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Steelers vs. Bengals Recap: Assessing the Play of the Offense

As I initially noted in the immediate aftermath of the Pittsburgh Steelers' 23-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, I felt this week's game by the Steelers was particularly difficult to categorize or summarize easily. It was both ugly and beautiful, efficient yet sloppy,

Let's first take a look at an overview of  the Steelers' offensive possessions.

Start Time Drive Began Plays Yards Time of Possession Result
9:58 PIT 30 8 27 4:32 Punt
2:08 PIT 30 3 7 1:42 Punt
9:45 PIT 8 7 40 4:21 Punt
2:21 PIT 20 13 75 2:00 Field Goal
15:00 PIT 30 10 54 6:26 Field Goal
6:49 PIT 18 15 50 9:22 Punt
9:50 PIT 32 7 45 4:16 Field Goal
1:49 PIT 12 4 16 1:49 Punt


A couple of notes after studying those numbers...

  • Only one three-and-out for the Steelers. Not bad. Of their other six possessions, five resulted in at least two first down pick ups. The one series that did not was the final possession of the game following Troy Polamalu's second interception of Carson Palmer.
  • The Steelers may not have found the endzone, but they did a fantastic job sustaining drives on 3rd down. The Steelers were 7-of-15 on 3rd down conversions, one of their better outings on 3rd down this year. Two times the Steelers were 7-of-14 converting 3rd downs (CLE, OAK), but this game reminded me more of the Buffalo game from an offensive standpoint. In that win, the Steelers were a rock solid 12-of-19 on 3rd down, yet only scored one touchdown in their 19-16 overtime win.
  • No, that's not a typo. The Steelers really did have a 13-play drive at the end of the second quarter that only consumed two minutes of game clock. Remarkable, really. And if you ask me, a sequence of efficient offense like that proves to me that this team is capable of great things at any given moment. Unfortunately, it seems clear that the Steelers' offense isn't going to be consistently great. But they can be unstoppable and look wholly competent at times, including in crunch time.
  • It was also incredible that the Steelers had a 15-play drive that only traversed 50 yards. In fact, that particular series was one of the most bizarre sequences I've seen all season. The Steelers began the possession from their own 18 yard line, up 13-7 midway through the third quarter. The Steelers had looked sharp on their previous offensive series, the first of the second half. It only resulted in a field goal, but I sensed that the Steelers were close to breaking the game open. They had forced a punt from the Bengals following the field goal, then executed well on their first six plays of their second series of the second half.  Pittsburgh moved the ball out near midfield to the 45yard line after converting two consecutive 3rd down attempts. Then they took several huge steps back. Back-to-back holding penalties pushed the Steelers back inside their own 30 yard line facing a 1st and 30. All seemed hopeless until Hines Ward hauled in an incredible 29-yard reception on 2nd down. Perfect throw by Big Ben by the way. It helped that the Bengals' ninny reserve safety, Tom Nelson, possesses an 8 inch vertical leap. The Steelers picked up the 3rd and 1 with a 4-yard Isaac Redman run, and looked to be poised to take complete command of the game following the unlikely 1st down. Hold the phone, another holding penalty and the Steelers are back in their own territory. However, a quick hot read to Mike Wallace on 2nd and 20 goes for 22 yards and the Steelers are back in business. Then a nifty option play featuring Antwaan Randle El at quarterback puts the Steelers inside the redzone. Fantastic play calling on the series by Bruce Arians by the way. But it's ultimately all for not, as Roethlisberger is sacked on consecutive plays, pushing the Steelers back outside the redzone to the 32 yard line. Mike Tomlin opts to punt rather than attempt the long 49 yarder in not-so-great conditions.
  • In review, just in case that long paragraph was too long to sift through. 15 plays, a 29 yard reception, a 22 yard reception, an 18 yard run, and two other plays of at least 7 yards. Yet, by series' end, the Steelers had only advanced 50 yards thanks to 30 penalty yards, and another 17 yards lost in sacks. A very weird series that featured the Steelers offense at its best and at its worst.
  • I couldn't finish this post without mentioning the gritty play of Ben Roethlisberger. Everybody plays hurt in this league, especially at this time of year. Even at the quarterback position. But no signal caller in the NFL is as tough as Roethlisberger. Period. Roethlisberger played with a shattered nose that a Steelers' team physician described as looking like 'corn flakes'. Not sure what that means, but doesn't sound fun. Roethlisberger started the game wearing a precautionary visor in an attempt to minimize the possibility of him having his nose further injured. After one series, Roethlisberger had had enough and asked to have the visor removed. Then there was the lingering pain in his foot. No problem either. Roethlisberger did what he needed to do in the pocket with his footwork in order to be successful. And though he was clearly in pain, Roethlisberger's accuracy wasn't really affected one bit by the nagging pain. Really, really impressive.

In conclusion, I'm not really sure what to say about the Steelers' offensive performance. Success in the NFL begins and ends with the play of your quarterback and your offensive line. More often than not, the play of the line determines the fate of the quarterback's play. That's not always the case though with the Ben Roethlsiberger and the Steelers. Big Ben doesn't require exceptional offensive line play in order to excel. He just needs average protection for the most part, and the occasional comfortable pocket to throw from. As shaky as the Steelers injury-ravaged offensive line has been, it has largely played well enough for the Steelers to win. When I think of unacceptable level offensive line play, I think back to the Steelers' Week 3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008. Big Ben had absolutely zero time to operate that Sunday, as the late Jim Johnson just dialed up all-out blitz after all-out blitz. It was really the only time I was 'embarrassed' by the Steelers in recent memory.

From where I'm sitting, unnecessary, dumb holding penalties are more to blame for the Steelers' offensive woes than are flat-out awful O-line play. Of course, repeated 10-yard holding penalties should qualify as 'flat-out awful' play, but I think those problems can be corrected. You can't improve your talent over the course of a month, but you can shore up mental mistakes. And though I have no exact numbers, I've noted quite a few holding penalties in recent weeks that didn't at all need to occur. Translation - they didn't contribute to successful plays, and they didn't save the quarterback from taking a punishing hit.

The difference in my estimation between this year's offense and the 2008 unit is that this year's unit is more capable in the running game. They're not a great run-blocking line, but they're much improved over the '08 version. You can attribute that to a significant upgrade at center, the (slight) maturation of Chris Kemoeatu, a much more physically imposing Ramon Foster at right guard compared to Darnell Stapleton, and having a mauler in the running game at right tackle with Flozell Adams. Rashard Mendenhall, who finished with 66 yards on 18 carries, hardly had huge running lanes to run through against Cincinnati, but he wasn't fighting an entirely uphill battle like he was during, say, the Miami game in October.

I'll get into this more as we inch closer to the playoffs, but I truly believe this Steelers team has more than enough to go the distance and win Lombardi No. 7. Obviously the play of the defense will be paramount to their success come playoff time. Without great defensive play, the Steelers will likely stumble before getting to the Big One. But if the defense is solid, I think the offense can do just enough to get it done. When you have No. 7 on your side, there's no reason to think otherwise.