The Steelers were three of nine on third down.
There, that’s the only negative I can really recall from the Steelers 27-3 laugher over the Bengals at Heinz Field on Monday night.
Yes, it was Pittsburgh’s first win after an 0-3 start and, yes, it was only Cincinnati, who also entered Week 4 with an 0-3 record. So you may not have been too impressed, but how would you have felt today after a loss? Certainly not great, right? And it’s doubtful you would have gleaned much hope from an ugly victory similar to the one the Steelers had over Cincinnati’s JV squad to close out the 2018 regular season.
No, the Steelers didn’t totally unleash second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph, who still managed to complete 24 of 28 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns, despite many of his attempts—like his first start against the 49ers eight days earlier—being of the short variety. Speaking of short passes, second-year running back Jaylen Samuels completed three of his own for 31 yards while quarterbacking the offense from the wildcat formation on several occasions.
Samuels’ three tap passes (that’s what the Monday Night Football crew kept calling them), along with a few that Rudolph completed, kind of skewed Monday’s statistics and blurred the line between actual passes and ones that were really runs in disguise. The offensive game-plan devised by Randy Fichtner seemed quite gimmicky and scheme-heavy.
But isn’t that what everyone was saying it should have been against San Francisco when Rudolph made his first start?
Instead of looking just like it normally does with Ben Roethlisberger under center, Fichtner’s game-plan on Monday was unique and creative.
I’m calling it unique and creative because it was rather effective. That’s the way things are described when an offense is productive and not what it was during the first three games—with Big Big and without Big Ben--which was totally anemic.
The box score shows that the Steelers only rushed for 66 yards. It officially says that James Conner, the third-year running back who was taken to task last week for his critical fumble late in the 49ers game, only tallied 42 rushing yards on 10 carries. But, much like the first half of 2018 when he often looked more like Le’Veon Bell did when the now former Steelers All-Pro back was at his best, Conner was a factor out of the backfield and added another 83 yards on eight receptions—including a 21-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter.
That’s 125 total yards. Samuels added 83 yards of his own—26 rushing and 57 receiving—to go along with the 31 he recorded while “passing.” Samuels also ran for a score, which means that Pittsburgh’s two running backs had their hands in 229 of the team’s 326 yards from scrimmage, as well as two of its three touchdowns.
The offense didn’t dominate on the ground and it didn’t possess the football more then Cincinnati’s did. But the Steelers offense came within a hair of 30 minutes of time of possession, which apparently is all Keith Butler’s defense needs to stay fresh, aggressive and dominant for sixty full minutes.
At least that was the case on Monday, as the Steelers defense limited Cincinnati to 175 total yards and three points that were really a gift from rookie receiver Diontae Johnson, who fumbled a short pass away at the Pittsburgh 18 early in the first quarter.
Going into Monday, a turnover by the Steelers offense meant a touchdown allowed by a defense that seemed to easily wilt under such circumstances.
That didn’t happen after Johnson’s gaffe.
Another truism heading into Monday’s game was that Pittsburgh’s defense would respond to a touchdown by the offense by quickly surrendering one of its own. And after Conner’s score put the Steelers in front, 7-3, it looked like that would happen again, as the Bengals immediately marched the football down to the Pittsburgh 18. But on first and 10, Bud Dupree did his best James Harrison impression and sacked Andy Dalton, forcing a fumble that T.J. Watt recovered.
What about those second-half adjustments that opposing offenses had been making to combat Pittsburgh’s aggressive, first-half tendencies? You may have been waiting for them to show up, even as the Steelers built a 24-3 lead.
What about the “make it close” touchdown by the Bengals that seemed inevitable early in the fourth quarter after cornerback Steven Nelson was called for pass interference that kept a drive alive?
That didn’t happen, either. Instead, Mark Barron put an end to the competitive phase of the action with an end zone interception on fourth down. Barron had his best performance as a Steeler. So did rookie Devin Bush, who actually looked like the sensation everyone was practically willing him to be in the preseason. In addition to his first-career sack, Bush had nine total tackles—including three for loss—and a pass defensed.
Bush’s sack was one of eight for a Steelers defense that has at least found a way to be good in that area over the past two-plus seasons.
Maybe the Steelers defense can continue to be good in many areas in many more games moving forward.
We shall also see how the team as a whole responds to its first victory of 2019.
You don’t have to be impressed with Monday’s victory. You don’t even have to get your hopes up for a run at the division title.
But it wouldn’t hurt you to smile about the first win of the regular season. The Steelers were smiling on Monday.
Perhaps it will be a facial expression that will become old hat to everyone as the 2019 season continues to evolve.