The Steelers may be in a bit of trouble. If they aren't careful in the next upcoming season or two, they could find themselves in a dark chapter of their storied history.
I realize that struck a nerve with the majority of the football universe. Here I am, a Bengals fan, warning Pittsburgh about their team. Many will think a hardy yet dismissive chortle is in order after such a sentiment. Yet, when one removes their superiority sunglasses, studded with six little jewel-encrusted trophy replicas on the sides, they might see a roster in transition and a staff in question. Or they might not.
First and foremost, the Pittsburgh Steelers still represent excellence. They have built their organization on a power foundation and have done their best to stick to it while adjusting to the current game. Historically speaking, their selections of personnel, both players and coaches, have been phenomenal.
Right now, however, there are a lot of pieces in flux.
There are whispers about Mike Tomlin coaching the Texas Longhorns. I'm sure this is just gossip, but there is a lot of money in Texas; never underestimate what a rich Texan can buy. And at what point do the tables turn for Tomlin within his own fan base? If he carries on missing the playoffs and ending third or worse in his division, how soon is he accused of riding the coattails of winning a championship with someone else's team? When will he become Tubby Smith?
Dick LeBeau is truly the Yoda of the NFL, but even the little green guy had to hang it up eventually and so will Dick. It would be hard to count on the man for much longer. It's impossible to say he isn't among the greatest defensive minds of all time, probably the best, but he doesn't have the rottweilers he used to and his old gang ages right along with him. There are many rocking chairs awaiting this defense and it's showing up.
On offense, there is talent missing. David Decastro and Mike Pouncey were good draft picks but both have missed significant stretches of time with injuries. Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams now seem drafted too high. Le'Veon Bell shows promise, and Antonio Brown has proven to be a gem, but there simply aren't many play-makers on this side of the ball. In the last three drafts, the Steelers have produced eight touchdowns from players they selected; the Bengals have 48 in that same span.
Whether or not Kevin Colbert fairly gets the blame or not is known to us schmoes outside of the building, but in the everyday world, it's the general managers who get the chop when multiple drafts go by without yielding big-time talent. Of course, that isn't the case in Cincinnati where the owner Mike Brown is the de facto general manager and should have fired himself every year in the 90's, but his organizational direction has dramatically improved in the recent past.
And that isn't even mentioning the increasingly murky waters of Ben Roethlisberger's future with the team. Sure, Ben says the right things to the media about his relationship with offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, but it seems clear that it's strained at best. Todd Haley yells at people, openly and a lot. He might be one of those tough love guys, but it may be hard to work for a person like that for Ben and for others. Of course if it came down to “him or me", the Rooneys would ship out Haley with that morning's recycling over disposing of Big Ben, but I expect one of these men to be gone in January either way.
Roethlisberger is expensive; hall-of-fame quarterbacks usually are. Today's economic model indicates that the best teams pay less for their young quarterbacks, but on the other hand, good quarterback play is still the most vital ingredient for success in the NFL. He has two more years on his current contract which will pay him over $17 million each season and his next signing day will likely exceed the $20 million a year mark. He has said he would rather retire than be traded, but we have seen crazier things happen before.
So while it may be an overstatement to say that the sky is falling in Pittsburgh, it is certainly a dip in their self-made standard and more than ever the torch feels passed.
On to the game.
The Bengals now fancy themselves a running team. The return of Andrew Whitworth to left guard has allowed Anthony Collins to finally get his shot at regularly starting at tackle, and together they maul. The double-barrel action of the old-reliable BenJarvus Green-Ellis complimented by the jitterbug Giovani Bernard, has created a facet the Bengals offense haven't enjoyed since the Sam Wyche days. The last two weeks, the duo has met expectations as they salt away second half leads and let the line bloody some noses on power runs up the gut. Last week against Indianapolis, Whitworth and Collins showed their athleticism as they consistently made downfield blocks on pitch plays to Bernard. The line also hasn't allowed a sack in three weeks. It's the best line play we've seen since 2005.
The Steelers must commit to stopping the run. Andy Dalton is not a great deep passer. Loading up the box against the Bengals and forcing them to win on long throws is a smart strategy. If Pittsburgh allows sustained drives created by rushing first downs, they will wear out and lose easily in the last quarter. Playing physical at the line of scrimmage against the Bengals receivers will force Dalton to improvise if they are adequately jammed, and Big Red is not a great improvisor. If they give A.J. Green and company cushion on the outside, the Bengals can win on underneath throws and check offs for first downs.
The Steelers aren't going to run well against Mike Zimmer's cew. Their best chance for success against this defense is to beat them over the top. The Bengals corners are not terribly fast, but the Steelers receivers are true burners. The way Zimmer counters this quandary is by dropping his coverage deep, allowing short throws and coming up to quickly make the tackle. It's his style. Last week, the defensive backs missed tackles that twice allowed touchdowns. Much was made about it and Zimmer himself said he will not tolerate missed tackles.
If Ben wants to throw for five to seven yards on first or second down, this defense will let him all day. He can drive his team to the Bengals' 40 yard line on a regular basis. Getting into the end zone though proves problematic when facing Cincinnati.
At this point, everyone knows how to defend Roethlisberger: Don't overpursue him in the pocket. Keep him in the pocket. When you get your hands on him, bring him down, and don't ever stop covering your receiver until you hear the whistle blow. The blue-prints are public information, it's actually doing it that's the problem.
Ben is a big bad ass who takes a thousand hits a season and laughs as he ices his joints every week. He's a throwback and a backyard legend. What he wants to do more than anything else, is run around and make a play out of nothing. He would rather invent football than go by the script. The Bengals know this and they have the players to make his day difficult, but there is no magic analysis to glean from. Stop him from making improvised plays and you win; it's that simple.
Therefore, all in all, I don't have a great feeling about this game for the Bengals. They have a much better roster, are playing well at the moment, need this game for prime playoff positioning, but don't play well in the division on the road. Andy Dalton was so good last week that I feel some balancing out is in order for Sunday night. It will be loud and cold and the two following games are in Cincinnati. If they were to let down their guard in the season's last quarter, it would be this game. Because the Bengals are so deep and talented this year, it's almost unfair to group them into historical trends of the dismal past, but this simply feels like a loss.
Steelers 24, Bengals 20
Mojokong—irregardless of what you've read.