Steelers vs. Bengals: 10 Observations Following Pittsburgh's Decisive 35-7 Win

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIDecember 5, 2011

Steelers vs. Bengals: 10 Observations Following Pittsburgh's Decisive 35-7 Win

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    On Sunday at Heinz Field, the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed alive in the AFC North race with a 35-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.  

    Early on, the Steelers' offense struggled to pick up first downs, and Cincinnati traveled into the red zone with relative ease on its first possession. Yet, as a sign of things to come, the Bengals went backwards. 

    As sportscaster Myron Cope would have said, Cincinnati “bungled,” having had a touchdown negated by penalty and a field goal taken off the scoreboard before finishing the drive scoreless due to a blocked second kick.

    In a contest regarded by many media outlets as the “Game of the Week,” the second quarter saw the game turn into a telling affirmation of a common football adage: turnovers win (and lose) games.   

    After a scoreless first quarter, Pittsburgh caught fire, taking a 14-0 lead. Then, a fumbled kickoff return by Brandon Tate was recovered by the Steelers, which opened up a 21-0 lead and never looked back.

    Antonio Brown put the Steelers ahead 28-7 before halftime on a punt returned for a touchdown, the franchise’s first since 2006. 

    On an afternoon where all three phases seemed to fire on (nearly) all cylinders, Pittsburgh’s defense held stout the rest of the way, and the Black and Gold stayed in the AFC North race.

    Meanwhile, the loss likely relegated Cincinnati into a messy battle for the AFC’s sixth and final playoff spot.

    Here are 10 observations from Pittsburgh’s important and decisive win over the Bengals.

Defensive Dominance: Harrison Near 100 Percent, Woodley Needs Rest

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    What else can be said? The Steelers' defense balled again. 

    Was everything utterly outstanding? No.

    The Bengals did finish with a respectable average per rushing attempt, but the "Men of Steel" came up with stuffs in the run game when it counted.

    Altogether, the Steelers forced 11 third-down situations, and Cincinnati only converted twice.

    The Steelers' offense didn’t have any more success on third-down conversions, but unlike Ben Roethlisberger and crew (2-of-10), the Bengals' offense finished with a mere seven points, a turnover and loads of quarterback pressures that made their visions of offensive balance a pipe dream.

    Despite a fine season that has his name in Rookie-of-the-Year talks, Bengals QB Andy Dalton was under siege on a number of key plays, and Pittsburgh's James Harrison always seemed to be in the mix.  

    Finally, Harrison is at (or nearing) 100 percent healthy, and his dominant level of play was missed. To the tune of three sacks, “Silverback” was a beast, and Dalton’s dreams likely included visions of No. 92.

    Atop of Harrison’s big game, Ike Taylor was serviceable against A.J. Green, making a few superb pass defenses and even intercepting Bruce Gradkowski late in the contest.

    Lamarr Woodley made his return to the starting lineup, but he left due to aggravating his injured hamstring.

    With other defenders stepping up admirably, from Brett Keisel to Jason Worilds, and great next-generation stars (Lawrence Timmons, anyone?) playing at a high level, Woodley needs to take the Browns game off.

    Playing Monday Night Football in two weeks and hosting a beatable Browns team on Thursday, this is the perfect opportunity to give Woodley the time he needs to be at his best when it counts the most.

Effective Running Game Made for Effective, Efficient Offense

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    The Steelers, behind the running of Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore, combined for 124 yards on 25 carries, averaging nearly five yards per attempt.

    With time to throw and the great deterrence of a running game, Roethlisberger was deadly efficient despite not playing his absolute best. Finishing 15-for-23 with 176 yards, Big Ben hit receiver Mike Wallace for two touchdown.

    When defenses have to honor both elements of an offense, each benefits and has the opportunity to be painfully effective. 

    Credit has to be given to the offensive line. Roethlisberger didn’t always have loads of time, but he did have enough. While it took some flashiness from the backs, running lanes were not at their normal premium.

    Altogether, it amounted to a balanced attack that Cincinnati’s defense had trouble stopping. The Steelers passed and ran out of various formations. 

    With the offensive line doing its job, the Bruce Aryans offense didn’t look…offensive.

