ReFo: Bengals @ Steelers, Week 16
This was an old fashioned knock ‘em down drag ‘em out fight for the right to the final playoff spot in the AFC. In the end, it was the Cincinnati Bengals who gave a hint to potentially coming of age as they beat the Steelers at their own game. Typically, the Steelers are masters of these close games where the defenses dominate and wait for that one crucial mistake from the opposition. On this occasion though, it was the Bengals who emerged triumphant finally getting Andy Dalton that marquee victory over one of the top two sides in the AFC North. He’ll get a crack at the double next Sunday in the Bengals’ regular-season finale against Baltimore.
It seems perhaps a little unfair in a season of such inconsistency for the Steelers that their one consistently positive performer, Ben Roethlisberger, is the man whose mistakes ultimately cost Pittsburgh their shot at another playoff berth. His pick-six early in the game and his wild interception late gave the Bengals 10 of their points on a day when their offense struggled to make much headway against a Pittsburgh defense firing on all cylinders.
For the Bengals, this marquee victory on enemy turf seals a second straight playoff berth. They will now be looking to fare better this season than they did last year. A victory next weekend would see them enter the postseason on the crest of a wave of momentum. Here are some of the key performers that sent the Bengals to the postseason and the Steelers heading for an offseason that is sure to be filled with thought for how to get back to the top.
Cincinnati – Three Performances of Note
Delivering When It Counts
In the first meeting between these two teams, the Bengals saw their chief offensive playmaker largely taken out of the game as he was limited to just an 8-yard touchdown reception. In the rematch, with Ike Taylor out due to injury, the Bengals wanted to be sure that A.J. Green was not left as a spectator and went to him relentlessly. Green’s 18 targets in this game are comfortably a season high for him. While this was not his most efficient or impressive performance, with two drops and a fumble to go with only a 55.6% completion percentage on those 18 targets, the Bengals ensured they got the production and timely plays from Green. Both Green and Dalton were inconsistent for much of the game, hitting plays and missing plays that led to the Bengals’ offense spluttering into and out of life with no running game to speak of. When it counted they delivered the absolutely colossal play to set up the game-winning score in the dying seconds. The turnover by Roethlisberger came in a stadium notoriously difficult for long field goals. So the Bengals still needed a big pickup to ensure the victory, and the Green/Dalton combination delivered just that. Despite widespread talk of the NFL becoming a passing league, and perceived to be about putting up 300+ yards passing and receivers putting up silly stats, you still have games like this where you need to make the play that counts. For all of his drops and his fumble in the lead up, Green rebounded and did just that in the crunch situation. You can’t put a price on that poise, which, in combination with that of Josh Brown on the ensuing field goal, clinched the Bengals a playoff spot.
Just Another day At the Office for Atkins
Playing defense for the Cincinnati Bengals tends to be an unglamorous pursuit that doesn’t get you much in the way of kudos. Yet with another astonishing performance, this time in a pivotal game, Geno Atkins (+9.6) is making it really tough for people to ignore him as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. This has been a season of astonishing individual defensive performances, but as much as J.J. Watt and Aldon Smith are stealing the national spotlight, there should be a lot of column inches reserved for the play of Atkins. In the first encounter between these two teams Atkins was solid (+1.5), if unspectacular by his own exceptional standards in 2012. This week he made amends for that by simply proving to be utterly unblockable for the Pittsburgh interior, no matter what combination of David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey or Ramon Foster was trying to block him. In the pass game he was relentless in getting after Roethlisberger for four sacks, and he contributed a further three tackles in run defense as he shoved around linemen and redirected runs at will. Even when Steeler linemen seemingly had a good block on him he would work the block so hard the Steelers’ running back had to fight to get any of the yardage the block had initially given him. If a performance like this doesn’t get Atkins national attention then you start to wonder if he ever will. We can only hope he does, Atkins is one of a trio of players who are rewriting the PFF record books with a simply astonishing season of play.
