The Steelers are now 7-4 after their win over the Cincinnati Bengals, and both sides of the ball played well in doing so. You could make the argument this was the Steelers’ most complete game of the season, as well as their most dominant, even though the scoreboard didn’t necessarily reflect that.
We start this week’s review of with a look into TJ Watt’s strip-sack of Bengal quarterback Jake Browning on the third defensive snap of the game. How did it happen and what could have happened instead?
Our first clip is a close-up view of Watt’s effort and technique to beat two blockers and do what he does best—cause mayhem. At the snap, Watt will knock the tight end back three yards as he jams him before a route release. He then moves in and swats both arms of right tackle Jonah Williams to the inside while working around him to the outside and now has a clear path to Browning. It’s a beautiful display of physicality on the tight end followed by good hand technique against Williams that pays off in the sack and forced fumble. Even though the Bengals would recover this fumble, Watt turned a 3rd-and-2 into a punt on 4th-and-13.
Incidentally, for those wondering when rookie defensive back Darius Rush would get more snaps, here he is on the third play of the game. He’s No.21 faking a blitz between the center and right guard before sliding out to pick up coverage on the tight end which was knocked back by Watt.
The end zone view shows how the Bengals would avoid disaster on this play as the football would bounce twice, about as perfectly as if it were a basketball on the hardwood, right in front of the beaten right tackle—the only Bengal in the vicinity. Offensive linemen aren’t exactly known for their agility and ball handling, yet Williams is able to easily get the football under control without much effort thanks to the fortuitous bounces.
You probably already knew that the Bengals dodged a bullet on the fumble, but how did the Steelers avoid disaster on the same play?
In the next clip, we see the coverage of the three Bengal receivers lined up in a bunch formation. The Steeler to the bottom of the screen at the 28 is Joey Porter Jr. Ja’marr Chase will lead him slightly to the inside before breaking at the 30 toward the sideline. Porter Jr. will stumble and be down on all fours leaving one of the league’s best receivers open at the 35. Safety Trenton Thompson will quickly come down to help on Chase and, in that process, Andrei Iosavis will be uncovered behind the defense at the 40.
If you aren’t familiar with Iosavis, he’s a 6’3 rookie with a huge catch radius and 4.43 speed. Even though this play ends with a strip-sack, Browning is in a clean pocket when Iosavis is running free at the 40. Levi Wallace trails him by six yards and Damontae Kazee, the safety from the other side of the field, is 10 or more yards away from the speedy rookie.
A poor pass to Iosavis on this play is probably a 50-yard gain; a decent one is a touchdown. Browning was making his first start and had thrown a total of 16 career passes before this play, with sis lack of experience likely a big factor in the outcome.
We go back to the end zone view for a good look at the pass rush. Larry Ogunjobi will take the right guard away from Watt giving him room to operate on Williams. Cam Heyward will be double-teamed (Welcome back, healthy Cam!) and Alex Highsmith will have to get past a tight end before facing the left tackle. Both Heyward and Highsmith realize they can’t get to the quarterback and prepare to try and bat down any pass coming their way—their feet are no longer driving toward Browning as they try to time a jump with any pass attempt. Highsmith gets up high when he sees Browning looking toward Chase.
This angle also gives a good view in the bottom right of the screen of Iosavis clearing Wallace at the 35 and Porter Jr scrambling to get back upright after his stumble.
A different bounce of the football could have set the Steelers up on a short field or could possibly have resulted in a defensive touchdown. A more experienced quarterback might have seen his deep threat running free and gotten a touchdown for the Bengals. Both teams dodge a bullet and the game would remain scoreless until the second quarter. The outcomes of games really do come down to a single play sometimes.
Sometimes, that play happens before you even get comfortable in your seat.