The Pittsburgh Steelers entered their Sunday Night Football matchup with Cincinnati Bengals certain of three things:
- Their playoff ticket was already punched
- beating the Bengals would set Pittsburgh as the destination of that ticket
- Playing at Heinz Field in the post-season would require overcoming the team’s unquestioned link: the secondary
The underlying irony of the Steelers 27-17 win over the Bengals is that secondary was the primary reason for Pittsburgh’s win.
Steelers Defensive Backfield Hardly Secondary Concern
During the Steelers awful 0-5 stretch in 2009, no unit got stung more the secondary, which got scorched by some of the NFL’s most mediocre quarterbacks. A year later, the unit bounced back, only to have Aaron Rogers having his way with them in Super Bowl XVL. A year, later Tim Tebow shoed the Steelers out of the playoffs with a single overtime pass.
- Since the Steelers last hoisted the Lombardi, Pittsburgh the secondary has repeatedly been singled out as the team’s weak link.
And that came before 2014, where the Steelers pass defense ranked 27th in yards allowed, 28th in touchdowns allowed, and 25th in interceptions. The stage was set. Andy Dalton might not strike fear into anyone’s heart, but A.J. Green certainly should and does. Just 3 weeks before the duo had teamed for 224 yards, and they arrived at Heinz Field looking for more.
Not Your Older Brother’s Bengals
Cincinnati might be making its fourth straight playoff appearance, but it entered each of its three previous trips to the post season with a whimper. Just over one year ago, the Bengals had come into Heinz Field on Sunday Night fighting for a first round bye only to get “pimp slapped” to quote BTSC’s Ivan Cole, by the Steelers.
- The Steelers struck first, with the defense forcing a 3 and out and Antonio Brown electrifying the Steel City with a 71 yard touchdown return.
But these are not your order brother’s Bengals. Yes, Brice McCain picked off an deep pass for A.J. Green, but the Bengals defense forced a 3 and out of their own and took 7 plays to convert a short field into 7 points of their own.
These Bengals made it clear they weren’t conceding the AFC North crown, no they were going to claw and scratch with everything they had to get it.
Steelers, Bengals Adjust Game Plans
In their first match up at Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati couldn’t run, but the Steelers couldn’t stop A.J. Green through the air, and the Bengals couldn’t stop Le’Veon Bell on the ground or in the air.
- Both teams executed new game plans to avoid old mistakes.
The Bengals focused on shutting down Le’Veon Bell and it worked – on the ground at least. Bell held him to 20 yards rushing, tying his season low. They also committed themselves to rushing the ball with Jeremy Hill and they succeeded. Hill not only reached the century mark, his strong play also allowed Dalton to use play action effectively, especially early in the game.
On defense the Steelers committed themselves to protecting against the deep ball and they succeeded – the Bengals didn’t have a catch of more than 19 yards.
McCain and Blake Deliver as Difference Makers
The Steelers 2014 off season was one of their busiest ever. Yet their moves to address their biggest area of need, cornerback, generated far more skepticism than enthusiasm. First was signing Brice McCain, whom Pro Football Focus had rated as the NFL’s worst cornerback in 2013.
Next, came their decision not to draft a corner early in the 2014 Draft, while Dick LeBeau and Carnell Lake instead chose to talk about some guy named Antwon Blake whom the Steelers plucked from Jacksonville’s waiver wire.
So it was that, midway through the second quarter, Dalton again looked deep for Green. He couldn’t quite deliver on target and the ball deflected off of Green’s hands. Brice McCain smelled blood and attacked, picking off the ball and returning it 31 yards.
- Ben Roethlisberger hit hit Steelers rookie of the year Martavis Bryant on a oft-maligned bubble screen to plays later and the Steelers were up 17-10.
That was the 1st turnover produced by the secondary turned into a touchdown.
The next turnover came wrapped in more than a bit of irony, considering that it amounted to the secondary bailing out the special teams, and by implication the coaches:
That ridiculous fake punt shows how little faith Mike Tomlin has in his defense to hold this 3-point lead
— Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) December 29, 2014
Bouchette’s probably got a point, but if Mike Tomlin didn’t believe in his defense, his defense certainly believed in itself. 3 plays after Pittsburgh’s fake punt, Dalton found Green in Steelers territory, Antwon Blake may have allowed the catch, but never stopped hustling – forcing Green to cough up the ball and then pouncing on it.
- With 3:51 left the smart move would have been to burn up the clock.
But as Mike Tomlin declares, “The Steelers live in our hopes not our fears.” Ben Roethilsberger missed on a deep strike to Bryant, but two plays later he connected with Brown for 63 yards.
Cincinnati got the ball back, and could have theoretically mounted a comeback – but the Steelers defense shut them down cold.
Defense to be Player in Steelers Playoff Run Too?
“The Word” was that the 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers would go as far as their offense would take them. But in two straight games now, their defense has stepped up to provide the plays that make the difference between 11-5 and a division championship and 9-7.
It will be interesting to see how the dynamic evolves as Pittsburgh proceeds through the playoffs.