Team Grades: Composure Guides Steelers To Playoff Win Over Bengals
By Christina Rivers
On Saturday evening, professional football fans watched one of the most embarrassing performances by NFL athletes when the Pittsburgh Steelers visited Paul Brown Stadium to face the Cincinnati Bengals. Rivalry aside, both teams were warned about extra-curricular activities that would be scrutinized more heavily after these two teams had emotional outbursts in both of their regular season games. Although the Steelers had their fair share of negatives, the game came completely apart after Bengals players committed several infractions, including incidents with Steelers coaches Danny Smith and Mike Munchak. The Steelers gained a morale boost when an injured Ben Roethlisberger came back into the game late in the final quarter to calm his teammates and use veteran leadership to move them down the field to set up the game-winning Chris Boswell field goal on a rain-soaked night. The Steelers earn 'A' grades in all areas in Saturday's 18-16 win.
Steelers steady bend, don't break offense gets job done
There is a lot to be said for a Pittsburgh offense that was able, for the most part, to execute an effective gameplan against their AFC North rivals. The Bengals went heavy in up-front pressure, forcing the offensive line to play smart as a unit. While limiting penalties, the offensive line created decent protection that allowed Roethlisberger and Landry Jones to create plays and offered good blocking for running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman. One of the highlight plays in this game was a spectacular catch by Martavis Bryant in the corner of the end zone that displayed an acrobat-like awareness of position and ball control for a touchdown. Bryant was able to pin the football against his body, do a front flip over the back pylon and maintain control between his legs for the score.
Roethlisberger was forced to the locker room after being hit hard by Vontaze Burfict, but returned to the sidelines. Jones did not have an opportunity to do much to redeem the interception he threw when Roethlisberger was sent in late in the game, but the end result and the unselfish nature of this Steelers team in supporting their teammates was a plus for this offense.
Steelers defense displayed better cohesiveness overall versus Bengals
Once again, Pittsburgh showed that their confidence is not high in stopping the deep ball in one-on-one situations; allowing a ton of cushion to receiver A.J. Green and dropping linebackers into the seam to cover tight end Tyler Eifert. For three quarters, the Steelers played smart football with mixed blitz schemes tossed in from defensive coordinator Keith Butler. The Steelers were able to limit the Bengals to just 91 yards rushing and kept steady pressure on A.J. McCarron in the passing game. The defense slipped a bit due to a late touchdown pass to A.J. Green that revealed the biggest malignancy in this defense: the inability to play sixty full minutes of solid pass coverage.
A lot of credit goes to the linebackers and defensive line in being solid and for creating turnovers. Ryan Shazier's strip of Jeremy Hill created the opportunity for Pittsburgh to pull off an emotional win.
Special teams bails out Steelers with top scorer
In a season where the Steelers special teams unit has done enough to keep opponents from having breakout plays, they limited Adam Jones to just 74 total return yards. Additionally, Boswell was once again perfect in this post-season game, successfully kicking four field goals for 12 points. Jordan Berry was serviceable as a punter with three of seven punts downed inside the Bengals' 20 yard-line. Credit coach Smith for keeping this unit on task, especially when the pressure was placed on them to provide points and get the win for the Steelers.
Coaching deserves a pat on the back for keeping perspective
There were times in this game when head coach Mike Tomlin looked like he would like nothing more than to walk over to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and ask him what kind of team he was coaching. Credit the entire Steelers staff for keeping their sidelines and team under control when this game looked more like it was headed for a MMA match than football. The only coach that didn't look a little bit beyond ramped up was offensive coordinator Todd Haley; the guy who dialed up the ingenious play that had Heath Miller run the outside route to get Antonio Brown open in the seam for a smart and absolutely critical first down. Tomlin and company rolled the dice on a two-point conversion play that was unsuccessful, but the ideology behind the play was solid.
The Steelers will now face the Denver Broncos on the road in the second round of the playoffs after securing the win over Cincinnati. There will be questions about the health of Roethlisberger and Brown ahead of next weekend's game. Roethlisberger has an injury to his throwing shoulder and Brown has a concussion.
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a journalist and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied Exercise Physiology and Sports Psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL as well as a published author. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.
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