The Bengals did what most soothsayers said they could not do and won a Keystone daily double by following up their win in Philly with a victory in Pittsburgh's Heinz Field today. Although it wasn't pretty, it was typical Bengals-Steelers roughneck play at its best. Frankly, the Steelers should have won this game. They shut down the Bengals running game and essentially said, "Win this game from us, Andy Dalton." Dalton almost made Steeler DC and guru Dick LeBeau a genius all over but for a Shayne Grahm-esque FG miss by Steeler kicker Shaun Suisham and a generally sluggish performance by rusty Ben Roethlisberger who gave the Bengals their only TD on a pick 6 inside their own 20 as well as the winning FG on a terrible overthrow in the game's final 25 seconds. If Pittsburgh had prevailed, many would be ready to once again give Bengal chief Marvin Lewis an assist for the usual sideline blunders -- more on that later.
But we'll give the Bengal D its due. They were awesome save for a single Pacman Jones bad bite on a double pump that led to the mortal sin of a 60-yard TD pass to Antonio Brown with only 1:08 remaining in the first half. Take away that single play and the Steelers tallied only a single FG. DT Geno Atkins led the charge with 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and his usual assortment of terror and mayhem on the line of scrimmage. It was clear that Atkins hits on Big Ben led to some serious wear over the course of the game. Also getting good pressure were ends Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry. I would be remiss if I didn't note the great set of plays that Pat Sims made on run D late in the game or the very tight coverage that the DBs and LBs provided. Don't mistake this game -- the defense won it almost by themselves. The O could not run the ball and failed to sustain any drives to the point that it looked like a playoff squad. Kevin Huber had an awesome day punting as did Josh Brown kicking, but the STs unit was outplayed and made several serious blunders. Worst contributor of the year must go to Jason Allen who filled up his wallet in the off season and then stunk the place up when it was time to play. Today Allen held on Pacman's 60+ yard punt return costing the team 70+ yards of field position and then let the gunner get away late in the game to down Jones on the Bengals own 10 when he had at least 15-20 yards of return room if that one guy had been blocked.
If this doesn't sound like a victory celebration, that's because it isn't. We beat a 7-8 team today on a last second FG and are facing a first round playoff game in either Houston, Denver or New England in two weeks. If you hadn't heard, the Giants laid another egg today against the Ravens making next week's game meaningless for both parties. So we'll get to see more of some guys who haven't played so much and hopefully will get a few guys healthy for our 4th attempt at a first playoff win under Marvin Lewis.
PRIOR 5 OVERRIDING THEMES
1. Where we are: Here are the facts: our first round away game depends on the fates next weekend of Houston @ Indy, Miami @ NE and KC @ Denver. If Houston and Denver both win, the seeds remain Hou, Den & NE in that order with the Bengals traveling to Foxboro. If Houston and NE win with Denver losing, the Bengals would go to Denver. If NE and Denver win with Houston losing, the Bengals would go to Houston. Denver has won 10 straight, so there's little chance in my mind that KC goes there and wins. Miami doesn't play well in cold weather, so the deck is stacked against them in New England. However, the Texans are free-falling while the Colts get their inspirational coach Chuck Pagano back on the sideline at home against them next week, so that one may be interesting. Figure that the Bengals will probably end up playing in either New England or Houston for the Wild Card game while the Colts will be traveling to Baltimore.
2. Strengths & Weaknesses: Last week we spoke about our running game as a strength, and this week was saw that it all dissipated in hurry. The Steelers owned the line of scrimmage and did not allow the Bengals to run for more than 4 yards on any given carry. Marv Lewis again blundered and was fortunate that things turned out okay. I think the decision to go for a Heinz Field record 56-yard FG was very stupid considering that the miss gave the Steelers the ball near mid-field with about 3 minutes to play. A smaller error occurred late in the game in which the Bengals had 8 seconds to play and one timeout. The right thing to do there would be run a play with Dalton taking a knee to center the football and call a timeout with 4 or less seconds remaining so that the FG attempt would be the last play of regulation. The Bengals aren't used to winning like that, so we might excuse what we can term a "relative rookie mistake." However, the big strength that I have seen the last several weeks is the will to win. Nobody can deny that the Bengals have found the way to win almost every weekend and under many different circumstances. For this franchise that's impressive!
3. Steelers Game Plan: So much for my admonition that we'd have to run the ball well to win. However, we did contain Roethlisberger pretty well and used blitzes and a strong pass rush to force him to throw the shorter routes. I also believe that we forced Ben into his fatal error late in the game by physically wearing him down and reducing his athletic superiority. He took some hellacious hits during the game.
4. You Gotta Believe: Kudos to this team for taking a really down season and turning it into a playoff one. Fans will likely be unsatisfied without a playoff win even though the team will be outmatched by any of the potential opponents in Houston, Denver or New England. However, the franchise has taken a couple more steps this year simply in the manner in which it has dealt with early season adversity.
