The Cincinnati Bengals’ hopes of defeating the Steelers at home died suddenly on Sunday afternoon, surrounded by 60,000 zealously-loyal but consistently snake-bitten fans. Those hopes lived for exactly one minute and eight seconds.
With 1:18 left in fourth quarter, Joe Mixon bulldozed his way into the south end zone at Paul Brown Stadium to tie Sunday’s proceedings at 20-all, and moments later Randy Bullock nailed the extra point to give the Bengals a 21-20 lead. The home fans celebrated loudly and raucously, of course, but they aren’t dummies — they knew as well as anyone that the Steelers still had three timeouts in their arsenal and a quarterback who’s engineered more than his fair share of fourth-quarter comebacks, a non-zero number of which have occurred in the very same stadium where they were sitting. Supplementing these factors is the fact that Dre Kirkpatrick plays for the Bengals and, aside from taxes or the sun someday exploding and engulfing the Earth in fiery doom, the one thing in life you can count on is Dre Kirkpatrick committing some horrific and bone-headedly humiliating error, thereby single-handedly influencing the outcome of the game. We’ve all seen this movie, and I sincerely believe you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected a different outcome than the one Ben Roethlisberger ultimately delivered.
It took just six plays — about 56 seconds — and one defensive-holding call against Kirkpatrick on a critical 3rd-and-10 to set the Steelers up on the precipice of Chris Boswell’s field-goal range. While it’s true that Boswell has never missed a kick at Paul Brown Stadium, and that he’s nailed game-winners there in two of his last three appearances, it’s also true that he’s missed six field goals in 2018. Boswell’s obviously proven himself to be a reliable, ice-in-the-blood commodity, but I don’t think we’re quite back to the point where you’d say, “Okay, I trust this guy to hit a 50-yard field goal to win the game,” you know? Fortunately, it didn’t come down to that, as Cincinnati blitzed, like, nine people on 1st-and-10 from their own 31 yard-line, which allowed Roethlisberger to dump the ball off to Antonio Brown, who jetted through the second and third levels of the Bengals’ defense to score a game-winning touchdown.
The Steelers now are 3-2-1 and just a half-game behind Cincinnati and Baltimore in the division. They’ve won two games in a row, both against legitimately stacked opposition, and their 1-2-1 start that had pushed the plunger down on the thermite brick containing a vast catalog of spicy defeatist narratives seems like it was in a completely different season. Their bye-week is forthcoming, which should give them the opportunity to re-group, tighten up some of their underlying weak spots, and hopefully ship Artie Burns off to a Serbian gulag (or Arizona — same thing, really). Let’s dig in:
The passing attack: Stock up
Brown and JuJu-Smith Schuster both eclipsed the 100-yard threshold and, in so doing, have manifested themselves among the top-11 receivers in the NFL in receiving yardage. But if you prefer your analysis a little more intuitive and less reliable on quantifiable measures for individual proficiency, we’ll go with this: the Pittsburgh Steelers currently have one of the best — if not the best — one-two receiving punches in the NFL. Brown looks more unstoppable than ever at age 30, and Smith-Schuster is continuing to demonstrate that there’s nothing he can’t do effectively. In a league full of specialists (red-zone target, deep-threat, possession receiver, etc.), the Steelers managed to uncover two of the best and most complete receivers in football.
The tight ends had a commendable showing, too. Vance McDonald is still a foremost component of the passing offense (and he bulldozed the vile Vontaze Burfict, which was fun), and both Jesse James and Xavier Grimble continue to be reliable outlets. It’s also worth pointing out that the Steelers surrendered zero sacks — thereby allowing Roethlisberger the requisite time to pick Cincinnati’s secondary apart — thanks in large part to the tight ends.
Top cornerback prospects in the NCAA: Stock up
If you’re ever feeling down about yourself or stressed out about work or questioning your place in the world, just remember that the Steelers placed a first-round grade on Artie Burns. Artie Burns couldn’t cover a cough. I’d recommend viewing the following sequence through a mirror, as gazing upon it directly might turn you to stone:
Artie Burns gift wraps a TD fro #Bengals’ Tyler Boyd. pic.twitter.com/PnW37cOJXL— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) October 14, 2018
C’mon man! This is a professional football cornerback! What did he think Tyler Boyd was gonna do, jump into the stands to try to catch this pass?
