If you created a top-five list examining the reasons why the Cincinnati Bengals lost on Sunday, somewhere in muddled in a notes of your erratic hand-writing could be Cincinnati's failure to prevent long third down opportunities from being converted. Pittsburgh's offense converted five of seven third downs in the first half against the Bengals defense; three of which required at least 10 yards or more. Allowing third down conversions, which fails to bring the offense back onto the field, significantly reduces your chances towards victory. Besides the act of scoring (hello John Madden), third downs remain the most critical aspect in the game of football.
Case in point the Steelers converted five of six third downs during four scoring drives; they failed to convert a single third down conversion on six opportunities during non-scoring drives. Conversely the Bengals offense converted three of four third down opportunities on scoring drives; they converted only one of seven third downs during non-scoring drives. Easy as that, right?
Where Cincinnati really failed on Sunday was two-fold. Turnovers by the offense in the fourth quarter along with an inability for the defense to get off the field in the first half.
With 9:21 remaining in the first quarter, Ben Roethlisberger takes the shotgun snap on third and ten from the Bengals 16-yard line. Paul Brown Stadium is loud, aiming to disrupt the Steelers' concentration while encouraging Cincinnati's defense. The Bengals blitzed, bringing seven with Jonathan Fanene and Nate Clements coming off the edge. Completely unblocked with a free shot on the quarterback, both defenders were unable to deliver the hit on Roethlisberger because the quarterback did what no quarterback has ever done in the history of the NFL. Step up in the pocket. Now with contain completely broken, Roethlisberger scrambled to his right, finding a wide open Jerricho Cotchery who caught the game-opening touchdown pass on the "A" in the endzone.
If Fanene isn't sprinting in a direct line at the quarterback with hands raised like a zombie and absolutely no lateral movement, this play breaks down much sooner with the likelihood of a quarterback sack; or at the very least a throw-away to avoid the sack (not that Ben knows how to do that). Instead the Steelers take a seven-point lead.
Midway through the second quarter, the Steelers lost nine yards on consecutive quarterback sacks, setting up a third and 19 from the Steelers 15-yard line with 4:57 remaining in the first half. Cincinnati brought four allowing the quarterback to take a seven-step drop to survey the field. Roethlisberger shifts to his left, setting his feet on the left hashmark and firing a missile to the 35-yard line. Bengals cornerback Leon Hall collided with wide receiver Antonio Brown as the pass arrives, sending the football straight up into the air on the deflection. Hall's momentum cleared him of the deflection whereas Brown remained in place to haul in the football for the 21-yard pass.
In fairness to Hall, he played it right. His timing was perfect, establishing contact with the receiver just as the football arrived. Sometimes you just don't get the bounces during unpredictable deflections. Those are the certainties of football you have to accept when they happen against you, as you would when they happen for you.
The Steelers offense converted five of seven third down opportunities in the first half, three of which required ten yards or more for the conversion. Then the Bengals defense stepped up.
On third and nine from the Steelers 16-yard line and 13:41 remaining in the third quarter, Roethlisberger tries to hit Mike Wallace on the hook route but the pass was poorly thrown due to Cincinnati's pass rush. Third and 12 from the Steelers eight-yard line with 12:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, again under intense pressure (Gibril Wilson drops him), Roethlisberger overthrows Mike Wallace down the middle of the field. Steelers punt. Third and eight from the Steelers 22-yard line with 4:57 remaining in the game, Roethlisberger has a nice pocket but overthrows Jerricho Cotchery with Chris Crocker in perfect position to prevent the reception regardless. Steelers punt.
Cincinnati's defense didn't allow a single third down conversion in the second half, which was a big reason that the Bengals were able to tie the game in the third quarter. However the Bengals offense would only convert one of the final four third down opportunities, compounded by two turnovers in the fourth quarter.