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Steelers’ ever-changing identity comes into sharp focus in dominant win over Bengals

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For a team seemingly devoid of any definable personality earlier in the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have discovered themselves in Weeks 6 and 7.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

For the second week in a row, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated a defensively-stout AFC opponent by utilizing a potent combination of strong running and judicious passing. Just as they’d done the week before in Kansas City, the Steelers committed to the ground game from the opening kickoff, while Ben Roethlisberger showed more evidence of the qualities making him one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks.

The Irresistible Offense

Also for the second consecutive week, Le’Veon Bell proved—now that he’s clearly in mid-season form—no defense in the entire league can stop him. Bell carried the ball 35 times for a total of 134 yards (3.8 YPC average). No. 26 also was the Steelers’ second leading receiver for the game, right behind Antonio Brown and highlighted by an incredible 42-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter, during which he outran or bulldozed a host of would-be tacklers. Added to his rushing yardage, Bell’s 58 yards receiving yielded a brassy 192 yards of total offense. Not a bad day’s work.

As for Big Ben, while his 14-for-24, 224-yard passing performance certainly doesn’t rank highly among his career-best games, he completely avoided mistakes with the football while displaying his trademark laser-like accuracy. Ben finished the game with an impressive passer rating of 117.4., nearly doubling Andy Dalton’s 63.2 rating. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ben’s play was the way he spread the ball around, keeping Cincinnati’s defense on its heels throughout the game. While Antonio Brown had a sub-par outing, catching only four passes for 65 yards, when combined with the receiving yardage of Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald, Pittsburgh had 199 yards distributed among four receivers. Their grand total was 268 receiving yards—44 of which came when Robert Golden tossed a deep pass on a fake punt play to Darrius Heyward-Bey.

Whether on the ground or through the air, Cincinnati’s defense was no match for the Steelers’ diverse attack. In fact, if the Steelers hadn’t stalled on five scoring drives ending in Chris Boswell field goals, the final score would have been considerably more lopsided than it was.

The Inescapable Defense

As for Pittsburgh’s defense, it shook off a couple of first-half lapses resulting in Cincinnati touchdown drives to shut out the Bengals’ offense in the second half. Hounding Dalton and his offense unmercifully, the Steelers’ defense was led by Ryan Shazier with eight tackles, followed by T.J. Watt with six tackles and three quarterback hits. Pittsburgh’s pass rush harassed Dalton throughout the game, but particularly in the second half, sacking him four times. When Cincinnati’s offense took the field following halftime, it was obvious that Pittsburgh’s defensive pressure already had gotten into Dalton’s head, as he promptly made the Steelers’ job considerably easier by tossing two third-quarter interceptions.

Two aspects of the Steelers’ recent defensive performance deserve special notice. First, this defense has shown the ability to adjust effectively during the course of the game to what their opponents are doing. Thus, as the game goes on, the defense seems to get stronger and better at diagnosing plays. Secondly, the ability of backups Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton to step in for the injured Stephon Tuitt while maintaining a solid level of defensive line play has been impressive.

An emerging identity

Overall, there’s a marked difference between this Steelers team and the one that Steelers Nation has grown accustomed to in the past. While it still reverts occasionally to old habits, the Steelers’ offense is becoming more similar in character by the week to the one we saw at the beginning of Big Ben’s career or—for that matter—all the way back to the days of Bradshaw, Rocky and Franco. No longer is Roethlisberger trying to blow opponents out of the stadium with a hail of long-range missiles. Armed with their superstar Bell, the Steelers instead are pounding defenses into submission, and Ben seems perfectly satisfied these days to run the ball, while looking to exploit occasional openings downfield. And this formula is starting to pay dividends after the offense initially got off to quite a rocky start back in September.

Of course, with the Steelers’ identity undergoing a makeover, there won’t be room to accommodate everyone on this journey. Based now on seven weeks of evidence, it appears unlikely that Martavis Bryant and Vance McDonald will figure prominently in the Steelers’ offensive plans moving forward.

Bryant hardly looks like the same player today who captivated Pittsburgh’s fan base two seasons ago. But perhaps this has less to do with any dropoff in Bryant’s skills than it does with a changing Steelers’ offensive scheme no longer reliant principally on the deep pass. It’s possible that the Steelers’ offense, in its current form, simply has less need for Bryant’s particular skill set. But these points might be moot after the rumor that Bryant wants to be traded was confirmed.

As for McDonald, there’s not a particularly huge market for tight ends who aren’t reliable, clutch receivers. While McDonald might be the most athletic of the team’s current tight ends, there was a sharp contrast between the touchdown pass he dropped in Sunday’s game and the way Xavier Grimble subsequently snagged a bullet from Roethlisberger in heavy traffic. With the emergence of Smith-Schuster and another NFL Draft opportunity on tap in 2018, don’t be too surprised if neither of these players are found on the Steelers’ roster next season. Bryant had only one reception for three yards on Sunday, while McDonald contributed two receptions for 37 yards, largely overshadowed by his drop in the end-zone.

Arrow pointing up

In 2016, the Steelers got progressively better as the season wore on, putting together an impressive drive during the second half of their regular-season schedule and into the playoffs. Based on their past-two weeks of play, it looks like the team might be starting to do the same thing again. Hopefully, the main difference this season will be that Pittsburgh’s offense and defense will continue growing together into dominant units. If the Steelers’ defense continues its smash-mouth ways, while the offense continues improving by the week, this might be a very dangerous group when playoff time rolls around.

With the New England Patriots apparently resuming their own dominant ways on Sunday night—dusting the Atlanta Falcons 23-7 at Gillette Stadium in a Super Bowl rematch—everyone knows where this thing is heading. And assuming that Pittsburgh’s recent impressive growth continues in the weeks ahead, Steelers Nation can look forward to a playoff team significantly more solid on both sides of the ball than the one that failed just one step short of another Super Bowl appearance last January.