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One play changed the Bengals vs Steelers Week 15 matchup

With the Steelers facing a third-and-17 deep in their own territory and down by 11, the Bengals were unable to get a stop and the defense never recovered.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals defense played some solid games heading into a rematch against the Steelers on Sunday. They dominated the Browns and the Eagles in their last two wins, but also played well since their game in London against the Redskins. For the first half of the Bengals’ game against the Steelers on Sunday, the defense was at it again. Cincinnati only allowed three field goals and shut down Le’Veon Bell in the first half. They had a huge chance to make a statement in the first drive of the second half, but failed, and that change the tune for the rest of the day.

Down 20-9, the Steelers got the ball back to start the second half. They ran the ball twice to begin the drive, and got a manageable third-and-2 after Bell got stopped by Rey Maualuga. However, the Steelers got called for unnecessary roughness, and were penalized with 15 yards. They got pushed back to their end zone with a 3rd-and-ling situation. This was the key moment of the game. A stop here by the Bengals would have given them good field position to try to score again and open up the scoreboard. Not only that, they would have been able to take time off the clock, tire the opposing defense and rest their own. But, that didn’t happen.

The Steelers converted, and even though they only got a field goal on that drive, it changed the game. It shifted the momentum. Of course the Bengals’ offense failed to score at all in the second half, so it’s hard to put much blame on the defense, but when they had the chance to make a play, they didn’t. This third down conversion is not only problematic because it was on third-and-17, but also because it highlighted the biggest problem the unit has had all season long: lack of big time playmaking.

Let’s rewatch the play from two points of view. First the broadcast film, to focus on Ben Roethlisberger and the pocket.

Now let’s see the all-22 or coaches film, to see what the coverage was and where the Steelers’ quarterback found the hole on the Bengals’ soft zone coverage.

To begin, there’s nothing wrong with the defensive play call. It looks to me like a cover 6. Dre Kirkpatrick tried to go after the slot receiver, Bell, and that opened up a window on the right side for the throw to Ladarius Green for a 23 yard gain and the first down.

Had Kirkpatrick stayed put, Roethlisberger wouldn’t have been able to make that play. But the Bengals’ coverage was sound and what killed them was the inability to put consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. If that sounds familiar is because anyone who has seen Cincinnati play has been saying it all season long.

If you go back to the first clip, you’ll notice how clean the pocket for Roethlisberger was. Not that it took him long to throw the pass, but he wasn’t bothered, at all. This might not be the best example to show it, just because of the quick release, but the Steelers had a tight end, Xavier Grimble (#85), on Carlos Dunlap on the left side of the line, one-on-one. If you can’t exploit that matchup, it’s going to be hard.

The Bengals defense never recovered - they also started to get flagged in excess.

It is futile to discuss what could have or would have happened had the Bengals forced the Steelers to punt, but what we know is that Cincinnati struggled for the entire second half on both ends of the field. The defense was holding their own until they couldn’t. There were plays they could have made, and this is the second week in a row in which Michael Johnson should have had an interception. But eventually, the Steelers conquered the fort. This third-and-long conversion is what we often call a game changer, and this is the kind of play that usually goes the winning team’s way, not necessarily the leading team’s way.

It was unfortunate, because other than a few plays here and there the defense tried its best to beat a very strong offense. In a close game, it would have made a big difference to get a stop there right off the halftime break.

This happened against the Broncos in Week 3, too. A pedestrian Denver offense that ranks 25th in DVOA and hasn’t been able to move the ball other than their game in Cincinnati, burnt the Bengals’ defense play after play for huge gains. An offensive line that surrendered tons of sacks to suspect defenses like the Saints’ — six sacks and 15 quarterback hits in their win in New Orleans in Week 11 — wasn’t even challenged by the Bengals’ pass rush, and when Cincinnati dialed up aggressive blitzes, the Broncos hit big play after big play.

The Bengals’ defense has been better, way better, since Burfict returned to form, but they still lack talent in key spots, like pass rusher and linebacker, to carry a middle of the pack offense. We’ve talked a lot about the coaching issues in other articles already and I’m sure most of you can tell where Marvin Lewis and company are coming up short.

It will be interesting to see how the defense does against the Tom Savage-led Texans and Ravens. Those two teams sport the 26th and 31st DVOA ranks, respectively. We need to evaluate the Bengals when they play the good teams, and as Sunday’s game against the Steelers and this play on third-and-long show, the Bengals haven’t done well enough and Marvin Lewis hasn’t been able to "push the right buttons".