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Steelers Thump Bengals Early, Surive Furious Late Charge to Improve to 6-2

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* Winning road games against divisional opponents is never easy. Not much is though in the NFL.  The Pittsburgh Steelers 27-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals wound up being 'not easy', but you would have never guessed that it would be a tightly-contested game decided in the final seconds. That's because through the first three quarters, the Steelers had played fierce, focused and fairly disciplined football, while the Bengals couldn't keep pace with the Steelers.

The fourth quarter commenced with the Steelers holding a 17-7 lead following a a scoreless third quarter. On the first play of the period, the Steelers made it a three-score game by dialing up a trick play that hearkened back memories of 2005. Antwaan Randle El connected with Mike Wallace for a 39-yard score that seemingly put the game out of reach.

Not so fast. The Bengals stormed back with 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to make a game of it. After the Bengals scored their first touchdown, it was no time to panic. The Steelers got the ball back on offense and converted on a crucial third down when Ben Roethlisberger stepped up to avoid the all-out blitz and scrambled for 12 yards and a first down.   That's what teams do with their backs against the wall -they fight frantically. The Steelers helped the Bengals out with a costly turnover, an uncharacteristically indecisive throw from Ben Roethlisberger. Credit Roy Williams for one heck of a play on that interception though. Outstanding play. After re-watching the replay several times, there really wasn't anything Heath Miller could have done to break up the play.


* Things were now interesting, and got even more so following two penalties. The first, a roughing the passer call on Casey Hampton was, in my estimation, an egregiously awful call. I rarely ever comment on officiating, mind you. In fact, I can live with the pass interference call on Ike Taylor that gave the Bengals the ball on the 1 yard line. Questionable call, sure, but it looked like Taylor hooked T.O.'s hands. And God knows we were on the other end of a big call not too long ago. But the hit on Hampton? All he did was wrap up Palmer's ankles and cleanly take him down. It was the type of form tackle that the NFL should love seeing, not being penalized. And if you ask me, refs shouldn't be so quick to call a late hit when the defender is going down at the ankles cleanly rather than in the neck, head or even knee areas. 

* It's 11:35 pm out west on the 8th day of November. A quick check of the NFL standings and what do you know, the Pittsburgh Steelers are tied with the New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens, and the New England Patriots atop the AFC standings. All four teams are 6-2, with both the Ravens and the Pats having lost two AFC games. It's a topic for another day, but the Steelers are arguably in the best position of the four for the simple fact that they've only played three home games whereas the other three have all played four. The bottom line is this: at the midway point of the 2010 season, the six-time Super Bowl champs control their own destiny entirely - both for the AFC North crown, and for the top seed in the AFC Playoffs by virtue of their upcoming games with NE and NYJ. And to think we were without our franchise quarterback for the first quarter of the season and have already played five of eight road games, including a tough three game stretch away from Heinz Field.

* Rashard Mendenhall is special. I'm going to limit my commentary on him for now so that I can devote more attention later this week to writing about his game against the Bengals, and why he makes the Steelers legitimate contenders. Here were Mendenhall's final numbers: 22 carries, 99 hard fought yards, 1 TD; 3 receptions, 31 yards. Mendenhall had a few big holes opened up for him, but most of his yards were the product of him making a guy miss in the backfield or near the line of scrimmage before advancing for positive yardage. A very impressive 99-yard performance; far better than the final numbers suggest.

* I really enjoy listening to Jon Gruden call football games. Guy loves his job and it shows in his work. He's got something to say as well, which sadly can't be said of most analysts.

* I've been thinking this for a few weeks now - might Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison be competing with one another for Defensive Player of the Year? I think Clay Matthews of the Packers might ultimately win it, but Timmons and Deebo are certainly going to get votes. Something tells me Harrison won't win during the year that he's been made the poster boy for 'illegal' hits, but still lots of football left for potential winners to differentiate themselves. Both harrison and Timmons enhanced their resumes on Monday night - Harrison by registering yet another sack, as well by breaking up the final pass play of the game on a 4th down attempt inside the Steelers' red zone; Timmons by intercepting his second pass of the season. Re-watch the Timmons interception by the way. Awful throw and decision by Carson Palmer, but it was still a tough snare for Timmons. Awesome.

Both continue to be everywhere at all times.

