CINCINNATI – Last year, the Steelers lose this game. They lose it in the fourth quarter, on defense, as a result of a couple of third-down conversions they wouldn't have been able to prevent. A couple of successful third-down conversions because they wouldn't have been able to stop the opponent from playing pitch-and-catch on third-and-long.
But yesterday, the Steelers won this game. They won, 24-20, their fifth straight, and it allowed them to move within a victory over the Baltimore Ravens of clinching the AFC North Division title and the home playoff game that comes along with it. They won and set themselves up for that because when the Bengals tried to play pitch-and-catch on third-and-long, the Steelers had cornerbacks on the field who broke up the passes. Both passes. One by each cornerback.
Those two plays turned out to be critical to the outcome yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium because of the way the first three-plus quarters had unfolded for them. In a nutshell, their offense wasn't finishing, their defense wasn't making any of the kinds of plays that had characterized this unit during the four-game winning streak they brought into this game, and on special teams, well, that unit and the entire team, really, were being carried by the right leg of their 25-year-old placekicker. And penalties were an issue as well, especially in the first half.
The Bengals had built themselves a 20-9 lead at halftime, and their margin could be traced directly to a couple of big penalties – big, both in terms of yardage assessed and impact on the game.
The first of those came late in the first quarter of what was a 3-3 tie at the time. In coverage on wide receiver Brandon LaFell deep down the left sideline, Artie Burns had his back to the football and never got turned around in time to avoid a pass interference penalty in the end zone that became a 39-yard gain and put the Bengals at the Steelers 1-yard line. The second was an alleged chop-block by Le'Veon Bell that took a touchdown pass to Antonio Brown off the scoreboard. By the technical definition of a chop-block, that penalty flag could be rationalized, but this clearly didn't reach the level the framers of the rule had in mind. Still, it was called and the penalty led to them settling for a field goal instead of getting the touchdown, and so the Steelers were losing by 11 at halftime instead of being in a tie game, because of penalties.
Game action from Week 15 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Down by 11, it's understandable to look toward your franchise quarterback to deliver some offensive fireworks, but coming back from a double-digit halftime deficit is impossible unless the defense shuts the opponent down, and even that might have to be complemented by a takeaway or two. In the first half, the Bengals offense had four possessions, and they ended like this: field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. In the second half, the Bengals offense would have four possessions, and the Steelers defense did exactly what was necessary: punt, interception, punt, punt.
Because they had deferred after winning the coin toss, the Steelers received the second half kickoff, and they did some nice things. Overcame a 15-yard penalty when Ben Roethlisberger converted a third-and-17 with a 23-yard pass to Ladarius Green. Ran the ball some. But in the end, a third-and-6 from the 17-yard line became a third-and-11 from the 22-yard line because of a false start, and the Steelers ended up settling for another field goal.
So now it was a 20-12 deficit, but because the offense wasn't doing much more than chipping away at the deficit three points at a time, the Steelers defense had no margin for error. After a couple of first downs following the ensuing kickoff got the Bengals out to their own 39-yard line, Ryan Shazier ended the possession by sacking Andy Dalton back to the 28-yard line and Cincinnati had to punt.
Chris Boswell came on to save the next Steelers offensive possession with a 49-yard field goal, but now the game was 43 minutes old, and things weren't looking like they were going to happen fast enough for them to complete the comeback.
Ryan Shazier came to the rescue with an interception on the penultimate play of the third quarter, but the Steelers offense could deliver only another red zone field goal, and their deficit was 20-18. It was going to be up to the defense, and the assignment looked to be this: get the ball back for the offense to give it the chance to score the points to take the lead, and then come back to protect the lead to secure victory.
Here is where the cornerback play came to the fore. Here is where these cornerbacks showed themselves to be different. Better than what they've had recently. Good enough to line up on a receiver and make plays on the football.
The first third down was a third-and-11 from the Cincinnati 24-yard line, and Dalton went to LaFell, who would end up leading his team with seven catches for 91 yards. In this instance LaFell had run a sideline route long enough for the first down. The ball was delivered on time and accurately, but Stephon Tuitt broke up the pass. Fourth down. Punt.
The franchise quarterback delivered a five-play, 69-yard drive that he capped with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Eli Rogers, and the Steelers finally took the lead, 24-20, midway through the final period. Now it came time to protect the lead, and with that the defense took the field.
The Bengals managed one first down on a 14-yard pass to LaFell, but on the next play Bud Dupree dropped running back Jeremy Hill for a 4-yard loss and the Bengals were behind the chains. Second-and-14 became third-and-14, and the Bengals decided to test the other side of the Steelers defense. They aligned LaFell on Artie Burns' side, and he ran another simple sideline route beyond the sticks and turned to look for the ball. Pressured by Timmons, Dalton's throw still would've been good enough except for Burns breaking on the football and batting away the pass. Punt.
With 6:05 remaining in the game, the defense's work was done, because the franchise quarterback directed the offense to five first downs before the clock was killed by three successive plays from victory formation.
If Cockrell doesn't break up the pass on the first of these two critical third downs, the Cincinnati possession would have continued, with the Bengals then potentially able to add to what was their 20-18 lead at the time, or at least be able to eat more time off the clock to protect the lead they had. And if Burns doesn't break up the pass the next time the Bengals faced a third-and-long, maybe Cincinnati is able to cut into what had become a 24-20 deficit or even re-take the lead.
There were a number of good things to come from the Steelers' victory over the Bengals yesterday: a fifth straight win; a fourth straight road win; completing a sweep of the defending division champions; moving within a victory of clinching a home playoff game by becoming the current division champions. There was a turnover-free game from Roethlisberger, and another 100-plus-yards from scrimmage game from Le'Veon Bell, and a 6-for-6 from Chris Boswell, and a combined 10 catches for 147 yards and a touchdown from Eli Rogers and Ladarius Green.
But having two cornerbacks with ball skills who display those skills on critical third downs in the fourth quarter of a game that's hanging in the balance is the best of all.