The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered their first home defeat at Heinz Field Sunday, and in doing so yielded a commanding lead in the AFC North to the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Steelers first loss to Cincinnati was hard to swallow because Pittsburgh had left a lot of plays on the field but nonetheless dominated for three quarters, only to blow the game at the end.
Since then the Steelers have made steady, if not linear progress. The defense seemed to find its identity, and the one week ago in Denver Bruce Arians seemed to find the pass-run balance that would make his offense dangerous.
If the Steelers defense was almost its old self against the Bengals, the offense was MIA.
Credit Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer for devising a master game plan which his players executed to perfection.
The Cincinnati defense was simply more physical up front, and their linebackers and defensive backs were phenomenal in coverage. They sacked Ben four times in the first half – when lineman weren’t in Roethlisberger’s face, their counterparts were all over the Steelers receivers giving Ben no where to throw.
The Steelers running game similarly regressed, as the Bengals stuffed Mendenhall for losses or no gain time and time again.
The Cincinnati defense arrived ready to play.
Arians Fails to Come Up with the Answers
The Steelers are loaded on offense. There’s not position that is a legitimate weakness. Sometimes an offensive coordinator can have too many toys and a few weeks ago in the Steelers Digest Jim Wexell suggested that might be the case with Arians.
Perhaps that’s so.
Consider that in 15 Red Zone plays (excluding kicks), Pittsburgh ran three times,* and passed 12 times. To be fair, Mendenhall was stopped for losses in the Red Zone, and the giving up sacks there limits rushing options.
But Arians’s play calling on third down is also at issue. The Steelers were a woeful 3-15 converting third downs. They converted one by passing, and the other two came on a 12 yard Mewelde Moore run and Ben’s 15 yard scramble.
Out of the 12 failed third down attempts, all but one were passes, with Mendenhall failing to convert a 3rd and 1 (and I think he got screwed on the spot, but so be it.) Again, in the interests of fairness, many of those were third and long, but Arians also threw on 3rd & 2, and 3rd & 3, and 3rd & 5, twice.
Mendenhall might not have had his best day, but Mewelde Moore had runs of 9 and 12 yards, and if not Moore why not give Willie Parker a short?
Finding the right mix of weapons on offense might be difficult, but that’s Arians job. Against the Bengals, that mix was no where to be seen.
Ben Had a Bad Day
It is easy to arm chair quarterback play calling, because Ben and his receivers are capable of converting a 3rd and 17 or a 3rd and 14. They make those plays, and Arians becomes a genius.
But they didn’t. They weren’t even close to being close.
This wasn’t Ben’s worst day as a quarterback – that would be the Oakland game in 2006 – but Ben was off. Passes flew high, were thrown too hard, or got there a second too early or too late. The stat sheet shows that Ben only threw one pick, but he is lucky he did not have a half dozen.
Ben faced a lot of pressure during the first half, but even when the line bought him more time in the second, he still failed to deliver the ball on target.
Mike Zimmer placed his to make plays, and they executed. But Ben could have made, should have made and usually makes several of the throws he missed to day. That was the difference in the game.**
An Apocryphal Prediction
Yours truly used to live in Cincinnati, and I’m still in touch with people there. Earlier in the season, a friend in the Queen City confided that in spite of Cincinnati's succession of wins, he still did not "believe." I told him that the Bengals had a lot of talent, that they’d built a foundation by playing hard during a losing season last year, and that winning close ones often builds momentum.
Unfortunately, not only was that prediction apt then, it also serves as an excellent metaphor for today’s game.
The Bengals certainly did not dominate in the traditional sense, but they picked up momentum as the game wore on.
Case in point: it’d be easy to criticize defense for their performance on the Bengals final drive. But did anyone really think the Steelers offense was capable of scoring a touchdown?
When asked if the victory over the Broncos represented a “statement game,” Mike Tomlin said it might, but only if the Steelers showed they could sustain it down the stretch.
Not only did the Steelers not sustain that on Sunday, they appear to have regressed. They’ve got more tests ahead of them, but they’ve made their road far more difficult by giving Cincinnati a 2 game lead in the AFC North, a lead that Cincinnati’s earned.
*Ed Bouchette's numbers seemed to be slightly different, his are probably more accurate.
**Lest it become an unmentioned elephant in the room, special teams failures also played large in Sunday's defeat, but this post is long enough. Steel Curtain Rising will have more to say soon.