Steelers vs Bengals: 6 Things We Learned from Pittsburgh's 24-17 Win
With their 24-17 win today, the Pittsburgh Steelers have put themselves back into a good position in the AFC North division. They will now enter their bye week on a positive note and with their first division win of the season.
There's plenty of work to do, however, and plenty to learn from today's game. Here's a look at six things that we found out about the Steelers today.
Bruce Arians Learns Nothing
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Despite continual lessons from opposing defenses and failures in several game situations, Bruce Arians has failed to learn any of the key lessons that would put the Pittsburgh offense over the top.
Again? I have to write this again? It's becoming a theme.
Oh, wait; it was a theme three years ago.
Bruce Arians is a terrible offensive coordinator. I've never seen anyone with that much talent at his disposal willfully squander it as often as possible.
The Steelers had various seven-point leads in the second half and played most of the fourth quarter that way. Instead of calling up plays to put away the Bengals (such as the end around plays from the first half), Arians went extremely conservative with continual running on first and second down and then passing on third before punting.
This is not how you win games. This is how you lose games. Arians doesn't (and won't ever) understand this simple principle.
The best thing the Steelers could have done was to continue operating the no-huddle with Ben Roethlisberger throwing short passes and using those to open up some running lanes. Instead, they were forced into a predictable and useless system.
Red Zone Improvements
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The Steelers did learn from last week's red zone flops and managed to be quite effective once they reached the Bengals 20-yard line.
The solution seemed so simple last week. Mix it up a little more and let Ben Roethlisberger call the shots. At different points today, the offense did just that.
Roethlisberger called a brilliant no-huddle drive that netted the Steelers a touchdown, further proof that the Steelers quarterback is their best play caller.
Rashard Mendenhall got mixed in while the team was in the red zone and twice scored for Pittsburgh, proving that an effective and off-balance mix of run and pass plays will beat a defense on the short field.
The Steelers were a different team inside the 20 today. That's not unusual for them, but it's something that needs to continue. Had they played their usual red zone offense today, they would have gotten beat.
Instead, they came away with three touchdowns in the red zone and a victory that, in some ways, saved the season.
Defense Can Force Turnovers
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The Steelers, who have been the league's worst team in turnover margin this season, finally found a way to force a couple of big turnovers that led to their victory.
It's about time. Seriously.
The Steelers defense has been inexplicably unable to force any turnovers this season. They're dead last, and it's not even close.
The difference in the game today were the two interceptions that Pittsburgh was able to force in the second half. Those mistakes by the Bengals allowed the Steelers just enough time and room to claim victory.
If that's a sign of a turnaround, it would be a welcome one. It's nice to know that the Steelers can indeed create mistakes. Up to this point, I wasn't sure what to make of it.
The primary issue all year has been speed. The Steelers have been behind the play a lot this season, and it's showed in both their run defense struggles and their inability to get turnovers. Today, especially in the second half, the Steelers were playing faster.
Run Defense Still Needs Work
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The Steelers, who routinely have ranked at the top of the league in run defense, struggled again Sunday to consistently stop opposing runners, a sign that this needs to be a bye week focus.
This really isn't as puzzling as it seems on the surface.
The Steelers defense has some things working against their effectiveness against the run.
Here's a list:
1. Casey Hampton playing scared. He's afraid of getting chopped. That's valid, but it ruins their rush up the middle and keeps him from taking up blockers and opening gaps for rushers.
2. Age. Warren Sapp was premature when he said the Steelers were done, but they are older and they aren't as fast. James Farrior doesn't get the penetration he's used to. Larry Foote has lost a few steps. The Steelers aren't as fast as they were a year or two ago.
3. Injuries. It's that simple. Lamarr Woodley is out. Farrior is still a little dinged up, and so is Harrison. The injuries play a role. This group has been hit hard. They've also got some guys who are still learning playing a major role right now in Ziggy Hood and Jason Worilds.
Those three things are what's keeping the run defense from being as effective.
Antonio Brown Is the Star
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Antonio Brown has emerged as Ben Roethlisberger's favorite and most trusted target the last few weeks, and he's definitely earned his paycheck.
It just keeps getting better for Brown, who's the NFL version of a vacuum cleaner, catching everything in his vicinity.
Brown has the best hands on the team and isn't far behind Mike Wallace for speed. He runs clean routes and knows how to get open. His emergence has made everyone else more dangerous.
Teams have to respect Brown even more than Wallace because, while Wallace creates after the catch and has blazing speed, Brown can catch anything anywhere. He caught two passes this week in double coverage and made some acrobatic ones as well.
I was of the opinion before the Emmanuel Sanders should start opposite Wallace when healthy, but it may be hard to put Brown in the slot or take him off the field.
Bye Week Checklist
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Here's a look at what the Steelers need to fix during the bye week:
1. Third Down Defense
It's still a bit of an issue, although the Steelers did make some modest improvements in that department on Sunday.
This team needs a break. They've played 10 straight and look like it. They've got to get Lamarr Woodley and, hopefully, Emmanuel Sanders back on the field coming out of their week off. They've also got to get the players who are dinged up back to speed.
3. Offensive Strategy
This is more wish than reality, but it would be nice to see the team work in some more gadgetry and no-huddle work. The Steelers need some surprise on offense and should go back to the New England game to see just how dangerous they actually can be when Bruce Arians takes the cuffs off.