Let's take a closer look at what went right and what went wrong for the Steelers on Sunday, and what it means for the team moving forward.
The Steelers offense, which finally had all of its weapons for the first time this season, looked unstoppable on the first drive of the game. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who saw his first action in nearly six weeks, orchestrated a 12 play, 80-yard touchdown drive that chewed up over seven minutes of clock. The drive was capped off by a one-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Prior to his season-ending injury in the second quarter, Le'Veon Bell showed why he's widely considered the top running back in the NFL. On the opening drive, Bell showcased his patience, vision and cutting ability, carrying the ball seven times for 30 yards. The All-Pro had 10 carries for 45 yards, and caught two passes for 13 yards before suffering a torn MCL midway through the second quarter. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant, Brown, Roethlisberger and Bell have played just 18 snaps together the entire season.
Heath Miller was heavily involved in the passing game for the first time all season. Miller finished the game with 10 receptions for 105 yards, including an acrobatic catch down the seam midway through the third quarter, which set up Chris Boswell's 32-yard field goal, and extended the Steelers lead to 10-6. He also drew a personal foul penalty earlier in the drive, and somehow managed to hang onto the ball while being knocked silly by four Bengals defenders.
Roethlisberger looked rusty for the majority of the game, throwing three interceptions in the second half, which the Bengals converted into 10 points. The second interception was the most costly, and occurred at Pittsburgh's 45-yard line with 5:34 remaining in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati marched for the game-winning touchdown on its ensuing possession. Roethlisberger also made several ill-advised deep throws into double coverage, one of which resulted in an interception by Bengals safety Reggie Nelson, who had two interceptions in the game. Once Bell left the game, the Bengals primarily used a Cover 2 scheme, taking away the perimeter of the field and effectively neutralizing Brown and Bryant.
A slew of holding penalties by the tight ends offensive lineman killed several critical drives throughout the game. The most costly of them all was called against left guard Ramon Foster on a scramble by Roethlisberger on third-and-five from the Bengals 18-yard line. Foster's hold forced the Steelers to settle for a field goal, which extended the lead to 10-6. A touchdown on that drive would have put Pittsburgh ahead 14-6 late in the third quarter. The Steelers were penalized ten times for 91 yards on the day.
The offense managed to score just three points in the second half, and squandered another outstanding effort by the defense. This game was reminiscent of the Week-4 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, with the defense forcing crucial turnovers and making big stops in the red zone time and time again. But the offense, once again, was unable to hold up its end of the bargain while the defense held one of the league's best offenses to just 16 points. Todd Haley's unit had every opportunity to win the game, yet produced zero points from two interceptions and a blocked field goal. The offense even managed to squander a 55-yard gain by running back DeAngelo Williams near the end of the third quarter. The inability to move the chains continues to be an issue; 3/11 on third down simply isn't going to cut it.
Keith Butler's decision to start Daniel McCullers at nose tackle and move Steve McClendon to defensive end was brilliant. McClendon, who picked up his first sack of the season on Sunday, is extremely versatile, and McCullers did a great job of clogging the middle. More importantly, the move kept Cam Thomas, who was blown off the line of scrimmage repeatedly in Kansas City last week, off the field for the majority of the game. The Steelers limited the Bengals to 78 yards rushing on 23 carries (3.4 AVG).
Butler did not blitz a defensive back in a game for the first time all season. The Steelers were able to get ample pressure with the front seven, sacking Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton three times and harassing him repeatedly throughout the game. Defensive end Cameron Heyward had another monster performance, collapsing the pocket on several occasions and playing strong against the run. Heyward recorded a tackle-for-loss, a quarterback hit, and a pass defense. His block of Mike Nugent's field goal attempt late in the third quarter allowed the Steelers to maintain a 10-6 advantage. It's not a stretch to say Heyward is the best defensive lineman in the American Football Conference. His eight tackles-for-loss rank eighth in the NFL.
The Bengals offense finished 4/15 on third-down conversions. The Steelers defense continued to embrace the bend-don't-break philosophy, limiting a Cincinatti offense averaging 30.3 points per game to just one touchdown. Cornerback Antwon Blake recorded his second interception of the season, picking off Dalton in the end zone and returning it 42 yards to the Pittsburgh 40-yard line. Linebacker Ryan Shazier looked much better in his second game back from a shoulder injury. The second-year pro recorded two tackles-for-loss and half a sack. Rookie first-rounder Bud Dupree notched his team-leading fourth sack of the season.
Safety Mike Mitchell continues to look much improved in his second year with the team. He snagged his second interception of the season and made a bone-jarring hit on Marvin Jones, nearly breaking the receiver in half as he came across the middle in the second quarter. I had no issue with Mitchell's "unsportsmanlike conduct" penalty. He was clearly playing with a lot of emotion after watching Bengals linebacker, and notorious cheap-shot artist Vontez Burfict celebrate Bell's injury. It was just one of many ticky-tack calls made by Tony Corrente and his crew, who were, in my opinion, horrendous in this game.
It's hard to find fault in the defense's performance in this game. The unit continues to exceed expectations, and continues to put the team in position to win games. Keith Butler's coaching performance through the first half of the season has been masterful.
Kicker Chris Boswell is now a perfect 8/8 on field goal attempts this season. His 32-yard field goal extended the Steelers lead to 10-6 with 6:27 remaining in the third quarter.
Dri Archer was terrible, failing to return a kickoff past the 20-yard line. Pittsburgh's average field position following kickoffs was its own 17-yard line.
Jordan Berry continues to be inconsistent from week to week. He averaged 35.5 yards on six punts, and failed to pin the Bengals on several opportunities.
Aside from Blake's interception, Heyward's blocked field goal would have been the play of the game if the Steelers could have found a way to pull out a victory.
The Big Picture
The Steelers have now lost back-to-back games for the first time since November 2013. Sunday's loss dropped Pittsburgh back to No. 7 in the AFC standings, just behind the New York Jets (4-3) and Oakland Raiders (4-3).
If the season ended today, the Steelers would miss the playoffs. Fortunately, that is not the case. With half the season remaining, Pittsburgh is more than alive in the AFC playoff picture. A win over the Raiders next week would put the Steelers back in driver's seat for a wildcard spot.