AFC North football.
That’s how Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger characterized the brutality and borderline wantonness that suffused his team’s thrilling come-from-behind victory against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday.
This game, the second installment of Pittsburgh’s and Cincinnati’s semi-annual rivalry, was billed as somewhat of a must-win for both teams. Entering Monday, the Steelers, then 9-2, needed a win to preserve their foothold atop the AFC standings—and, more importantly, to remain in position to secure home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. The Bengals, meanwhile, then 5-6, needed a win to keep pace in a crowded AFC Wildcard hunt. Of course, this—this urgency to win right now—merely supplemented the very real and very pervasive disdain underpinning the Steelers-Bengals rivalry. We knew that Monday night’s national audience would be treated to some head-ringing, heart-stopping, and hard-hitting AFC North football.
The heart-stopping box was checked less than five minutes into the game when Ryan Shazier suffered a back injury while attempting to make a tackle. Shazier, who did not appear to have any movement in his lower extremities immediately following the play, was strapped to the back of cart and subsequently rushed to a local hospital for further evaluation. Thankfully, his prognosis appears to be favorable.
Shazier’s injury, terrifying though it is, was a freak accident that occurred on a pretty routine tackle. He lowered his head slightly, yes, but sometimes that’s instinctual and inevitable. Aside from continuing to stress the importance of good form tackling to up-and-coming players, there isn’t much that can be done to avoid similar calamities.
There were other plays that were avoidable; namely, the vicious blows delivered by JuJu Smith-Schuster and George Iloka to Vontaze Burfict and Antonio Brown, respectively. If you’re reading this, then you’ve likely seen both, but to recap: JuJu blind-sided Burfict with the kind of force generally reserved for train collisions, whereas Iloka, understandably irked by watching his teammate leave the field on a stretcher, caromed into Brown’s dome like an angry missile while Brown attempted to—and succeeded in—catching the game-tying touchdown. Smith-Schuster and Iloka were both disciplined for their actions on Tuesday, both receiving the same one-game suspension handed to Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski for committing an on-field aggravated assault against Tre’Davious White of the Buffalo Bills.
This is a Steelers site, so I’m not going to waste my breath dissecting the particulars of Iloka’s hit (it was retaliatory without question—but given the events that preceded it, I hardly fault the guy). I’m not going to spend much time on JuJu’s, either, as it’s already proven to be a divisive talking point amongst…well, pretty much everyone.
With that said, Monday’s game served as nothing more than a three-and-a-half-hour proxy for much of what’s wrong with the NFL’s on-field product. One of the league’s most dynamic players suffered what could be a career-ending, life-altering injury on an otherwise standard play. One of the NFL’s brightest (and most affable) young stars spat in the face of sportsmanship by standing over a downed foe after delivering an illegal block. Disturbingly, plenty of folks are viewing JuJu’s block against Burfict as some sort of divine justice, the career bully getting his lights knocked out by the second-coming of Hines Ward (who, it should be noted, vaporized former Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers’ jaw with a similar crackback block, and is still celebrated for it). One of the NFL’s preeminent rivalry games once again devolved into a contest decided by questionable tackles and controversial penalties.
And I’ve heard the contrarian arguments. A hit like that would’ve been perfectly legal 10 years ago. There is veracity to this statement, especially since research concerning the effects of head trauma was still kind of in its infancy in 2007 (and it still is, frankly). But knowing what we know now—that neuroscientists agree almost unanimously that repeated head trauma probably isn’t ideal for maintaining optimal long-term brain health—isn’t it kind of, you know, barbaric to evoke the “10 years ago” rule? Maybe the hits JuJu and Iloka laid Monday night would’ve been legal 10 years ago. They definitely aren’t legal in 2017, and both parties were dealt with accordingly as a result.
Anyway, that’s the rant for this week. Let’s discuss the game:
Stock up: Tradition
Monday’s win gave the Steelers their sixth straight victory over Cincinnati. That run of ineptitude alone should be enough to cost Marvin Lewis his job, but knowing Mike Brown, there was probably a 10-year contract extension waiting in Lewis’ mailbox Tuesday morning. See, the Bengals aren’t just losing to Pittsburgh; they’re losing so inexplicably, so hilariously, that it’s almost like the Steelers have several moles on Cincinnati’s coaching staff.
The Bengals jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half of Monday’s game, which was a result that wasn’t particularly surprising given that the Bengals were a) playing at home, b) in desperate need of a win, and c) playing against an understandably rattled and, at that point, disinterested team who just watched its best defensive player suffer as gruesome an injury as you’ll ever see. A defensive collapse at the end of the first half—a fitting precursor of things to come, I might add—allowed the Steelers to trim the lead marginally just before halftime, but the Bengals still held a 14-point lead and were set to receive the second-half kickoff. A touchdown on that drive might’ve iced the game. They did not score a touchdown.
Instead, Cincinnati went three-and-out, turning the ball back over to Pittsburgh, who scored on its ensuing drive. The Bengals added a field goal to again push their lead back to two possessions, only to watch in horror as the Steelers scored the game’s final 13 points. As per usual, the Bengals committed a multitude of self-inflicted acts of sabotage, but their downfall was also partially aided by the byzantine decisions made by the. . .
