With second place in the AFC North at stake, the Pittsburgh Steelers survived a 14-3 deficit to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals 24-17 on Sunday night. The Bengals seemingly set the tone for the game as they drove 80 yards on 15 plays to grab an early 7-0 lead but Pittsburgh’s defense adjusted quickly, allowing only 105 yards for the rest of the game. The Steelers took the lead for good on a touchdown by running back Chris Rainey, and then thwarted any comeback attempt from the Bengals by allowing only 7 yards on their last two drives of the game.
For Pittsburgh, it was a huge boost for a defense that had been losing its reputation as one of the league’s best. They also put themselves right back into the mix of mediocrity that is the AFC. The Bengals are in that mix as well, but their challenge is to find an offensive identity that does not completely rely on wide receiver A.J. Green. As we saw in this game, a disappearing Green means a sputtering offense for Cincinnati.
Let’s take a look at some of the other key performances that fueled this AFC North battle.
Pittsburgh — Three Performances of Note
Running Back Replacement
Apparently the best way to give a boost to a struggling running attack is to bring out the third string running back. With RBs Rashad Mendenhall and Isaac Redman sidelined with injuries, RB Jonathan Dwyer (+3.1) played a career-high 46 snaps and he made the most of them picking up 122 yards on his 17 carries. An amazing 114 of them came after contact and he forced four tacklers to miss on his way to a gaudy Elusive Rating of 157.8 for the week. Dwyer’s 32-yard run on 3rd-and-7 with 1:20 to go in the fourth quarter not only sealed the deal for the Steelers, but it put an exclamation point on Dwyer’s day as he broke into the secondary and shrugged of a feeble tackle attempt from safety Reggie Nelson. Pittsburgh fans were treated to an old-school Steelers rushing attack as they gained 167 yards for the game.
Shutting Down Green
It took a full team effort, but the Steelers were able to take the Bengals’ best offensive weapon, WR A.J. Green, right out of the game. Granted, Cincinnati only had 50 snaps to work with on offense, but Green only saw five balls thrown his way. His lone catch did go for an 8-yard touchdown on a slant route, but that was all he could muster against the Pittsburgh secondary.
Dalton seemed content to settle for short passes, but he did try to get Green involved on a couple of deep balls. On 3rd-and-1 in the third quarter, Dalton ran play action and Green appeared to have inside position on cornerback Ike Taylor (+1.3) on his post route. It took a great play from CB Keenan Lewis (+1.3) who peeled off his coverage to tip away the would-be touchdown. Dalton looked for Green again, on what would turn out to be the Bengals’ last play from scrimmage, but the corner route was bracketed by both Taylor and free safety Ryan Clark and the throw was just out of Green’s reach. The misfire capped a frustrating day for our No. 5-ranked WR and a huge coup for the Steelers who used a combination of extra attention and exceptional cover skills to hold Green to his least productive day as a pro.
Drops for Wallace
After dropping only five passes all of last year and only one coming into Sunday night’s game, Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace dropped three of the 14 balls thrown his way. The first two drops would have been surefire first downs as Wallace ran a nifty out route on 3rd-and-9 with 10:37 to go in the first quarter, but he was unable to hold onto the ball. Later in the quarter, Wallace broke free down the middle of the field on a coverage breakdown, but again, he was unable to haul in the pass from Ben Roethlisberger. He added his third drop of the day on a third down slant pass in the fourth quarter, though he was likely going to be tackled short of the first down markers. For the day, Wallace caught eight balls for only 52 yards, including three screen passes. Annually one of the best deep threats in the league, Wallace left a lot of yards on the table in this game due to an uncharacteristically bad day catching the football.
Cincinnati — Three Performances of Note
Poor Linebacker Play
The season-long narrative of poor play from Bengals linebackers continued Sunday, though this time it added LB Vontaze Burfict (-1.6) to the mix. The undrafted free agent had been showing steady improvement throughout the season and this game, despite 15 total tackles, was slight step back. It wasn’t all bad as Burfict was active in the running game with seven stops, five of which came from his kinfing through traffic unblocked. The problem was when offensive linemen got their hands on him, either at the point of attack or at the second level, he was generally taken out of the play.
While Burfict’s subpar game came as a surprise given his early season success, Bengals fans have come to expect a poor performance from LB Rey Maualuga (-2.3). He got lost in coverage on multiple occasions, including a 30-yard play action pass to tight end Heath Miller. In the running game, Maualuga was completely wiped out at the second level by offensive tackle Mike Adams on RB Chris Rainey’s touchdown run in the fourth quarter. For the season, Maualuga is pulling up the rear among all of our linebackers at -15.5.
Guards Lead the Way
Cincinnati’s offensive line has gained a reputation as a good pass blocking group that struggles in the running game, though they played a balanced game on Sunday. Both guards played well as LG Clint Boling (+2.4) and RG Kevin Zeitler (+1.9) were the top-rated linemen for the Bengals. As usual, quiet is good for linemen, and neither player surrendered pressure on the Bengals’ 50 snaps. Zeitler did a particularly nice job in the running game getting to the second level and sealing Pittsburgh’s inside linebackers while Boling had a key block in the screen game. For the season, the duo remains in the Top 10 in our guard rankings.
After losing center Jeff Faine to a hamstring injury after only 25 snaps, the Bengals were forced to insert undrafted free agent C Trevor Robinson (-2.3) as their new pivot man. This is actually Cincinnati’s third-string center as Kyle Cook was originally dialed in as the starter before going down to injury just before the season.
Playing the Bengals’ final 25 plays, Robinson was introduced to defensive tackle Casey Hampton on just his second snap. Hampton’s bull rush nearly pushed Robinson into the running back and he was left with no choice but to grab Hampton and dragged him to the ground for a holding penalty. Hampton got the best of him again at the 4:55 mark of the fourth quarter when he threw Robinson aside right off the snap and met RB Benjarvus Green-Ellis in the backfield for a 2-yard loss. Throw in one pressure surrendered and it was a tough night for Robinson.
– Only five of Dalton’s 23 aimed passes traveled beyond 10 yards in the air and only two were thrown beyond 20 (and both were incomplete).
– Steelers DE Ziggy Hood did not pick up any pressures on his 26 pass rushes, but he did bat down two passes.
– 101 of Dwyer’s 122 rushing yards came between the tackles; 75 of those between the guards.
PFF Game Ball
Jonathan Dwyer’s hard-nosed running earned him the game ball. His two key runs at the end of the fourth quarter sealed the game for the Steelers as Dwyer proved difficult to tackle the entire game.
Follow Steve on Twitter: @PFF_Steve