"We're on to Indianapolis". Before the Bengals make that short trip one state over for the next one-game season, we have to make our weekly examination on the aspects of the previous game. Seeing as how Sunday night's game was the final one of the regular season and had division crown implications, dissecting it is a must.
When one rewinds the game back in their mind, it's tough to really say if the game was closer than the 27-17 score indicates, or should have been worse. Both teams committed errors and both teams made each other pay, but the Steelers made more plays that won them the game.
The Two Running Backs: Jeremy Hill cracked the 100-yard mark once again (fifth time in the last nine weeks), consistently churning up positive yardage. Giovani Bernard wasn't effective as a runner, but was a major asset in the passing game with seven catches for 56 yards and a highlight reel touchdown catch. On most other nights, this would have been a major factor in a win.
Creating Turnovers: Even though the Bengals were unable to muster any kind of pressure on Ben Roethlisberger throughout the night, they still managed to get three takeaways from the Steelers. Grabbing that many was quite a feat in a hostile environment away from the friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium. Again, on most other nights, getting three takeaways from a playoff team would result in a victory.
The Tight Ends: Even though he isn't fully a tight end, we'll lump Ryan Hewitt in here. He was a key blocker on Hill's 100-yard day and also contributed in the passing game with three catches for 31 yards. Jermaine Gresham also contributed in both aspects and showed a lot heart on his five-yard touchdown catch.
Second Half Andy: The Bengals' quarterback had his usual rough primetime start in the first half, but rebounded nicely in the second half. Per Josh Kirkendall, Andy Dalton finished 17 of 23 for 163 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
Reggie Nelson: The veteran safety was one of the few defensive players to truly show up on Sunday Night. He was physical when tackling Steelers carrying the football and also had a big interception in the third quarter. Some may have found enjoyment when he stood up for himself to Mike Tomlin after the game as well.
Andrew Whitworth: The Pro Bowl snub was outstanding against James Harrison and others in pass protection on Sunday night. I'll let the fine folks at Pro Football Focus tell the tale of the tape:
Andrew Whitworth, LT: +2.3
Breakdown: Not many pass protectors have relished facing the Steelers over the years, but Andrew Whitworth has made a habit out of keeping the likes of James Harrison at bay. He continued last night, surrendering no pressure for the third time in 12 games against the Steelers since moving to left tackle in 2009. Whitworth finishes the season having surrendered only 9 pressures (1 Ht, 8 Hu) in 533 snaps in pass protection.
Signature Stat: In Whitworth’s 12 starts against the Steelers since 2009 (one at left guard last year) Whitworth has surrendered only 14 pressures and has a pass protection grade of +12.8 in those games.
Andy Dalton And A.J. Green: There have been games where Dalton is off and he throws prayers up to Green and No. 18 bails the quarterback out. Other times, Dalton throws balls on the money and Green runs the wrong route or something else goes awry. It's weird--for how productive the two have been over the past four years, they rarely seem to both be playing well at the same exact point in a game. Against the Steelers, Dalton had two interceptions (both passes were intended for Green) and the receiver had a costly fumble late in the fourth.
The Secondary Except For Reggie Nelson: For the second time in as many games against the Bengals, Ben Roethlisberger had a 300-yard, multiple touchdown pass performance. As was mentioned earlier, Nelson made quite a few plays, but the rest of the group didn't play well. Even on incompletions, Leon Hall looked like he was tripping over his own two feet a couple of times, while Dre Kirkpatrick allowed six completions for 114 yards and two touchdowns.
Special Teams: Antonio Brown has three punt returns for touchdowns in his NFL career. ALL THREE have been against the Cincinnati Bengals. Um, maybe don't kick to him anymore? That third touchdown return occurred in the first quarter on Sunday night which was an early dagger. Mike Nugent missed a 50-yard field goal at the beginning of the third quarter which also hurt, while Pro Bowler Kevin Huber had just a 21.3 yard-per-punt average with none landing inside the 20-yard line. Adam Jones was consistently solid on kickoff returns, but Brandon Tate did nothing on punts.
Pass Protection From The Interior Of The Line: The Steelers had three sacks of Dalton on the evening and two came from players that are inside players on defense. Sean Spence, an inside linebacker got one on a blitz and Cameron Heyward had one after beating center Russell Bodine. While Hill had success on the ground, Bernard was held to just eight yards on three carries.
The Hits: The Steelers' defense was physical all night, be it throwing Bernard around or concussing two players (Green and Cedric Peerman). Nelson returned the physical play with a couple of big hits that caused injuries (either temporarily or longer) to Heath Miller and Le'Veon Bell. Most on both sides were not of the "cheap" ilk, as that's the way the league has forced certain defenders to play, but it caused guys to get chippy and nobody wants to see someone get hurt (except maybe a certain contingent of Steelers fans who sent lovely tweets to contributors of this site).
Getting Swept And Losing The North Crown: The great thing about this game for the Bengals is that some of the pressure had to be alleviated from their grabbing of a playoff spot last week. Still, this game was about attitude and running the division and the Bengals didn't take the reins. As I mentioned in a post last week, before Sunday night, in the Marvin Lewis era the Ravens and Steelers had won four division titles each, with the Bengals grabbing three. They didn't balance the power scale and now doubt is creeping back in with a difficult road playoff game against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
The Post-Game Argument: Three things really bothered me about this verbal scuffle--from both teams. If we're going chronologically, the first lies with the hypocrisy of Tomlin scolding someone on a questionable play. This is a guy who knowingly stood in the field of play to disrupt a kick return and whose team has a reputation for playing after the whistle. Secondly, Nelson needs to watch himself when getting into it with a coach. While he should stick up for himself, a combination of letting his thoughts be known and remaining professional should have been applied. It seems like Nelson wanted more of the former than the latter. Lastly, it would have been nice to see Marvin Lewis show some of the same fire as Tomlin to stick up for his player. Obviously, not getting into a physical altercation and holding back his own guy should still have been done, but when a player sees his coach stick up for him, it breeds inspiration. Lewis didn't show that and just wanted to get his team out of there ASAP. Pretty disappointing.