All is right with the world.
The Pittsburgh Steelers bounced back from last weekend’s soul-crushing loss by defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 24-17 in what was a road game in name only. While Steeler Nation is to be commended for taking over yet another stadium, I implore them to not read too much into this victory. The temptation to say “Well, Cincy is what we thought they were” will be great even though this game was every bit as close as the final score indicates. From what I saw yesterday, I truly believe Cincy will be the team we battle for control of the AFC North in years to come.
The Black and Gold got off to a fast start, scoring touchdowns on their first two drives of the afternoon. The first drive concluded with Ben Roethlisberger scrambling away from danger and finding Jerricho Cotchery in the end zone for his first Steeler TD. The Cotch Rocket would later have another TD wiped off the board on a similar catch-and-run. I hate to belabor this point since it makes me sound like a Hines Ward hater, which I’m definitely not, but why is this guy not playing more? Hines, who spent almost the entire game on the sideline, caught one ball for 10 yards as it appears his career is quickly reaching an end.
Our second drive was capped by a nice hard run by Rashard Mendenhall. Mendy would have two rushing touchdowns on the day, both outstanding efforts. A Victoria’s Secret model would’ve had a hard time squeezing through the holes the offensive line opened up. Well, except for Brazilians, no way their asses could’ve gotten through. It was gratifying to see Rashard skip the dancing and just bull straight ahead on both TD runs. He still didn’t provide much of a rushing attack (16 carries for a meager 44 yards) but it’d help this team immensely if he can be an effective red zone threat.
In my preview, I described Bengals QB Andy Dalton as “unflappable” and he proved it here. With the Steelers up 14-0, Dalton completed a third down pass to Andrew Hawkins for 26 yards. I also mentioned fellow rookie AJ Green’s knack for making big plays. The Red Rifle uncorked a bomb to Green and he made a spectacular catch jumping over both Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu to come down with it. Ike Taylor had Green covered pretty well on the first few drives so I don’t know if Dick LeBeau tried getting cute or what but Clark + Troy ≠ Face Me Ike.
Even though Green came up hobbling and was pretty much lost for the game, you could sense a shift in momentum. Sure enough on the Steelers very next drive, Ben hit Heath Miller in the breadbasket but Heath decided to play patty-cake with the ball until Leon Hall came flying in to pick it off. Yesterday was a really tough day at the office for Heath. Not only did he gift-wrap an interception, he was flagged for offensive pass interference on Cotchery’s second TD catch later in the quarter, negating the score. Even when he made a play, like a tough 18 yarder that set up Mendy’s first TD, he damn near got broken in half. If Ryan Clark’s hit on Ed Dickson was worth $40,000, the lick Miller took yesterday should cost Bill Gates money.
Anyway, both teams ended up trading field goals which left the Steelers up 17-10 at halftime.
The Bengals came out of the locker room fired up. After the Steelers went three and out, Dalton marched the team right down the field. A screen pass on 2nd and goal from the 9 came up short but Lawrence Timmons decided to dogpile on the already downed receiver and got flagged for a personal foul. On their second attempt from the 1, Red made a beautiful throw to Jermaine Gresham in the end zone.
To their credit, the Steelers answered right back with Ben hitting Cotchery, Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace en route to Mendy’s second TD plunge. After that, however, the Bengal D put the kibosh on the Flying Circus for the rest of the game. As I feared, the Steelers offensive line couldn’t handle the Bengals’ speedy defensive linemen. Marcus Gilbert, in particular, was experiencing Groundhog Day as he’d get run around time and time again reminiscent of earlier in the year against Indy. Chris Kemoeatu and even Max Starks had their hands full as well. After doing a nice job against the Ratbirds last week, they surrendered five official sacks while there were easily another half-dozen plays where Ben either ran for his life or paid the price after throwing the ball.
Luckily, the Steelers D also came to play. After Ben’s “pick” (which really belonged to Heath), the Black and Gold’s NFL worst turnover margin sat at a miserable -12. Early in the fourth quarter, Will.i.am Gay got one back for the good guys by swatting a ball meant for Andre Caldwell into Timmons’ nurturing embrace. The teams traded punts until Brandon Tate got loose for a 16 yard return which set the Bengals up at mid-field. Like a bad horror movie where the monster pops up long after you think he’s gone, Cedric Benson finally reared his ugly mug(shot), ripping off a 16 yard run to give the Bengals a first down at the Steeler 25. I won’t lie, I had horrible flashbacks to last week’s collapse against Baltimore.
I hate when the Steelers run. I’m advocating Ben chuck the ball 35-40 times every game. The defense is ranked first against the pass but vulnerable to the run. And I have zero faith in the Steelers’ ability to hold a lead. What the hell kind of Bizzaro World have I stumbled into?
Thank Fergie for Will.i.am. On Cincy’s second play from the 25, Gay jumped the route and came away with the D’s fourth turnover of the entire season (all interceptions, by the way). William Gay, Hero? The end is surely nigh.
A few hours later, the Baltimore Ravens responded to sweeping their hated blood-rivals and being anointed the team to beat in the AFC by…losing to the Seattle Seahawks? The Steelers will be sitting at home next weekend when the two teams knock heads with each other. The AFC North (and by extension, at least one Wild Card spot) is truly a free-for-all at this point. All three teams have three losses, while the Steelers are technically in first place since they own one more win (by virtue of not having had their bye). If Cincy wins, the Steelers will still be in first place because of this head-to-head victory. If Baltimore wins, we fall to second because they swept us. However, that would give us a two game cushion over Cincy in the Wild Card. Considering the Bengals hung with us to the very end despite losing their top WR and top CB, I’m not sure who we should root for next week.