By Christina Rivers
In a game that could have and probably should have gone their way, the Pittsburgh Steelers once again this season saw it all slip through their hands. With a completely flat start for the offense, it appeared early on that not only would the defense need to carry the team another week, the running game was going nowhere. The Steelers were able to pick up some momentum in the second and third quarters only to watch themselves beaten by an emboldened and rising Cincinnati Bengals team. In what seemed like a rerun of the Denver matchup, it was Roethlisberger’s throw ending up in the hands of the Bengals defense that killed any dreams Pittsburgh may have had for the postseason.
Whatever the coaching staff worked on in practice this past week did not appear to translate onto the field. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley appeared to have no answers for a sluggish offense. Creativity and flow have been a thorn in the side of the Steelers for most of the 2012 NFL season. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had his defense revved and ready to play for the full 60 minutes, but a defense can only carry the team so far. After halftime, the Steelers looked like they were ready to finish things out, but a late fourth quarter gamble by head coach Mike Tomlin resulted in a 53-yard missed field goal by Shaun Suisham that gave the Bengals near perfect field position.
Coaching Grade: D
Everyone knew that Ben Roethlisberger was rusty the past two games and most thought this would be the week that he’d return to his near-MVP form. Their dreams were short-lived. Pittsburgh talked about urgency in press meetings throughout the week leading up to the game, saying that every player understood how important it was to win this game. After publicly questioning Haley’s play calling and then apologizing, Roethlisberger was determined to lead the team. His first quarter play was less than spectacular, completing one of three passing attempts. One of those misses was picked off by Leon Hall and returned for a touchdown. It was two strong drives that got things going for Pittsburgh in the second quarter, but a missed field goal cost them points that Roethlisberger had no control over. His 60-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown was the longest completed pass from scrimmage at Heinz Field this season. It’s hard to say that Roethlisberger wasn’t trying to manage the game when he was able to complete 14 of 28 passes for 220 yards. Fourteen passes just wasn’t enough when, in a scene reminiscent of the loss to Dallas, Roethlisberger got hurried and threw an interception to Reggie Nelson that gave the Bengals time for Andy Dalton to get his team in field goal range in one passing play. Roethlisberger could only wince as he watched the ball sail through the uprights. Roethlisberger might have had more opportunities, but the offensive line let him down by allowing him to be harassed the entire game and see too many defenders on top of him.
Quarterback Grade: C
Not enough can be said about the offensive line. While rookie David DeCastro did well last week paired up with Kelvin Beachum on the right side, he was consistently beaten by the Bengals defensive front. Ramon Foster, who knew coming into the game that he was going to face an intense battle, allowed the Bengals into the offensive backfield too many times as well. Even the usually dependable Max Starks had some issues. This forced the running game to be nearly non-existent and the offense to be entirely too one-sided. Rashard Mendenhall gave a decent performance with 11 carries for 50 yards, his longest going for 20 yards. Jonathan Dwyer had 14 carries for 39 yards, but only saw one breakout play of 13. With Roethlisberger having to dance out of the pocket, the Steelers receivers had a difficult day. Antonio Brown gave the best performance with five receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown catch of 60. The only other reliable offensive player was tight end Heath Miller who finished the game with three receptions for 45 yards. Isaac Redman only had two carries, and he lost the ball on one of the carries.
Offense Grade: D
While the offense struggled, the defensive backfield who was expected to be the Achilles heel this week showed up. Cortez Allen had a nice game with 7 tackles, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble as he batted away balls. With Troy Polamalu back in the shuttle pattern, alternating between rushing and even sacking the quarterback and playing safety, the other defensive backs had more help. Lawrence Timmons had another great game, logging 10 tackles and two sacks. Brett Keisel logged 1.5 sacks while James Harrison added another. If it weren’t for Pittsburgh’s defense, the Steelers wouldn’t have kept the game nearly so close.
Defense Grade: B-
This unit has seen little spark to stand out enough on the field to make a huge difference in a game this season. The usually right-on kicking of Shaun Suisham was tattered after long-snapper Greg Warren mis-snapped a ball that caused a miss. Suisham went 1/3 on the day. Antonio Brown simply could find no running room when he received two punts and neither Chris Rainey or Leonard Pope found success on kickoff returns.
Special Teams Grade: C-
And so begins the rumor mill…
Shortly after the game, it was not unusual to hear a fan on Twitter or Facebook saying that they think Todd Haley should go coach in Arizona. If he were to leave Pittsburgh after the final game of the season against the Cleveland Browns, that would mean that the Steelers’ offense would have to learn its third new offensive scheme; Arians to Haley to ‘next man up’. For a struggling offense, that seems like a death toll that Steelers fans may want to rethink. There were also rumors that Coach Tomlin has lost his “mojo” and that instead of making excuses, he needs to think hard about his job. Is his job really in question? The most entertaining trash-talk of the day may be the most pathetic. It involved a “die-hard” Steelers faithful saying that due to the fact that the team was “so terrible” in 2012, he was going to “burn Mike Wallace’s jersey and root for the Browns to win” so that a better draft pick might fall into the lap of the Steelers. He wasn’t alone on the draft position idea. The Steelers have one game left this season and it doesn’t seem quite right for Steeler Nation to mothball their favorite jerseys and tailgating gear just yet.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.