The Steelers missed several opportunities to create a huge margin between themselves and the host Cincinnati Bengals in their Week 7 game. Instead of the anxiety over feeling relieved in tying the game at 14 at the half, the Steelers could have been kicking themselves for not having scored 28 points or more.
One of the longer first half analyses this season, and the first half wasn't nearly as interesting as the second in the Steelers' 24-17 win over Cincinnati.
Two major points we're going to highlight here. First, the problem with this defense is not going to be what people immediately suggest, but it's blatantly obvious on the Bengals' 80-yard touchdown drive on their first possession. Second, if you combine the amount of missed opportunities the Steelers offense left on the field, and the two turnovers, it's scary to think what they'll do when they're playing as well as they can be.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley does a masterful job in this game, and the execution was flat in the first half. This could have been a 28-point half very easily.
Let's get into it.
- We're gonna start this right off the bat, considering my thoughts I've made pretty clear here about right tackle Mike Adams. The first play of the game he showed why he was a second-round draft pick. He releases off the line, showing some pretty impressive agility for a man his size. The play was a quick screen opposite a play fake, and Adams got out in front of wide receiver Mike Wallace to get a good block on cornerback Leon Hall.
- Outstanding job by the Steelers offensive line on their first third down attempt. The Bengals blitzed from the slot, and WR Emmanuel Sanders broke off his route, coming hot on a drag. That took two defenders out of the space in which Antonio Brown was working. He was left on CB Adam Jones, who really didn't play the route well. Brown was wide open when Roethlisberger fired a bullet right between the eight and the four. No pass rusher was near him when he released the ball.
- From a mental standpoint, Wallace's drop on third and long was agonizing. The offense was clicking. They were attacking Cincinnati's cornerbacks brilliantly, and it really showed a significant gap in ability between the two units.
- The Steelers may not have gotten the job done all that well in this game on first and second downs, but they dominated third due to that gap. Can't help but feel this was a 30+ point output if Wallace could have hung onto the ball.
- When the world was ending on the Bengals first drive, with calls for the dismissal and possible arrest of each of the Steelers' defensive linemen, it's useful to point out the Steelers linebackers and defensive backs have a role in this as well. BenJarvis Green-Ellis had a four-yard run that brought Cincinnati inside the 20-yard line. Lawrence Timmons reacted literally about a second and a half late to the snap, which allowed LG Kevin Zeitler enough time to reach him on the second level.
- The hole was pretty big, but Timmons didn't fill. Same thing with Foote a play or two later.
- Not to completely savage the inside linebackers, Zeitler is a pretty damn good run blocker. DeCastro has his rival, that's for sure. James Harrison gets him a few times in pass protection, but it's tough to imagine there will be a noticeably better run blocker than Zeitler pretty soon.
- Defensive end Ziggy Hood lets himself get turned outward on the fourth-and-one carry. He gets taken down, probably just to get himself on the ground to block the hole, but Green-Ellis makes a nice cutback and falls forward. Hampton got moved right to left, just enough to create a crease, through which Green-Ellis snaked through. A great push by the defensive line, just got beat by a smart runner.
- Another smart run, the Steelers correctly diagnose a run over right guard. Green-Ellis patiently waits for Foote to commit to the inside before bouncing it outside.
- At this point, we see one of the main problems with stopping the run. Strong safety Will Allen allows himself to get taken out by wide receiver A.J. Green. Troy Polamalu gets off that block. It's really that simple. Green Ellis is hemmed in everywhere but that edge, and Allen isn't there to make the play. That's the difference between a two-yard and a five-yard gain.
- Allen failed to establish himself twice on plays he could have made an impact. He could have maybe gotten a hit on Cedric Peerman's touchdown run as well. There were misses all over the defense on that drive, but the fact is Will Allen had two tackles in the game, both in pass coverage, and none when the Bengals were in the red zone on their opening touchdown drive.
- That's as telling as any shortcomings the defensive line had.
- The Steelers offense, though, is clearly the better unit. The issue wasn't just the Wallace drops that hindered their ability to put two scores between themselves and Cincinnati. Jonathan Dwyer had a first down run on their second drive that, while successful, could have gone for much more. TE David Paulson is in disco motion, and the play is a run behind him and FB Will Johnson. Johnson reaches the defensive end, and puts a good block on him, Paulson chose to help Johnson, leaving Terrence Newman to close in on Dwyer and make the stop.
- If Paulson gets a hat on Newman, that play goes for five or six yards, maybe even more. It's little things like that. Correctable, but noticeable. The offense really got in its own way much of the night.
- Batch's catch failure - due to the lights, or the earth's gravitational pull, or whatever it was - was an absolutely brilliant play call. The Steelers had been attacking the edge so aggressively in their pass protection, and receivers were getting open right off it. It set up multiple end-arounds, which (and this is why I love watching Haley control this offense) set up a play they put into the plan this week for this precise situation. Wide side right, strong right, the left-handed Antonio Brown slot on that side. A quick pass to him that Cincinnati collapsed on as if they were running to safety from a guy with a gun.
- The reason? Because Haley put enough Heath Miller-led screens on film the linebackers knew they had to haul their asses to the receiver before Miller could generate any momentum.
