There was plenty to love about the Pittsburgh Steelers pivotal 33-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals yesterday in front of a sellout crowd at Paul Brown Stadium. Besides exacting revenge for a loss in Week 8, the Steelers helped their playoff cause as they get set to host the Denver Broncos this Sunday.
Let’s look at the best and worst from yesterday’s big win.
*Let’s give some credit to the defensive unit. Sure, the Bengals lost Andy Dalton to a first quarter thumb injury, but that did not stop the group from having one of their better performances of the year.
Stephon Tuitt set the tone when he anticipated a screen to Giovanni Bernard with the Bengals on the doorstep of a score on their first possession. Tuitt’s slick play not only thrwarted the drive, Dalton suffered a potentially season-ending thumb injury attempting to tackle Tuitt on the play.
Tuitt and company were able to limit the potent rushing duo of Jeremy Hill and Bernard to 56 yards on the ground, making the Bengals offense one dimensional and forcing backup A.J. McCarron to pass 32 times in the game. Cameron Heyward was a force once again, coming up with a sack, a tipped pass and a pressure that helped lead to Robert Golden’s fourth quarter interception that iced the game.
Willie Gay’s pick-six on the second play of the second half took the wind out of the stadium and gave the Steelers a commanding 23-7 lead. It was Gay’s fifth interception return for a TD, tying him with Hall of Famer Rod Woodson for the franchise record.
*Remember the nightmare that was the Steelers kicking situation earlier this season? Placekicker Chris Boswell has put those memories in the rear view mirror with his performance thus far. Boswell went 4 for 4 on the day and three of those kicks were from more than 40 yards out. Add a fantastic job on the kickoffs that helped limit dangerous return man Brandon Tate and it was a flawless day for the rookie kicker.
Punter Jordan Berry might have only punted twice, but they were both textbook and included a picture-perfect boot that was downed at the one-yard line by special teams demon Darrius Heyward-Bey.
*Biggest stat of the day? Third-down efficiency for the Steelers offense. The Steelers were able to convert 8-of-14 third-down opportunities and that included three in the first possession of the game. Ben Roethlisberger was remarkably efficient, going 30-of-39 on the day and targeting the ever-reliable Heath Miller for 10 of those completions.
Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton had crucial third-down catches on the opening touchdown drive, and DeAngelo Williams continues to be a outstanding replacement for Le’Veon Bell, cashing in for two touchdowns.
*Antwon Blake continues to struggle in the Steelers secondary. He was beaten badly by A.J. Green late in the first half for a 66-yard touchdown and is missing tackles at an alarming rate. Blake’s shoddy play prompted the Steelers to once again turn to Brandon Boykin for much of the second half. To be fair, Blake is not alone when it comes to the issues in the secondary and one has to wonder if this achillies heal might end up being fatal to the Steelers Super Bowl aspirations.
*Let me start with this caveat: the officials did not have an especially good day yesterday, but regardless, the four personal foul penalties are a problem. To be fair, the Steelers did a pretty solid job of keeping their composure considering the circumstances which included a lot of extra curriculars by the Bengals, but you don’t like to see it.
Conversely, despite of the penalties, love the swagger and that is a credit to the leadership of Mike Tomlin. With yesterday’s win, Tomlin joined Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher in the 90+ win club, making the Steelers the first franchise to have three coaches to accomplish that feat.
*Vontaze Burfict. A book could be written on why his display yesterday is everything that is wrong with the league. From his pre-game antics, his dirty shot on Roethlisberger in the first half, his drama-filled exits and returns to the game with injuries and finally his behavior during a sequence of plays on the Steelers final touchdown all provided plenty of reasons for his ejection yesterday. It never happened, and the league should take a hard look at Burfict and consider fining him for his embarrassing behavior.