Later, on Cincinnati’s final drive of the game, Burns — to the surprise of absolutely no one — committed a pass interference penalty on a play in which the intended pass landed five yards out of bounds. He was removed from the game shortly thereafter, much to the unmitigated delight of Steelers Nation. Burns, a player the Steelers had hoped would be a cornerstone of their revamped secondary, has actually exacerbated many of the longstanding issues plaguing this unit. He’s the Brazil nut of the secondary’s cocktail nut mix — he contributes nothing to the overall effort and, in fact, the state of things would be considerably better off without him mucking up the entire enterprise. Greedy Williams, DeAndre Baker, Julian Love, Amani Oruwariye, Byron Murphy; learn these names, for one of them will likely be called by the Steelers in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Beef: Stock up
Depicted is Vontaze Burfict throwing an elbow/shoulder into the dome of Antonio Brown:
The real Vontaze Burfict has arrived. pic.twitter.com/msxyIj8Js7— Chris Mack (@THEChrisMack) October 14, 2018
That Burfict was seen headhunting isn’t a particularly groundbreaking bit of intel. He’s a notorious assassin, one who’s developed a well-known penchant for delivering abjectly foul and dangerous hits. Now this is the part where I admit I’m viewing the aforementioned tackle through black-and-gold lenses, which I guess is a less-than-direct way of saying that, even though it was a punk move, it’s important to consider the context. Specifically, that the last time the Steelers and Bengals faced off, Burfict left the field on a stretcher after absorbing a similarly vicious blindside hit delivered by Smith-Schuster — a play that since has been emblazoned on t-shirts and that has inspired it’s own karmic rallying cry. So, while Burfict is an inherently, um, controversial player, it’s entirely possible — if not probable — that the hit on Brown shown above was an act of retribution.
This doesn’t absolve Burfict, of course, especially since immediately thereafter he apparently pointed at Smith-Schuster and said “you’re next,” thus confirming a) that the hit on Brown was absolutely premeditated and b) that he planned on inflicting further damage, intentionally, on other Steelers receivers.
The onus is now on the NFL to review the footage of the Brown hit and act on it accordingly. If the league is truly committed to fostering a safer environment for everyone on the field, it ought to punish Burfict. It won’t, obviously, because Antonio Brown is not a quarterback and those players seem to be the only commodities worth protecting.
I have a hot take: the NFL should intervene, not by suspending or fining Burfict, but by removing one of these teams from the AFC North. I might write a thing about this...
James Conner: Stock up
l love Le’Veon Bell and I think he’s the best running back in the NFL (er, second-best I guess, if only because Todd Gurley exists), but the significance of James Conner’s ascension to legitimate NFL stardom is getting harder and harder to downplay. He’s currently ranked fifth in the league in rushing (this despite rushing for fewer than 20 yards in two games), second in rushing touchdowns, and is the only player to have rushed for 100 or more yards and two touchdowns in three games. It’s still pretty early in the season, so it feels almost persnickety to even call attention to this trend, but the Steelers haven’t lost a game in which Conner’s touched the football 20 or more times. It’s evident, then, that Conner isn’t simply some additional dimension of Pittsburgh’s offense, but that he, much like Le’Veon Bell, is a veritable offensive centerpiece, one who’s multifaceted skill-set, when properly utilized, elevates the Steelers from “very good offense” to “efficient, impossible to contain offense.” It’s possible that Conner and Bell are both products of a highly proficient and well-designed system, but it’s also possible that the Steelers have simply managed to find two very talented running backs who could excel in any system. Either way, if and when Bell does come back, I’m not so sure the keys will be handed to him.
Joe Haden, the defender: Stock up
Joe Haden! I love Joe Haden so, so much! Haden shadowed A.J. Green all afternoon, and a casual perusal of Green’s stats would indicate this matchup skewed ever-so-slightly in his favor. And maybe it did. But I’m here to tell you that metrics are fake news and that Haden got the better of A.J. Green — and I won’t be told otherwise. Green had seven catches for 85 yards, yes, and he also dropped a pair of passes that otherwise would’ve pushed him over the 100-yard threshold. But Andy Dalton uncorked at least four picture-perfect laser-beam throws at Green that nobody on this planet aside from A.J. Green could’ve even imagined catching. Most importantly, though, Green didn’t score any touchdowns, which is the second week in a row in which Haden was largely responsible for holding a top-5 receiver without points. Joe Haden is good. Believe in Joe Haden.
Joe Haden’s hands: Stock down
Haden did drop what should have been two interceptions, one of which ultimately led to a Bengals’ touchdown and another that could’ve iced the game late in the fourth quarter — but whatever. Joe Haden is still good, and I still believe in Joe Haden.