Stock down: The Officials
An subjectively ticky-tack holding penalty by Gio Bernard wiped a 70-yard A.J. Green touchdown off the scoreboard.
Like, if you’re gonna call that, you gotta call holding on every play, you know? Put yourself in the shoes of the average Bengals fan. I’m sure you would be equally salty.
This example of subject officiating was not an isolated incident. Not long after the aforementioned play, Cincinnati kicked the ball back to Pittsburgh; or, more specifically, to Martavis Bryant, who fielded the kick on took off towards the opposite end-zone. Bryant did ultimately score, though the touchdown didn’t stand, thanks to a questionable holding call against J.J. Wilcox. Several series later, Dre Kirkpatrick was called for pass interference penalty against Bryant, which was also contentious at best. Overall, the officials called Monday’s game in a way that felt like they were arbitrarily awarding a never-ending series of make-up calls.
Stock down: Keith Butler’s third-down play calling
The Bengals completed 50 percent of their third-down attempts, indicating a less-than-stellar game plan by the opposing defensive coordinator. Monday’s game certainly wasn’t Butler’s best, and no call was more confounding than his double safety blitz. On 3rd-and-11. From backed up against his own end-zone. With 30 seconds left in a half in which the opposing team already held a two-possession lead.
I understand the importance of splash plays, but there are other ways to achieve this than to place Coty Sensabaugh, an alleged NFL player, on an island against arguably the most physically-imposing receiver in the NFL. Speaking of. . .
Stock down: Coty Sensabaugh
Sensabaugh is almost unplayable, and Tomlin confirmed as much Monday by yanking him at halftime in favor of Cameron Sutton. Sensabaugh should and will have nightmares about what Green did to him during the first half.
Stock down: Special teams (except, you know, Chris Boswell)
Chris Boswell is the baddest man on the planet, but his gunners are a mess. If anyone knows of a site that specifically tracks special-teams penalties, let me know. I’d love to consult it for next week’s column.
Stock up: Antonio Brown
Brown’s availability heading into Monday’s game was legitimately in doubt. He didn’t practice in the days before, and players who fail to participate in the these practices almost always end up missing the game. It was widely reported that Brown looked slightly hobbled during his pre-game walkthrough, so even if he did play, he likely wasn’t going to be 100 percent healthy. It didn’t matter. Brown amassed 101 receiving yards on eight catches and scored the game-tying touchdown despite absorbing a catastrophic blow from the human refrigerator known as George Iloka.
Brown now has 1,296 receiving yards this season, giving himself a comfy 212-yard cushion over the Deandre Hopkins, the league’s second-leading receiver. Furthermore, Brown has 569 catches for 7,611 yards since 2013 per Elias, which is the greatest five-year stretch in NFL history (and there are still four games left to play in 2017).
We are watching a person who is among the best players at his position in NFL history, and this person hasn’t yet reached his 30th birthday. If the NFL had a non-QB MVP award, Brown would win this hardware in a landslide vote.
Stock indistinguishable: Defense
Bernard averaged nearly six yards per carry despite running behind a terrible offensive line. The Steelers sacked Dalton only twice. Defensive backs continue to blow coverage assignments and miss tackles. However, given the Shazier situation, it was unreasonable to expect a lights-out performance from this group. We’ll check back again next week.
Game ball: The teams who did not hire Jon Gruden to be their head coach
I guess I should preface this by saying that I like Jon Gruden. The man loves professional football more than most people love their own children.
But someone really needs to spend some extra time versing players’ names with him pregame. In Sunday’s game alone, Gruden treated us to the following verbal mishaps:
- “Jojo Schuster-Smith”
- “Randall Gay” (at least three uses of this.)
- “Antonio Bryant” (in fairness, having an “Antonio Brown” and “Martavis Bryant” makes this one kind of excusable)
- “Bengals left tackle Alejandro Villanueva” (against all odds, he at least pronounced the name correctly)
I also thought he was going to start crying while he was remarking on how “disgusted” he was by JuJu’s block (Gruden earlier said he would “pay season tickets” to watch Burfict, but I digress).
The Ben Roethlisberger Retirement Index
I was debating the future of the franchise with some friends the other day, and we got to discussing the 2018 NFL Draft. One of my dear pals wants the Steelers to draft Josh Allen (not likely). Another wants Baker Mayfield (who will either be Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, or Johnny Manziel at the next level). I would be content with Lamar Jackson.
The point is—none of these guys are ready to play right now. If the Steelers do spend a high pick on a prospective replacement quarterback this offseason, it would benefit said replacement to sit behind Roethlisberger for a year or two and learn the ropes. Likewise, it would benefit the Steelers by enabling them to remain competitive during the inevitable “bridge” years.
Ben is playing so well at this point that it wouldn’t shock me at all to see him return for another season in 2018. Then again, after what transpired Monday night, no one would blame him for retiring to escape this madness.