- Miller motions from left to right, and you could hear the secondary start to worry. Miller makes a subtle move forward after the quick pass, and since he didn't advance down field, the defense should have recognized the Steelers were looking to throw (had he moved off the line he could have been flagged for illegal man down field if he continued to sell a run block. If he acted like he was in pass protection, the idea of an end around wouldn't have worked).
- Haley recognized the success his offense has had on that play in the past, and how the Bengals would likely be ready for it. They were, except, lost in all of this, was the running back.
- Perfect pass in the absolute wrong spot. I don't care that Batch lost it in the lights. That happens. Brown needed to give it some arc so Batch could catch it as close to the end zone as possible, not giving the defense a chance to recover. When a ball drops that slowly with that narrow of an angle, it travels through the lights for a proportionally long amount of time. Receivers can lose it.
- We mentioned the Roethlisberger Smile we hate to see after a third down interception. While we hate seeing it, it's better than the Roethlisberger "I'm Pissed Off And I'm Going To Take It Out On My Arm" throw, which he made two plays later.
- This is completely crazy, I know, but I honestly think Roethlisberger didn't see FS Chris Crocker in the end zone because his jersey blended in with the Bengals end zone.
- Yes, I'm serious. There's no other reason why he would force that pass, especially when his safety valve, Antonio Brown, is open enough to gain at least three yards from a collapsing pocket. It was pretty much a blanket of deep coverage by the Bengals, and Roethlisberger could make the argument he thought he had Miller on a high pass because of his size advantage. Roethlisberger makes the decision to throw the ball when Crocker is in an orange spot at the end zone, right by the white goal line, which blended in with his pants.
- Yes, it's now fair to accuse me of being a Roethlisberger Apologist. I will say it was a poor decision, without a doubt his worst of this season, but I really can't see another reason to explain why he thought he could make that throw.
- Maybe those uniforms are worth something.
- Roethlisberger's fumble is another good example. While it's true Adams' guy got the sack, Roethlisberger still had three seconds in which he could have spotted Wallace's dig in the middle of the field. Dropsies or no, safeties are still terrified of him. He was open by about seven yards. Plenty of time for Roethlisberger to have delivered a strike, Wallace to turn around and make a competitive move on the safety. That's probably a 17 yard gain, and it could have gone for a lot more if Wallace could have made the safety miss.
- Every game feels like this. Just a few slight misfires seemed to be the difference between a close game and one the Steelers win by two touchdowns.
- Cincinnati's secondary had no answer for the weapons the Steelers have on offense. None whatsoever. Their secondary is probably the worst in the division. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley called an outstanding game, attacking the obvious deficiencies in their secondary by getting his far more athletic receivers in space - end-arounds, screens, short passes. The safeties stood like statues for most of the Steelers' game-tying touchdown drive.
- Yes, one could make the claim the Bengals also got in their own way, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They moved a little bit after the interception, but after Dalton hit an official on a pass to Andrew Hawkins that would have gone for a first down, it seemed to resonate with the offensive line. The pump-pass misfire that went off Zeitler's head and into LaMarr Woodley's stomach (love his reverse pivot into the open field though. It seems so non-chalant, as if he was hoping no one would notice he had the ball).
- In between the official's pass defensed, and his pick, Woodley explodes off the edge and put a big hit on Dalton just as he was releasing for a screen pass to TE Jermaine Gresham.
- I'll repeat: Woodley nearly had a sack on a tight end screen. Hamstring's fine. Just wait until he plays against a team that runs more five step drops.
- Ya think Roethlisberger didn't want to get Miller the ball? His touchdown was a designed short out to Paulson, who couldn't have been more open with a clearer path to the pylon. He probably goes in untouched. Instead, Roethlisberger hits Miller on a beautiful throw on a post.
- If Roethlisberger had thrown to Paulson - his first look in his progression - we'd be praising Sanders for a perfectly run route which tied up the linebacker who had Paulson. It was a simple pitch and catch, and with a nice sell by Mike Wallace, who ran a run-blocking route (i.e. ran right at the defender shaking around like he's trying to put a move on him) while not making contact, Paulson would have had his first touchdown as a pro too.
- Their best offensive game has not been played yet. I'm certain of it. The story of this season is going to be the slow start, followed by a Hickory Huskers-like run down the stretch.
- And the defense? This is far more simple of an issue than we feel it is. The difference is the lack of an aggressive strong safety. With all due respect to Will Allen, he's a complete non-factor against the run. Polamalu enacts the five Ds of dodgeball in trying to avoid a blocker, and he gets on the ground to make plays. Allen wasn't on the ground once on that long drive. The buck linebacker (Foote) needs to flow to the ball, and if the safety isn't taking the cutback, Foote is going to look like he's missing tackles, which he isn't.
- Allen is playing the run like the hockey player on the ice when a fight breaks out, but isn't a fighter. He's grappling with the opponent, and they're talking about their families for all I know, but he isn't competing.
- If he's getting more snaps than Ryan Mundy because he's better in coverage, then ok, but let's cut out the nit-picking BS here, neither of them are adequate every down players. Put them together, maybe the result is one capable player. Right now, it's not, and until Polamalu returns, it will continue to be this way.
- When he does, though...look out...