Early in the first quarter of Monday night’s game with the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star linebacker, Ryan Shazier, lay motionless on the field and the collective heart of Steelers Nation sank like a stone. Shazier had just made a hard tackle on the Bengals’ rookie wide receiver Josh Malone after a short pass over the middle from Andy Dalton. Shazier’s head-down tackle was a key factor in the injury, hitting the receiver with the crown of his helmet and, apparently, transmitting the full force of the hit directly to Shazier’s neck and spine. Everyone subsequently heaved sighs of relief when Steelers General Manager and Vice President Kevin Colbert later reported via Twitter that Shazier is improving in the hospital and might be able to return to Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Another gritty comeback
While the Steelers rallied in the second half to claim a gritty victory which extended their record to 10-2, everything else that happened in Cincinnati on this fateful Monday night seemed anti-climatic while Shazier’s status remained uncertain. Yet somehow, the Black-and-gold managed to pull themselves together. After scoring only 3 points in the first half, the Black-and-gold outscored Cincinnati 20-3 in a rain-drenched second half, claiming victory on a 38-yard Chris Boswell field goal as the final seconds ticked off of the game clock.
This smash-mouth grudge match forced even the fearsome Vontaze Burfict to the sidelines for repairs on more than one occasion. Burfict finally was carted off to the locker room for the duration halfway through the final quarter—thanks to a surprisingly brutal (and illegal) block by JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Bengals also lost rookie running back Joe Mixon after a hard hit by Vince Williams, and Bengals’ cornerback Adam Jones also went out with an injury.
As for Pittsburgh, Antonio Brown took a nasty shot to the head after Ben Roethlisberger hit him with a 6-yard slant pass for a TD that tied the score 20-20 at 3:51 of the fourth quarter. Amazingly— at least to anyone not accustomed to watching No. 84 on the gridiron—Antonio maintained possession all the way down to the turf for yet another addition to his incredible highlights reel.
The Steelers’ linebacker unit quickly became a mixed bag after Shazier’s replacement, Tyler Matakevich, also was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler was truly earning his money on Monday night, juggling several defensive backups and implementing new defensive schemes on the fly which enabled the Steelers to keep the pressure on Dalton and the Bengals’ offense in the second half.
Roethlisberger finished the game completing 24 of 40 passes for 290 yards, two TDs and one interception. But it was the other two Killer B’s who proved too much for the Bengals to handle. Despite his eight catches for 101 yards, Brown was only the Steelers’ No. 2 receiver for the game—behind Le’Veon Bell’s five catches for 106 yards. Bell also added 76 yards rushing on 18 carries, proving once again that he’s truly a double threat for opposing defenses.
Apart from the statistics, this game went pretty much the way you’d expect a Steelers vs. Bengals matchup to unfold. Not only was it hard-fought to the point of sheer ugliness, but the Steelers’ offense largely went missing during the first half—stalling repeatedly at midfield, scoring only three points, and going into the locker room at halftime on the short end of a 17-3 score.
The inevitable collapse
As we’ve come to expect from the Bengals, they made just enough mistakes to lose the game. Cincinnati set a new and dubious team record by drawing 173 yards in penalties. This is particularly troubling for an NFL team which has played 12 games of the regular season—a point at which these issues ordinarily are expected to be worked out. And when the game was on the line in the final quarter, Dalton’s play was notably worse than it had been at any previous point. He was unable to exploit Pittsburgh’s patchwork defense to score the additional points which would have made a Steelers’ comeback impossible.
Bad blood is another thing you’d fully expect in a Steelers-Bengals matchup. Sure enough, JuJu Smith-Schuster delivered the goods by becoming the Bengals’ new hate-object—not only temporarily knocking Burfict into next week, but also taking the unforgivable measure (at least in Cincinnati’s eyes) of standing over the fallen Burfict and taunting him. Who would ever expect this level of violent bravado from the mild-mannered rookie from southern California? Too late now for the “I’m sorry” Tweets—his picture now will be adorning dartboards throughout the Cincinnati region.
Pittsburgh keeps finding ways to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and that’s a good thing. But it’s important to keep in mind that Andy Dalton is no Tom Brady. The Steelers return home to prepare for the surprisingly undead Baltimore Ravens, after which they’ll host the hated Patriots. The win in Cincinnati is huge, not only because it extends Pittsburgh’s lead in the division, but also because it appears the Steelers escaped with a win while avoiding the horror of losing their best linebacker.
So perhaps the football gods are smiling kindly on the Steelers these days. It’s obvious that Pittsburgh still has its share of issues to work out before the playoffs begin, but by stacking wins now, the Steelers might be giving themselves enough of a cushion to properly prepare themselves for those must-win games ahead.