Seldom does a game live up to its hype, but the general feeling during the 10-day build-up to the Week 12 match-up between the Steelers and Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday was that things would likely look very ugly.
You knew it would be ugly on Cincinnati’s side, thanks to its 0-10 record, but the Steelers figured to turn in some less-than stellar play as well.
Why? In addition to the inexperienced Mason Rudolph coming off his worst performance as an NFL quarterback in a 21-7 loss to the Browns on November 14, Pittsburgh’s offense would go into the game dealing with key injuries—receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner were both ruled out—and the three-game suspension of center Maurkice Pouncey.
The two teams didn’t disappoint in a match-up that looked more like your average fourth preseason game than a late-November affair.
At least the Steelers won, 16-10, and at least they improved to 6-5, a record that now has them back in the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC.
As for that depleted offense? A big, fat yikes!
Yes, Kerrith Whyte Jr., a running back just signed off the Bears practice squad, looked decent early on by gaining 43 yards on six carries. Yes, Deon Cain, a wide-receiver just signed off the Colts practice squad, made a really impressive 35-yard catch. But those kinds of players aren’t likely going to ignite the Steelers sagging offense, which they clearly did not. Rudolph was the guy the offense needed to look sharp; instead, he looked about as shaky as he did when he threw four interceptions in the loss to the Browns, completing eight of 16 passes for just 85 yards and a red zone interception, as Pittsburgh trailed at halftime, 7-3.
And after a quick three-and-out to start the second half, Rudolph gave way to, that’s right, Devlin Hodges, the rookie quarterback affectionately known as “Duck.” How did he respond? He responded by finding James Washington near midfield on his second pass of the game. Washington did the rest by stiff-arming his way to the end zone for a 79-yard touchdown to give the Steelers a 10-7 lead.
Yes, Hodges sparked the offense, but it wasn’t a huge spark, as he would go on to complete five of 11 passes for 118 yards and a score on the afternoon.
Rookie running back Benny Snell Jr. did have a bit a of coming-out party, as he started in place of Conner and gained 98 yards on 21 carries.
But make no mistake about it, this game was won by an outstanding Steelers’ defense that continues to pull its weight.
Just how good was Pittsburgh’s defense on Sunday? How about 244 total yards allowed—including just 158 through the air? How about just two first downs converted by Cincinnati on 12 third-down attempts? How about four sacks of quarterback Ryan Finley?
And after a seven-quarter drought, how about two fourth-quarter takeaways—including one with 8:45 remaining when it looked like the Bengals were about to score, and another with 2:38 left that put the game away? Devin Bush, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree were the heroes of those takeaways, but the defense as a whole stood tall, once again.
Now, the Steelers head into a critical game against the Browns at Heinz Field next Sunday with as much uncertainty at quarterback as they’ve had all season.
Who should start, Rudolph or Hodges? Are you Team Rudolph or Team Duck? Will it even matter?
That’s a rhetorical question, because probably not.
What does matter is that the Steelers defense continues to keep their 2019 season afloat. What does matter is Pittsburgh still has a great opportunity to do something semi-miraculous.
Whether it's Rudolph or Hodges at quarterback, the Steelers will likely continue to be the ugly ducklings of the AFC’s contenders. Will they turn into beautiful swans in time for the playoffs? Probably not, but they still have a great chance to qualify for them.
That’s quite amazing when you really think about it.