    Yes, the Steelers are a passing team behind Big Ben. No, the days of ground and pound—once a source of Pittsburgh pride—are no longer here. 

    Yet, make no mistake…

    A good offense can (and needs) to run the ball. When it is able to do so, the rewards come in spades.

We Won the Turnover Battle?!

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    Turnovers and the Steelers. They have committed them, yes, only recently have they forced them.

    And now, they've....started to win the battle?! 

    It's true, Steelers Country. On Sunday, it was key. 

    Cincinnati's Brandon Tate fumbled on a kickoff. The Steelers converted their good fortune into seven points, and the game’s competitive phase effectively ended.

    Late in the game, Ike Taylor’s interception, fairly inconsequential but still worth noting, capped off a surprisingly rare win in the turnover battle for Pittsburgh.

    As important as forcing mistakes was avoiding miscues. 

    Ben Roethlisberger was very efficient, going 15-of-23 with two touchdowns and no interceptions, finishing with a 117.3 rating. As impressive, nobody in Black and Gold put the football on the grass.

    Against teams that Pittsburgh should beat—and especially against the greats in January—continuing to win this battle will be vital.

    Pittsburgh has been among the league’s worst teams with respect to turnover differential, a statistic skewed by an abnormal seven-turnover performance in Baltimore to start the season. Still, few times have the Steelers won this key stat, making their 9-3 record more impressive.

    That doesn’t mean that turnover differential is an anomaly. If not for a key turnover against the Ravens, the Steelers could be 10-2 and ahead of the AFC pack, as opposed to fighting for the North.

Antonio Brown Is Becoming a Fantasy Football Difference Maker

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    Steelers fans know that there's nothing more annoying than simple volume statistics, which describes most fantasy football measures being used exclusively to judge player performance.

    Focus on big numbers not only creates an inaccurate skewing when we judge players of different eras, but it also limits the focus to statistics that are kept on the field.

    To look at the stat sheet, Troy Polamalu had three mere tackles, but he was all over the field on Sunday.

    So, I understand the frustration of fantasy-driven analysis. I ask that I be forgiven for making an exception this one time to talk about Antonio Brown.

    After Mike Wallace had two touchdowns with minimal yardage and Brown had only a couple of catches, fans in both courts of the who’s-the-best-Steelers-receiver debate didn’t get a lot of great fodder, although Wallace backers will continue to point to defensive coverage tilting his way and his penchant for scoring touchdowns. 

    Brown backers will point to Wallace’s declining statistics and Brown's key drive sustaining grabs.

    Still, depending on your league’s scoring, Brown is a surprisingly quiet fantasy football stud, especially if you snatched him as a late pickup or off of waivers.

    How many are able to put him in on an option slot? What a great option to have!

    He is already a decent playmaker; starting Brown should be a no-brainer. He’s getting more catches than Wallace, has become a staple in the Steelers' offense when first downs are needed and has seen his total yardage rise dramatically since late October.   

    Imagine when Brown refines his route running even more and become a better red zone threat.

    Sure, he had a subpar receiving effort on Sunday.

    Here’s your X-factor: Does your league add in special teams scoring to the mix? Can your receiver earn points on special teams returns?

    If so, Brown was already mostly a non-risk as a receiver exclusively. Now, if the boy wants to bust some moves and realize his full special teams potential (much like Santonio Holmes later in his Steelers career), he’s the type of player that will be different in the upcoming playoffs for you. 

    His return yards put him over the top, and any touchdown is simply a bonus.

Curtis Brown's Special Teams Play Being Recognized

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    I was excited with the drafting of Texas Longhorns defensive back Curtis Brown this April, because I was hoping it to further solidify the defensive backfield with Ike Taylor. With time and dedication, Brown may fulfill that role. 

    Rarely do corners start immediately in the NFL

    Covering today’s receivers is a discipline that takes improvement for most talents. Not everyone is the rare Darrelle Revis.

    Brown’s immediate impact has come as a great surprise, but in an unexpected way. 

    He is a beast on special teams, and his great play continued on Sunday. His contributions will be vital against the Browns, whose Steelers killer, Joshua Cribbs, has seen rampant success on kickoffs against the Black and Gold.

