Let's take a look at how the defense played in Pittsburgh's 23-20 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday. For the second consecutive week, the Steelers defense played very well at times, bended but were not broken at other times, then ultimately succumbed down the stretch and gave up game winning touchdown drives in the game's final minutes.
Like last week, the Steelers came out of the gates with a bang - on both offense and defense. While Pittsburgh was racking up yards en route to a 13-0 lead, the Bengals were pathetic early. That's partly because they were just out of sync and perhaps a bit too jazzed up for this one. But it's also a product of the Steelers playing tenacious, and more importantly, smart football on defense.
Here were the Bengals first four drives:
|Time of Possession||Drive Began||# of Plays||Yards Gained||Result|
Bengals fans were beginning to boo by this point, but both their first and second drives featured penalties of 5 yards. On the 2nd drive, the five yard flag counterfeited a 9 yard completion to Ocho Cinco that could have gotten the Bengals going a bit. Anyhow, we'll discuss later how the Steelers offense missed a golden opportunity to run away with this one during this stretch of the game, but let's move on to the defense's next series. I'd classify this one under the 'bend but don't break' mold.
|Time of Possession||Drive Began||# of Plays||Yards Gained||Result|
Rather than starting at their own 23, the Bengals were penalized again on the kickoff return that began their fourth offensive series of the game. Down 13-0, the Bengals desperately needed to at least turn the field position wise, or better yet for them, come away with points to settle the team down.
Here were the first 10 plays of the series before their drive came screeching to a halt due to a 10 yard holding penalty.
|1||9 yard pass|
|2||7 yard pass*|
|3||2 yard run|
|4||7 yard run|
|5||2 yard run*|
|6||2 yard run|
|8||21 yard pass*|
|9||7 yard run|
|10||6 yard run*|
* Denotes play that picked up 1st down
On that 10th play - another bruising run by Cedric Benson for first down yardage, the Bengals were penalized 10 yards for holding and were faced with 2nd and 13 from the Steelers 43 yard line rather than 1st and 10 from the Pittsburgh 27. The Bengals didn't convert and were forced to punt it away. The offense was showered with boos from the restless home crowd, even though they had just mounted a very impressive and balanced drive - a statement series that showed the Bengals weren't going to roll over dead despite trailing big early. Side note - that's bad football knowledge and support from that fanbase. Sorry, it is. Your team just showed some heart, why are you booing them.
Anyway, the Bengals did in fact flip the field on the Steelers, pinning them down inside the 20 at their own 14. The Steelers then answered with an impressive 12 play drive that traveled 51 yards. It ended though with the Steelers failing to convert a 4th and 4 from the Bengals 35 with 1:15 left in the 1st half. The drive featured a nice mix of runs and throws - 5 runs and 7 passes - and even saw the Steelers pick up a 3rd and 2 with the running game (3 yard run by FWP). We can debate the decision to go for it there or to punt it away, but the bottom line is that the Bengals offense got back on the field and got another opportunity to establish some momentum before the half.
They did just that and got on the scoreboard with a field goal as time expired. Palmer completed passes of 19, 8, 6 and 11 yards on the drive and cut the lead to 13-3 heading in to intermission.
The Bengals then cut the lead to 13-9 with a pick-6 of Ben Roethlisberger on the opening series of the 2nd half. Now, after roughly 31 minutes of football that saw the Steelers largely dominate, Cincinnati was more than in business. Stefan Logan had a huge return to put the Steelers right back in Bengals territory following the interception return, but a dropped pass by Limas Sweed on what would have been a touchdown, then a missed 52 yard field goal attempt by Jeff Reed, and all of a sudden the Bengals have the ball near midfield and only down 4 points.
To their credit, the Steelers defense rose up on this series. Props to William Gay for his fine play on Laverneus Coles on 3rd and 1. The Bengals were forced to punt after going 3 and out. The Steelers then answered with a beautiful scoring drive of their own that should have been enough to help them hold on to the lead and escape with a victory. Sure, the offense had other chances later in the game to do just that, but this was a crucial scoring drive that stretched the lead back to 11 points late in the 3rd quarter. Championship caliber teams hold 11 point leads with 18 minutes left - sometimes they do so by just putting more points on the board and making it impossible to catch up; most all other times they're able to rely on their defense to hang on even without giving them extra help.
|1||1 yard run|
|2||6 yard pass|
|3||16 yard pass|
|4||2 yard run|
|5||21 yard pass|
|6||-2 yard run|
|7||18 yard pass|
|8||9 yard pass|
|9||10 yard run|
|10||3 yard run|
|11||1 yard TD run|
A huge, huge drive by the Steelers there. Mike Wallace's toughness and sure hands were on full display, Hines Ward made another important play, Willie Parker looked great, the play calling was unpredictable and effective, and it looked like the Steelers were going to be okay after increasing their lead to 11 points at 20-9 with about 3:00 minutes left in the 3rd quarter.