Running Game Stuck in Neutral
At times it felt like the Cincinnati running game was in fact stuck in reverse. For the game, the Bengals picked up less than a single yard per carry and BenJarvus Green-Ellis didn’t have a carry of even 5 yards. It all started up front where the Bengals’ offensive line was summarily dominated by a rejuvenated Pittsburgh defensive front, which conclusively showed up the interior trio of Clint Boling (-2.4 run block), Kyle Cook (-5.2 run block) and Kevin Zeitler (-4.4). This was the first week since Cook returned to the lineup in Week 14 that the Bengals did not rotate at center. Cook was found wanting in a matchup with Casey Hampton that saw the Steelers’ veteran nose tackle record his first multiple stop game since Week 17 last season. Meanwhile, rookie RG Zeitler had his first really rough day as a pro, as he struggled to get to grips with a resurgent Ziggy Hood. If this season is anything to go by, then you would assume that Zeitler will use this performance to learn from and motivate himself. The Bengals can’t afford to have their running game conclusively taken away from them up front if they wish to keep fighting deep in the playoffs.
Pittsburgh – Three Performances of Note
Cruel Twist of Fate
As noted above, it’s tough on Roethlisberger that two incredibly rare errors from him in such a fine season have ended up playing a decisive factor in finally knocking the Steelers out of the playoffs, but those are the breaks some times. Customarily, mistakes are not that unusual from Roethlisberger, and in the crunch we usually see him pull a rabbit out of the hat and lead the Steelers to victory. Not so this week, and he will surely look back ruefully on those two errors that gifted the Bengals 7 points and then gave them the opportunity for the decisive 3 at the end of regulation. Between that, Roethlisberger had some strong moments and, along with Antonio Brown, sparked the Steelers with a crucial big-play touchdown pass as the first half wound to a close. However, it was all for naught and this game (-1.9) brought to an end a fine streak of 10 straight starts dating back to Week 2 with a positive overall grade. Little comfort now, but this performance shouldn’t take too much away from what has been an excellent, and extremely consistent, season for the Steelers’ signal-caller.
There Is Life in the Defense Yet
A hot topic every season when Pittsburgh seem to dip is whether the defense is getting too old and facing the beginning of the end? The end never seems to come, but those questions and those thoughts are sure to surface again in the offseason. How long can this team continue to rely on players who are starting to spend more and more time on the treatment table? Well, those questions are for the future because the here and now is that this was an old school dominant display from almost the entire Steeler defense that didn’t allow the Bengals to cross the goal-line on their watch. Up front, the run defense was astonishingly good led by Ziggy Hood (+2.3), who also chipped in with some pressure when Cincinnati protection breakdowns left him unguarded, and, in particular, Casey Hampton (+5.8 run defense). These two consistently controlled the linemen blocking them and allowed the Steelers’ linebackers to swarm to the football and choke the life out of the Bengals’ ground game. Adding to this was Troy Polamalu (+1.6) showing glimmers of his old self, highlighted by his trademark A-gap blitz which was so perfectly timed that Andy Dalton had only just turned away from center by the time Polamalu was on him. The only disappointment was James Harrison (-3.3), who once again was kept quiet by Andrew Whitworth (+3.8), his only sack coming on a clean play when Dalton was spooked up through the pocket.
Mendenhall Shows Some Fight
He didn’t get too many opportunities, but Rashard Mendenhall (+0.8) showed more life in this game than any other running back as he ran with a purpose and ferocity that allowed him to break loose the shackles. Mendenhall may have been passed over for the Steelers’ starting gig, but he wants to prove that he still has plenty of gas in the tank. This was a game where most of the yardage was going to come on a couple of runs if you could get free, and that was the case with Mendenhall as he collected 32 yards on two of his 11 carries to rack up a game-leading 50. Mendenhall promised so much but, due to injury and other factors, his career has been somewhat derailed. He will hope that glimpses like this allow him to re-discover his former glory and re-emerge as one of the league’s better power backs.
– Those 18 targets were not only a season high but a career high for A.J. Green. It topped the 14 times he was targeted in only the second game of his career last season in Denver.
– The Steelers weren’t struggling with blitz pickups when Ben Roethlisberger was taking sacks. All four of the Bengals’ sacks came against a base pass rush.
– After collecting another five pressures this week (1 Ht, 4 Hu) Carlos Dunlap is now only one pressure short of matching his output of 47 pressures (5 Sk, 13 Ht, 29 Hu) from last season.
PFF Game Ball
Geno Atkins. His season is rewriting our record books, and it is astonishing to think that his grade for this game (+9.6) was not his highest this season. For the year Atkins’ grade is now a mesmeric +74.6, and he should be firmly in the mind of AP voters when they come to select their Defensive Player of the Year.