    The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently touched on his contributions, which are far too overlooked.

Hines Ward's Historic Afternoon

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    Back in 1998, before he became a clutch wide receiver with an amazing set of hands, brute physicality, and complete Pittsburgh style, Hines Ward caught my eye as a special teams player.  

    Upon taking snaps with the starting offense, it became clear that No. 86 had the potential to be a breath of fresh air from the likes of Will Blackwell and Courtney Hawkins, who had become known league-wide for their frequent drops.

    Hines was unlike his brick-handed predecessors, reminding of Yancey Thigpen before breaking Steelers records belonging to fellow champions Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. 

    In fact, Ward was a retriever at receiver, catching nearly everything that touched his hands....nay, his fingertips.

    Now, over a decade later, the home fans got to witness more history as Ward earned 12,000 receiving yards in his career.  Most impressively, every inch of that achievement came with integrity while wearing Black and Gold.

    I think I can safely speak for all Steelers fans collectively in saying, “Thanks for everything, Hines!”

    Ward's five receptions Sunday have inched him closer to 1,000 career catches, his next big milestone.

A.J. Green Is the Receiver Chad Ochocinco's Mouth Always Wanted to Be

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    Sure, the Bengals lost and their offense was not effective, but A.J. Green still showed Steelers fans why he's to be taken seriously.  After all, his production in a losing effort on a stagnant offensive afternoon was the type of day one former Bengals receiver yakked about but couldn't produce.

    In other words, Steelers fans were told for years they had a great receiving threat inside their own division. Now, they actually do.

    Let's be frank. Years of mock Hall of Fame jackets, name-changing, and self-adoration didn’t hide one shameful fact that the former Chad Johnson wouldn’t want fans to know about himself. 

    Psssst….he was mediocre!

    Let me provide a comparison to clarify my thinking. Bengal is to Bungle as Green is to Johnson. Or, Ochocinco. Or, Ocho Cinco. 

    Or, however you want to have him.

    Particularly, Ochocinco was lackluster against the Steelers, including his most recent efforts against them in both tiger stripes and Patriots gear. Isn’t that New England jersey supposed to make you superhuman?

    For all of the contributions the deluded Ocho-stinko (the term is “delusions of grandeur") desired to have in this rivalry but lacked, Green can accomplish. Already, he’s caught two touchdowns in two games against the Men of Steel, one in grand fashion.

    Right from the start off of a fake reverse play, QB Andy Dalton found his greatest target, and the rookie’s 43-yard snag had fans in Heinz Field apprehensive about an early lead for Cincinnati.

    Finishing with 87 receiving yards, Green was by far Cincy’s most productive offensive threat, and he will only get better with experience and further development with the equally promising “Red Rifle.” 

    He had to be accounted for at all times, and he was targeted with frequency. If not for a few great breakups by Ike Taylor, who had great coverage on Green for most of the afternoon (despite the stats), his numbers may have been more voluminous. 

    It is clear Taylor is going to have his hands full in this matchup for years to come, and knowing the way Taylor embraces these challenges, he’s surely grateful for the opportunity. 

    Still, if anyone has the talent to make him ungrateful in the future, it’s Green.

Can Shaun Suisham Come Through in the Clutch?

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    Sometimes, you're the D-A-W-G, dawg. And, sometimes, you're in the dog house. 

    For Shaun Suisham, this week is the latter.

    Suisham is hit or miss. Literally. 

    He either makes the field goal with emphasis, or he misses it by a mile.

    A week removed from a key field goal make of nearly 50 yards, Suisham’s miss added to a tally of bad attempts on the year, all of which have fans wondering if he can be depended on in the clutch. 

    On Sunday, his failed effort was a low-percentage kick, especially at the confines of Heinz Field, but the miss was pathetically off track.

    Worse, there was no pressure. There were no bulbs popping and flashing green lights from the stands, filled with a hungry media just waiting to make a clever headline out of his last name.

    Fans are split on the kicker’s play and he’s made some key kicks. He’s missed some kicks, too. 

