is days away, and the Steelers haven’t played a good football game since before Thanksgiving. Yet, as Mark Kaboly pointed out in The Athletic, minus Bud Dupree, this is the same team that tangled with the Titans in the battle of the undefeated and walked away with a win.
- For weeks now we’ve been waiting for the Steelers to “snap out of it”
- Instead, their downward spiral is snapping into high gear
The story of a veteran pulling it together and leaving all out on the field for one final hurrah offers a compelling narrative. Sometimes it even happens in real life. See Jerome Bettis in Super Bowl XL.
But for that to happen here, Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to accept his limitations, find a way to succeed within them and hope his offensive line and running game can do “just enough” to get by.
Otherwise, Steelers Nation will be facing a long, cold winter.