Victory or defeat in pro football might hinge on many things:
- The victor imposing its will
- A team creating opportunities for itself
- A Prime Time Player stepping up at a key moment or committing an egregious error at an in opportune time
Monday night's battle between the Steelers and the Bengals combined each those elements.
No sane Steelers fan can be take comfort in the fact the Bengals were 0:35 seconds away from losing a game that never should have gotten that close but, despite that, this might have been just what was necessary for Steelers to exorcize a few demons.
Making Your Own Opportunities
In Pittsburgh last year, the Steelers and Bengals played each other to a defensive stalemate that resulted in a field goal kicking derby. The operative difference?
- On Cincinnati’s first kick return Brad Scott ran untouched for a 96 yard touchdown.
Monday Night the Steelers special teams returned the favor, as Emmanuel Sanders and Jason Worilds stripped Scott and set up the Steelers first touchdown.
Far from finished, Al Everest’s added an encore by blocking the Steelers first punt, directly resulting in another 3 points.
The Bengals could have easily folded, but they did not. Their defense dug and unleashed a furious pass rush on the Steelers as their offense clipped the difference to 3.
The Bengals were threatening to do it again when the Steelers defense made its contribution as Lawrence Timmons picked off Palmer’s pass.
Six plays later the Hines Ward extended the Steelers advantage back to 10 points.
Imposing Will to Create Opportunities
The Bengals looked to create an opportunity of their own, answering the Steelers touchdown with a 46 yard return.
Cincinnati had golden field position but the Steelers defense refused to relent, allowing only 10 yards forcing Cincinnati to opt for a long field goal – which they missed.
With a 45 seconds and a ten point lead, the safe money would be to sit on it and be glad to get the ball out of the half. Mike Tomlin, however, plays to win, and a 24 yard pass to Mike Wallace was all that was needed to set up Jeff Reed’s 51 yard field goal.
A Test of Wills in Which Neither Wears Down...
Credit Marv Lewis. Credit Carlson Palmer, credit the entire Cincinnati Bengals organization.
During the Steelers defense clamped down on the Bengals in a way that evoked memories of the 2008 season, blitzing, pressuring, and sacking Palmer from all angles. Neither Palmer, nor the Bengals, ever quit, as the Cincinnati defense imposed some of its own will on Pittsburgh, as both teams remained scoreless through the third quarter.
At the end of 3rd quarter, Steelers offensive coordinator looked to be going for the knockout punch, conjuring memories of similar attempts in Detroit last season, memories which would ultimately prove to be prophetic.
But that was far from clear as Antwan Randal El did redux of his Super Bowl XL glory hitting Mike Wallace with and under thrown, could have been interception, touchdown pass.
Up 27-7 with 14:50 left to play, it appeared that the knock out punch had been landed.
Wrong. The fireworks along the Ohio River, long a Queen City claim to fame, had yet to begin.
Prime Time Players Step Up, And Not
If he is anything, Carlson Palmer is resilient. Refusing to fold, it only took him 5 plays to move his team 57 yards hitting T.O. for a 27 yard touchdown pass.
At the time it seemed like little more than garbage time glory, but again perceptions deceived.
Cincinnati’s defense got its turn, and completely disturbed the Steelers offense forcing Ben Roethlisberger into one of the worst passes he has ever thrown, resulting in a Cincinnati touchdown.
Aided by three straight, bone headed, Pittsburgh penalties, the Bengals only needed 1:01 to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 6 points.
Few people will label the Steelers offensive line as a unit stocked with Prime Time talent, but anyone who saw them on Pittsburgh’s penultimate drive would beg to differ.
Running behind the some of the best run blocking that has been produced by a Pittsburgh offense in recent memory, Rashard Mendenhall moved the Steelers from their 29 to the Cincinnati 28.
All that remained was for Jeff Reed, who’d already hit a 51 yarder, to knock in another from 46 yards away.
Reed, ever depenedable until recently, missed and Steelers Nation spent the next 3 minutes and 25 seconds warding off cardiac arrest.
Exorcising the Demons?
If Steelers special team’s early experience with exorcism had been exciting then the defense’s late experiment was very bit as excruciating.
One year earlier at Paul Brown Stadium Carlson Palmer had been in the same situation:
- In 2009 he moved his team 71 yards in 16 plays, his longest pass being 17 yards.
- This year he moved his team 52 yards, his longest pass being 20 yards.
In 2009, on 4th and 10 at the Pittsburgh 15 with less than a minute to play...
- ...Carlson Palmer threw an 11 yard pass...
James Farrior arrived just a moment too late, and 2 plays later Cincinnati had taken the lead.
On Monday night, on 4th and 5 at the Pittsburgh 12 with less than a minute to play...
- ...Carlson Palmer threw a 10 yard pass...
...James Harrison and Ike Taylor arrived right on time, and two plays later Ben Roethlisberger sealed victory by taking a knee for the second time.
Even setting aside the injuries the Steelers suffered in Cincinnati, skeptics have many reasons to see the glass half empty in Pittsburgh’s 4th quarter near-melt down.
But the half-full view reveals a Steelers team pushed to the edge yet refusing to blink.
What a difference one year makes.