    Some fans have faith in him and some fans are terrified.

    Considering the track records of today’s kickers, otherwise known in my vocabulary as the thunder thighs fraternity, Suisham’s leg strength causes me still to think he’s far too great a liability. 

    Sadly, if he’d made the kick against the Bengals, I feel like my concerns would have been assuaged.  Maybe I’m fooling myself.

    Am I being too harsh? I?

The Bengals Are Much Improved, but Not a Playoff Team...Yet

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    So many have called the Bengals overrated at worst or overachievers at best.  While that may be true, credit must also be given. 

    After all, teams with far more talent have done so much less.

    Can it really be called overachieving when you’ve dumped the fat from a 4-12 season, relieving yourself of talent worn on the city and not committed more to winning than themselves, and brought in hungry, young supreme talent that wants to make its mark?

    Well….sort of. After all, even with the additions of rookies Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, who really expected the Bengals to contend in the AFC North deep into 2011? 

    And, minus that fourth-place schedule, what would their record be?

    Yet, that’s exactly what they did. They beat who they should and contended, and the AFC playoffs are still a viable possibility for the young cats.

    That said, Sunday’s blowout was their third shot at vindication against those who question their record, labeling it as the result of a weak schedule.

    For their third (arguably fourth with San Francisco) loss in a statement game, the Bengals took themselves out of the talk of AFC elites—if they were ever truly there.

    They are winners, beating the teams they should and hanging tough (75 percent of the time) with teams they’re told they shouldn’t. Still, they've lost those games, and Sunday's blowout may have been the most telling sign of the rigors of an NFL season. 

    It was the first crack shown in the Bengals' young armor.

    In the future, the Bengals—rife with a cornucopia of great draft picks and improving talents—will be quite the nuisance, at least. For now, they’re simply slight overachievers who can win or lose any given game on any NFL weekend.

    They’re out of the AFC North race, begging the question: Can they make the playoffs?

    Currently, the Ravens or Steelers seem destined for the fifth seed, leaving the Jets, Broncos or Raiders (pending the AFC West winner), and Titans as the Cincy competition. The odds are stiff, but it’s not impossible. 

    My edge, however, goes to the Jets, who know how to close the deal and get into the tournament.

    Compared to preseason expectations, Cincinnati fans should be thrilled whether or not they play beyond the regular season. 

Here We Go....Bengals?

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    New Year's Day and the NFL. It seems like such a happy marriage, and it is the reason the NHL Winter Classic is being played on Jan. 2.

    Really, would you compete with the NFL for ratings?

    More important than the mix of holidays and football could be the stakes for the Steelers. The Baltimore Ravens travel to Ohio for a clash with the Bengals, a rematch of their 31-24 home victory.

    As it stands, the Ravens must lose at least one game for Pittsburgh to have a chance at winning the AFC North. With a single loss by Baltimore, Pittsburgh would have to finish undefeated in the final weeks.

    Who knows?  Maybe, by then, the point will be moot. Maybe Baltimore will have clinched. 

    Heck, judging by the NFL (Nobody Figured League) standard, maybe Pittsburgh will have clinched.

    Both of those factors seem doubtful. Even if Pittsburgh takes a one game lead, a win in Cleveland is not 100 percent certain. 

    And, if the Week 17 standings see the Steelers and Ravens tied, well....suddenly, the Bengals ought as well be called the Cincy Steelers.

    With any luck, Cincinnati will come out in that final week looking to finally make a huge, playoff-impacting statement. In fact, for the Bengals, the game could present a make or break shot at the postseason.

    Thankfully, the Steelers have already handled their business in the "Jungle" for 2011; the Ravens haven't had an easy time playing in Cincy.

    If the Bengals bring the type of effort seen in their seven-point losses to Pittsburgh and Baltimore in recent weeks, there's a decent shot the AFC North could be decided in the Steelers' favor at Paul Brown Stadium. 

    Steelers fans know from recent contests that Sunday was not the Bengals' best effort.

    Sure, the Pittsburgh faithful hope the Ravens fall much sooner. Still, on the first day of the new year, Steelers fans could very well be chanting in unison, "Here we go, Bengals! Here we go!"