So which part of the roller coaster is this?
Is it the gradual ascent, in which our level of anticipation rises, or do we get most excited during the thrilling rush of acceleration during the drop?
Watching the game a second time, one thing is clear about the Steelers in their 42-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14; the Steelers' coaching staff challenged them to be more physical defensively in this game. Two players in particular took that challenge to heart; Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons and defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
They were getting after it. Perhaps not winning all of their plays (Timmons played well, Tuitt did well for the situation he was in), but they battled hard. That kind of attitude on the defensive side of the ball resonates with teammates, and it motivates them.
We saw it early from Troy Polamalu (his shove of A.J. Green out of bounds was borderline unnecessary, but it sent a message; "if you're going to catch 14 passes, you're going to get hit a lot." Ike Taylor was his feisty self before getting beat multiple times.
I've said this repeatedly; this Steelers' defense is going to let the team down a few times in 2014. But what I like about this defense in watching the game again is the emotion. They're not the league's most talented group, but when they play with fire as a group, they take on a larger ability.
Green is going to make plays and, sometimes, these are of the safety-splitting 51-yard variety. He's an absolute monster and as difficult a coverage assignment as any receiver in the game. Everyone saw the miscommunication between Polamalu and free safety Mike Mitchell on Green's first big grab, and we also saw Green fry Taylor as Mitchell attacked the shorter route on the short side of the field. They're examples of things that need to be fixed.
But while we're picking that apart, watch Antwon Blake. The hit he put on Mohammad Sanu on a critical third down play may have been among the highlights of the game. Blake saw his opportunity to get onto the field, and he seized it.
Look at the pass rush from Stephon Tuitt off of that left defensive edge when he (most likely) bruised the ribs of quarterback Andy Dalton. To use a cliche, he's got that "bull-in-a-China-closet" look to him. He moves forward powerfully more than quickly, and when he gets his assignments figured out, he's going to be a high-level player (read: better than Cameron Heyward).
Noted as a Winner in this game, I loved how Sean Spence played on Sunday. It may have been his most complete game of the season, and that's with first-round pick Ryan Shazier watching in pads from the sideline. Shazier didn't play a snap, and part of the reason could have been the fact Spence and Vince Williams both played solid games.
The lifeblood of this team is clearly on the offensive side of the ball. Whether the Steelers can score touchdowns off of long drives as well as by 94-yard passes will determine whether they win these last three games and take the AFC North title. The defense is going to be up-and-down, much like it was against Cincinnati, but if they can come out with more stops than beats like they did on Sunday, the Steelers' offense should be good enough to drive them to beat these last three teams.
It's asking a lot for now-league MVP darkhorse candidate Le'Veon Bell to shoulder as much of the load as he has, but considering the Steelers have faced two opponents now physically incapable of stopping the Steelers' counter package in the fourth quarter of games, the only direction to take here is to attack defenses with Bell early and often of each of these games.
What was most impressive with those counter combo plays wasn't the excellent timing between Heath Miller and David DeCastro, it was how Bell responded after Cincinnati started spilling over the offensive left edge to counter it. It gave the Steelers numbers in the A-gap, and Bell just simply took the ball and ran forward.
The Bengals had no way to stop it. Mike Munchak earned his pay raise, as the Steelers' offensive line executed perfectly their blocking schemes. The best part is that the Steelers got excellent games from Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, and we're barely talking about them. But this was Bell's game, just as Bell had supported the outstanding efforts of Roethlisberger and Brown in earlier games this season.
Excuse me for a second...need to raise my hands...as soon as Ben signs his long-term deal this off-season, the Steelers have all three of those players, and most of their offensive line, signed at least for two more seasons.
Anyway...That counter-play is going to be tough to stop, and if the Steelers' defense can hold on strong, this is going to be a tough team to beat.
Until it isn't, of course, and that's the tricky part about this Steelers' team. Whatever fire Mike Tomlin was able to coax out of the defense in the first quarter, hopefully he bottled it up and plans to use it this week in preparation for the Falcons.
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