* Jordan Shi

* I wonder how many people are going to blindly criticize Bruce Arians for the game plan he called tonight? Was every call perfect? Were there some missed opportunities? Yes, and yes. But here's three reasons why Arians is not at all deserving of any criticism tonight:

  • Using Mendy in the passing game. Mendenhall had 3 catches for 31 yards. The first was a perfectly designed play on 3rd and 3 from the Bengals 17, where Ben rolled right, and Mendy slipped out to the flat after a second of blocking. The other two passes to Mendenhall were on the Steelers second TD drive. Both great calls that set up third-and-manageable situations. More on this, but Mendenhall only seems to be used in the passing game during divisional contests.
  • Taking shoots deep at the right time. In this week's Pregame Zone Blitz, N. Coolong wrote that he hoped Wallace would have his number called on several deep balls. Hopefully one would go for a touchdown, but even if not, it would still keep the defense honest and free up some stuff in the short and intermediate areas. Roethlisberger and Wallace connected for a 35-yarder that set up Hines Ward's TD reception a few plays later. Then, Arians dialed up the first trick play of the season with Antwaan Randle El, who took a pitch from Roethlisberger, acted like he was running left, turned back to run to his right, and launched a ball to Wallace in the endzone. The play was actually well covered by the Bengals, but Wallace won the jump ball for the 27-7 lead.
  • Proper commitment to the run at correct times in the game. Here's an important fact for Arians detractors to remember: the Steelers were up 10-0 early in the 1st quarter, and held a at least a 13-point lead until the 9-minute mark in the fourth. With the defense not giving up much of anything until the 4th quarter, the Steelers offense appropriately took to the ground to shorten the game and limit mistakes. 33 rushes, 28 passes. A nice balance when you're holding a lead for the entire game. Sprinkle in the right dosage of shots down the field and I think you have to tip your cap to Arians for the game-plan he called.

* You've got to be impressed by rookie Maurkice Pouncey for his gutty performance in the second half. Pouncey left the game in pain in the 2nd quarter with a lower leg injury, but returned in the second half to play through pain. It was needed as well because the Steelers only dressed seven offensive linemen for the evening. The Steelers also saw Max Starks (neck), and Chris Kemoeatu (ankle) leave with injuries in the first half. Because the status of neither was clear at half, it was imperative for Pouncey to try to give it a go if he could.

* The drive ended in a missed Jeff Reed field goal from 46 yards, an unsettling miss considering it would have all but ended the game. But on that drive which began inside the Steelers' own 30 yard line, the Steelers ran the following plays:

1-10-PIT29 (8:58) R.Mendenhall up the middle to PIT 37 for 8 yards (R.Maualuga; F.Rucker).
2-2-PIT37 (8:19) R.Mendenhall right tackle to PIT 40 for 3 yards (R.Williams).
1-10-PIT40 (7:31) R.Mendenhall right tackle to PIT 49 for 9 yards (C.Ndukwe).
2-1-PIT49 (6:51) R.Mendenhall right guard to CIN 33 for 18 yards (K.Rivers).
1-10-CIN33 (6:10) R.Mendenhall left guard to CIN 33 for no gain (D.Jones).
2-10-CIN33 (5:29) R.Mendenhall right tackle to CIN 29 for 4 yards (R.Maualuga; P.Sims).
3-6-CIN29 (4:46) (Shotgun) R.Mendenhall right tackle to CIN 28 for 1 yard (R.Nelson).

 

The successful string of rushes was the product of passionate, aggressive blocking by the line, tough running from Mendenhall, and good game-management by Roethlisberger, who audibled out of at least one play to run right at the soft spot of the Bengals' blitzing front-seven. It was a beautiful thing to see.

My own quip on that drive: I loved that the Steelers ran the ball on 3rd-and-6. Why not? The Steelers had just been beating the Bengals at the point of attack time. What I didn't love was running out of the shotgun. Why not stick with what's working. Straight ahead running with Mendenhall having a chance to get a bit of momentum going and a full line of vision. Instead, the slow-developing draw was gobbled up fairly easily by the Bengals' defense.

* Awesome throw and catch from Big Ben to Hines Ward in the 2nd quarter. Perfect illustration of just how hard it is to successfully throw the ball in the red zone.

* Incredible performance by Terrell Owens. 10 catches, 141 yards, 2 TDs. On maybe three of his catches, the defense could have been better. But by and large, Owens just had a special evening. Without his efforts, who knows what the final outcome would have been, but certainly not as close as it was.

* How fun is it to watch Mike Wallace play football? Breathtakingly fast, we all know that. But he's much more than just a speed merchant. He's making tough catches in traffic, he's not afraid of contact, and he's doing work blocking down field in the running game. Also, if you get a chance, keep an eye on his slam dunk of the ball over the goal post following his TD. Daaaaamn. The guy's not only fast, he's got some ridiculous jumping ability as well. Dudes five inches shorter than him can't hang in the air before 'slamming' it like he did. Ridiculous athlete. We've got ourselves a bigtime player and performer in Wallace. I just hope that the rest of the football loving world doesn't label him a speed guy only. He's quickly proving he's more than just that.

* That's enough for now, posts from me throughout Tuesday in the wake of the Steelers' entertaining Week 9 win over the Bengals.