5. What's it Gonna Take Now?: The Bengals OL did a nice job against the Steeler pass rush but could not establish any semblance of a run game. That's odd given how the season has gone prior to this game but suggests that Dick LeBeau focused on shutting down the run and making Andy Dalton beat him. Dalton wasn't spectacular, but he made the one play that he had to make when the game was on the line with the late 21-yard throw to Green to set up the game winning FG. Now, however, this team better get focused in these areas:
Run Blocking: What I think I saw a lot was Steeler NT Casey Hampton blowing up Kyle Cook regularly along with a failure of all the OL to move the Pittsburgh DL backward at all. The Steelers got an almost vintage game from SS Troy Polamalu, and that's tough to beat when he's playing in the box and also making plays in pass defense. I think the Bengals did a poor job of adjusting to what the Steelers were doing in run D although they really started making Pittsburgh pay in the late game short passing gains. Nonetheless, the Bengals formula lately for winning has been a cloud of dust from the Law Firm, and that has to return.
Special Teams: Maybe Jason Allen should not be on the punt return team. That would heal the two worst plays I saw on that specific group. The kickoff coverage also gave up two longer returns because if failed to contain on the back side and remain evenly spaced. Other than that, the teamers did a really nice job bottling up Antonio Brown on punt returns.
Coaching: Mike Zimmer made great calls. Jay Gruden, not so much. Gruden's O has been very stale lately especially when the team is confronted with having something shut down. I think they went to the deep-ball-to-Green well too much, while it appears that Andy Dalton is still having occasional lapses when pressured. Maybe that can't be coached out of him right now, but it continues to end drives on a regular basis. I openly wonder what Marv Lewis was thinking when he went for it on 4th-and-22 from the Steelers 35 in the second half?
NEW THEMES TO CONSIDER
How Do We Handle the Baltimore Game? My guess is that we play Gradkowski some, get some backup RBs (e.g., Herron) some carries and get some defensive players some rest. It's time to let Jason Allen and Dre Kirkpatrick play some DB and to get guys like Skuta, Lamur, Iloka, Thompson & Still a bunch of snaps. On O we need to get John Connor up to speed while resting AJ Green, Gresham, Green-Ellis and maybe even Whitworth. Also, we need to commit to who our post-season kicker will be. I'm in favor of Josh Brown right now as he has shown a lot of leg and heart in all aspects of his game. Let's keep this guy and let him and Nugent fight for the roster spot in 2013.
What's the Difference between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 playoff teams? Experience will be a big factor. This team has guys like Dalton, Green, Gresham and the Fisher Price Kids all with playoff experience. I want to say that Marvin Jones is also starting to look good at WR while Tate and Whalen are giving good situational looks as well. Despite today's game, the running game looks a lot better this year as does the overall DB play. I want to say that Andy Dalton has not improved as much as I had hoped this season, but he's still better than he was a year ago. The STs play is also markedly better this year. The main struggle this year is that the O has not found a way to fully respond to opponents' attempts to blanket AJ Green. Today the Steelers gave Green the short stuff, blanketed him deep and shut down the run. Look for teams to employ this strategy moving forward because it worked pretty well for a Steeler D that is a little weak at CB right now. The biggest gain the Bengals have this year is their confidence. This team has found a way to prevail in some big games, and self-belief is running high.
Where are we headed with respect to next season? A quick note on this here before we try to enjoy another playoff invite. The Bengals obvious need is more explosion on O. The OL is good but not great. The interior OL need to get stronger to improve run blocking at the point of attack. Andrew Whitworth seems to have lost some juice in this area too making many wonder whether he has an injury or is just starting to show the signs of wear and tear. When Sanu and Jones return after both having gotten a lot of play this year, the passing game should improve a lot. That said, Andy Dalton has to go to the next level with his ability to read progressions and make quicker decisions. Right now he frequently moves to the wrong places on the field when his reads are covered, and he also fails to keep his head on a swivel when he's moving in the pocket. The last several weeks announcers have noted where Dalton is missing guys who are coming open just as he starts to move in the pocket. This may be due to his inability to see over taller linemen, the push that interior DL are getting on our young and smallish interior OL, and Dalton's lack of experience. I think Dalton is a good study but doesn't learn that well on the fly. I'm hoping that the off-season will give him a great chance to look at the film and better conceptualize what teams are doing to stop him. And let's face it: losing Sanu was a real burden on Dalton this season just when he was getting some real chemistry going with the #2 WR spot. Two more things that should improve on O next season. We need at least one RB who can provide HR threat as a runner and receiver. That's not as easy as it sounds, but that's exactly what is needed now that we know what we have in Green-Ellis and Peerman. Most think that Bernard Scott is probably done as a Bengal, while Brian Leonard's contributions this season have dropped a bit in comparison to those a year ago. The last item is just a wonder as to whether Orson Charles will improve enough to give the Bengals a regular opportunity to use double TE threats in the passing game. This would fit Andy Dalton's short-to-intermediate passing strength well but will only be effective if Charles is able to regularly beat LBs and Safeties with his route running.