"If the Cincinnati Bengals can't get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, they have no chance."
- Cris Collinsworth, NBC's Sunday Night Football
Much of Cincinnati's overall frustration defensively Sunday Night largely originated from Pittsburgh's third down conversions on offense, converting first downs on ten of 16 third down opportunities. It wasn't entirely unexpected though; not if you've kept your ear to the ground and eyes focused on Pittsburgh's league-dominating third down conversions this year.
Yet it was much more pronounced on Sunday, allowing Pittsburgh to sustain drives with a time of possession nearing 38 minutes; compounding the issue was Cincinnati's inability to sustain their own drives.
Against the Bengals, Pittsburgh averaged 5.4 yards to go on all third downs, and 4.3 yards on third downs that they converted. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed six of 11 passes, all of which resulted in first downs, for 105 yards passing. Third-string running back Jonathan Dwyer ran the football five times on third down, converting every attempt for 71 yards rushing and a 14.2 yard/rush average.
Additionally the Steelers averaged 11.0 yards/play on third downs and a shockingly efficient 16.9 yards per converted third down. And of the ten conversions, the Bengals allowed five third down conversions on plays that gained 20 yards or more, including two 20-plus yard Jonathan Dwyer sprints.
That being said the theme all night for Pittsburgh was protection. Domination against Cincinnati's defensive front.
"We were excited about watching those guys play and seeing what they were capable of doing, particularly Adams," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin after the game about his offensive line. "They answered the bell, as they should; they’re capable men. We were able to have a good, well-rounded attack tonight on offense — running and throwing."
With 12:09 remaining in the first quarter, during Pittsburgh's game-opening possession, Ben Roethlisberger takes the third and nine snap from Cincinnati's 48-yard line. After being granted a five-plus second window while Cincinnati's pass rush enjoyed tea and great conversation about the issues that really matter, Roethlisberger, snapped a fastball downfield to a wide open Antonio Brown with Adam Jones in coverage. First down.
Fast-forward to the 11:04 mark in the second quarter, from Cincinnati's 29-yard line on third and two. Again perfection from Pittsburgh's offensive line neutralizing Cincinnati's enigmatic pass rush, Mike Wallace finds an open lane on a hitch-route five yards beyond the first down marker. Again with Adam Jones in coverage.
Though Robert Geathers had a powerful impact into the left tackle, he took too long getting there with Roethlisberger already stepping into his throwing motion. Manny Lawson rushed the middle and Geno Atkins looped around, which the Steelers picked up. No pressure and Pittsburgh picks up a first down.
With 2:35 remaining in the third quarter, Roethlisberger takes the third down snap from Pittsburgh's 35-yard line with eight yards to go. Five seconds after the snap, reading through his progressions without any interruption, Roethlisberger finally throws the football, hitting an open Antonio Brown, who unexpectedly bounces outside, picking up an additional five yards.
Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson failed to generate any pressure. Carlos Dunlap broke off his pass rush to shadow the running back out of the backfield and Robert Geathers was paincaked around the edge. The pocket was literally unmolested, allowing Roethlisberger to easily step up into the pocket and complete the first down pass.
Now Cincinnati's defense did generate some pressure. Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins, Devon Still and Robert Geathers each recorded at least half a quarterback sack. Carlos Dunlap and Rey Maualuga each recorded at least a quarterback hit. The recorded sack by Still forced a fumble, directly leading to a Cincinnati Bengals touchdown, giving the team a 14-3 lead.
That being said it was a performance for the ages. Pittsburgh's third down conversions, compounded by Cincinnati's otherwise embarrassingly unproductive offense, led to a game that Cincinnati had no business playing.