Things looked even better after the Steelers defense then held the Bengals to a 3 and out on the ensuing possession. If you rewatch the tape of the game, you'll notice how quickly the Bengals send out their punting unit on the 4th down play where they executed a fake punt to perfection. It didn't lead to points - Pittsburgh held the Bengals to just 7 yards after the well designed and executed 21 yard fake punt. But the play had to have made the Steelers coaching staff livid. Credit to Cincinnati for drawing that one up and pulling it out at just the right time. Credit the Steelers defense as well though for buckling down and not giving up a 1st down. Shayne Graham missed from 52 yards out and the score remained at 20-9.
The Bengals then forced a 3 and out after Mike Wallace came up just 1 yard shy on a 3rd and 7 conversion. Wallace actually fought hard for those 6 yards, but a Bengals blitz forced Big Ben to get rid of the ball quickly and the Bengals secondary successfully brought down the emerging rookie out of Ole Miss before he got the necessary 1st down yardage.
This is the time in the game when the wheels came off for the Steelers defense. And to their immense credit, the point in the game when the Bengals offense really started firing on all cylinders. They played nearly flawless football for the final 12:45 of the game when they got the ball back at their own 15 yard line down by 11.
|1||14 yard pass|
|2||14 yard pass|
|3||17 yard gain via penalty|
|4||8 yard run|
|5||Sacked for 0 yards|
|6||9 yard pass|
|7||23 yard TD run|
That was way too easy for Cincinnati. Only James Harrison's sack of Palmer, his first of the season by the way, stood in the way of the Bengals executing a flawless offensive drive. Even still, the sack was a smart read by Palmer as he stepped up in the pocket and took a minimal loss (0 yards) rather than forcing something or losing 5 or 6 yards.
The Steelers defense saved its worst series of the game for the finale though, after the offense was unable to close out the game on their ensuing possession. After picking up one 1st down to start the series, the Steelers got a little too vanilla with their play calling, running Parker twice in a row on 1st and 2nd down before Big Ben was sacked on 3rd down during a play that I thought had the Steelers receivers running too far down the field given the circumstances.
The Bengals forced the punt and got the ball back on their own 29 yard line with 5:14 seconds left. It should be noted also that the Bengals got out to the 29 thanks to a 17 yard punt return of Daniel Sepulveda's 51 yard line-drive spiraling punt. The Bengals then embarked on a game-winning drive that was both really impressive on their part and very, very troubling if you're a Steelers fan. Here's what happened.
|1||3 yard run|
|2||17 yard pass|
|3||5 yard pass|
|4||8 yard run|
|5||9 yard pass|
|6||1 yard run|
|8||8 yard pass|
|10||5 yard pass*|
|11||Incomplete pass (spiked ball)|
|14||11 yard pass*|
|15||Incomplete pass (spiked ball)|
|16||4 yard TD pass|
* Denotes successful 4th down conversion
Again, give credit to the Bengals offense for hanging tough early, putting their early struggles behind them and delivering a knockout punch to the Steelers late after being given too many opportunities by the Steelers offense, special teams, and arguably even coaching decisions. It's a mighty fine line between winning and losing in this league. We saw that last year and we're seeing it again this year. Through three weeks though, we're unfortunately coming out on the short end of the stick, whereas we won more than our fair share of tightly contested games last season.
We did so in 2008 with a defense that defended every blade of grass for an entire 60 minutes of football. Through three weeks of the 2009 season, the Steelers defense is playing hard and not at all far from playing at an elite level. But tremendous quarterback play from our opposition, a lack of turnovers or big plays from pressuring the quarterback, and an inability to keep teams from embarking on long, time consuming drives with short to intermediate pass attempts all are contributing to the drop off in play that we're seeing so far from this year's defense.
That can, and likely will, change as the season progresses. The weather will turn, making it harder for offenses to execute so precisely; bodies will get banged up, opening up opportunities for our resilient and usually more violent defense to bang on people; and frankly, we'll get a bit luckier when it comes to creating turnovers. Fumbles might bounce our way more fortuitously, defenders will hold on to would-be interceptions, and more favorable matchups against less experienced and capable quarterbacks will allow Pittsburgh to make those 'splash' plays that helped us so enormously during last year's run to Lombardi Trophy number six.
Stay patient and remain loyal. This is a marathon, not a spring. There's lots to be excited about, plenty to kibbitz and passionately agree and disagree about, and there's an important lesson to be learned from what we've been treated to through just three weeks - this is the NFL, where nothing's given, things change dramatically from week to week and month to month, and if your team is going to ascend to the top and emerge victorious come February, it's never, EVER going to be easy.