When the Cincinnati Bengals hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers early this year, it was like the slow burn of a damp wick. Once Cincinnati's defense forced a game-opening three and out on Pittsburgh, the Bengals responded with their own three-and-out while Antonio Brown returned an ensuing punt 40 yards to the Bengals 34-yard line. Pittsburgh wasn't able to generate a first down, but took a 3-0 lead on a Shaun Suisham 44-yard field goal with 10:47 remaining in the first quarter.
Cincinnati nearly responded but a Kevin Zeitler false start and incomplete third down pass led to another punt. From their own three-yard line, Pittsburgh drove, receiving a little help from a defensive pass interference on Adam Jones. It wasn't until the 3:30 mark that the Bengals generated momentum, thanks to a redemptive Adam Jones fumble (and recovery) that led to Giovani Bernard's first career touchdown with over a minute remaining in the first period. Cincinnati added a field goal on their next possession, taking a 10-3 lead and never looking back.
Though a fourth down Hail Mary as the first half expired could be considered a turnover on downs, Cincinnati protected the football, played excellent defense and dominated time of possession in the second half -- holding onto the ball for over ten minutes in the third and fourth quarters respectively. If one were to make the perfect stew, these are the ingredients that Cincinnati has used to achieve success all season.
In games where the offense turned the ball over less than twice (aka, one time or less), the Bengals are an undefeated 5-0. When they turn it over two times or less, they're 8-1. Three turnovers or more, and they fall to 1-3. It's not a difficult concept -- protect the football, prevent good field position for the other team and finish your own possessions. Cincinnati's defense has held the opposing offense to under 300 yards of total offense four times this year. They've won three of those games. And when the Bengals have won the time of possession battle, they've won four of six games.
Statistical talking points is a beautiful twirl on the dance floor of a Sir Mix-A-Lot song, but what one needs to apply is trends. Such as Andy Dalton completing over 65 percent of his passes in December, generating 465 yards passing and compiling a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4-1. It helps that Marvin Jones finally made his encore performance with a diving touchdown along with a career-high 148 yards of offense from rookie running back Giovani Bernard last week.
But all of that is the by-product of Cincinnati's offensive line, who has allowed Dalton to stay upright in 105 consecutive drop backs since the :21 second mark in the fourth quarter -- nearly a full month has passed since the last time that Dalton was sacked against Baltimore. The running game has exploded with 319 yards and four touchdowns against the Chargers and Colts combined. Protect the football. Protect the ball carrier. Dominate time of possession. Play quality defense. We're in such a state of obviousness that everything makes sense.
Pittsburgh currently stands as the league's 24th best rush defense, allowing 120.2 yards rushing per game and 14 total touchdowns (tied for 25th). They've also surrendered over 11 plays of 50 yards or more this season.
"Very frustrating," strong safety Troy Polamalu acknowledged via Steelers.com. "When you've been on defenses that really made their money not allowing them at all, or one in a season or two in a season, it’s really surprising. It’s surprising both ways, like, ‘How can we give up this much this year?’ But it’s also like, ‘We were really good back then.’ I didn't know we were that good."
It's strange in a way, seeing Pittsburgh's defensive struggles this year. Not like it was unexpected as the season unfolded with age, injury and the departure of role players. Granted they're ranked No. 12 overall (hardly someone to take for granted), but their sack numbers are down, their rushing defense is questionable and they've secured only eight picks -- 27th in the league.
On paper, Cincinnati should succeed on the ground. Provided that their possessions remain on schedule (no lost yardage on plays or penalties), the Bengals are ranked 11th on third down conversions and will face a defense allowing 40 percent (20th in the NFL). Yet, it's the Steelers. If they're not playing great defense, the psychological nature of things tends to play out.
But then again, this is a different Bengals team too.