Pittsburgh started the game strong and would seemingly cruise to an easy victory. The Steelers were dominating every facet of the game despite key injuries on both offense and defense. Chris Kemoeatu and Maurkice Pouncey both left the game with injuries. This temporarily left the Steelers with only five healthy offensive linemen in uniform. However, Pouncey returned to the game after a trip to the locker room.
Brett Keisel suited up after missing two games because of injury, but had to leave the action because of yet another injury. James Harrison was also shaken up at one point in the game. Yet, the Steelers kept plugging along and making plays.
By the fourth quarter, the Steelers had a commanding 27-7 lead. From that point forward, they tried everything humanly possible to lose the game.
First, the Steelers' defense moved to a soft zone coverage which Carson Palmer picked apart, culminating in a touchdown pass to Terrell Owens. Without putting pressure on Palmer, he had too much time to find the soft spot in the defense and deliver the ball. The Bengals were able to systematically and quickly move the ball down the field. But the Steelers still enjoyed a 13 point lead at that point.
For the majority of the game, the Steelers used a fairly aggressive offensive game plan. However, they decided to go to a more conservative approach despite the defense having just given up a touchdown. Running the ball on first down was not generating many yards, leaving the Steelers in obvious passing situations.
During one such situation, Ben Roethlisberger was under pressure and tried to force the ball to Heath Miller. Roy Williams jumped the route and intercepted the ball.
After the interception, the Steelers were flagged for a dead-ball personal foul that tacked 15 yards onto Cincinnati's field position. A few plays later, Casey Hampton was flagged for roughing the passer on a Carson Palmer incompletion. While he did hit Palmer low, on the replay it appeared that the offensive lineman tried to throw him to the ground which may be why he hit Palmer so low.
Shortly after that, Ike Taylor was flagged for pass interference on what looked like good coverage on Terrell Owens. Since the foul supposedly occurred in the end zone, Cincinnati was given the ball with a first and goal on the one-yard line. Two plays later, Cedric Benson scored a touchdown.
Now only leading by six, the Steelers still maintained a conservative approach on offense. However, Ben Roethlisberger was making effective audibles at the line and had Mendenhall run away from the blitz. Mendenhall was gaining effective yardage.
However, after five straight runs that put the Steelers on the edge of field goal range, the Bengals were bound to make an adjustment. Instead of being proactive and calling a play-action pass on first down, the Steelers ran the ball yet again. This time it did not yield the same results.
On third-and-six, the Steelers ran the ball one more time for good measure. Predictably, they did not convert the first down. Jeff Reed was forced to attempt a 46-yard field goal.
Despite making good on a 53-yard attempt earlier, Reed kicked the ball wide left. Many fans will blame Reed for this. However, on attempts less than 40 yards, Reed is perfect this season; he's even 50 percent on attempts of greater than 50 yards.
However, he's 0-4 on attempts between 40-49 yards. While he probably should have made good on at least two of those attempts, a field goal attempt of that distance is never a "gimme" for any kicker. The offense is stalling too early and forcing Reed into long attempts. Not many kickers can kick at Heinz Field with the same accuracy of Jeff Reed.
With just over 2:00 left on the clock, Cincinnati began steadily moving the ball down the field. Pittsburgh looked to be about to fall victim to a meltdown of epic proportions. The Steelers have never lost a game after leading by 20 or more points.
However, once they reached the red zone, the Steelers defense stiffened and forced a turnover on downs. Thanks to arguably the best defense in the NFL, the Steelers kept that record in tact.
There is plenty of blame to go around. Ben Roethlisberger threw a critical interception on a play that he probably should have just taken a sack and played a field position battle. Jeff Reed missed a field goal that, while difficult, was within reasonable range. Several players took bad penalties at critical points in the game.
However, the majority of the blame falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff. Dick Lebeau moved to a passive defense too early in the fourth quarter. Bruce Arians went away from what was working offensively to a conservative approach which led to an interception during an obvious passing down.
But ultimately, Mike Tomlin is responsible for the coaching decisions. Coach Tomlin has shown that he can be an elite coach in the NFL. However, he has some room for improvement and needs to let go of Bruce Arians.
History should have taught the Steelers' coaches that going too conservative, too early can result in the lead slipping away. the Steelers faced a similar predicament during Super Bowl XLIII and let several fourth quarter leads slip away last season.
No lead is safe, the Steelers, at a minimum, need to stay aggressive on defense until late in the fourth quarter. Most coaches, with the exception of maybe Bill Belichick, don't want to demonstrate poor sportsmanship by running up the score. However, it is unwise to take your foot off the accelerator too early, thus putting what should be an easy win in jeopardy.