By Christina Rivers
The Cincinnati Bengals battled illness and a short week to come into Heinz Field and take on the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night in a gritty game that decided the 2014 AFC North champion. The Steelers didn’t need to alter their overall game plan to be successful, but when record-setting running back Le’Veon Bell went down due to a knee injury in the second half of the game it came down to defense. Pittsburgh cornerback Antwon Blake stripped Bengals receiver A.J. Green of a ball and allowed the Steelers an opportunity to get one more score and finish the Bengals off for good. With the win, the Steelers advance to the AFC playoffs as the number three seed.READ MORE: Paperless Ticketing Leads To Long Lines Outside Heinz Field Ahead Of Steelers Game
Overall, the Steelers coaching staff had the correct playbook in place to decide their own fate against the Bengals at home. The plan was to limit the rushing of Jeremy Hill, contain A.J. Green and disrupt Andy Dalton. That plan was well executed by the Steelers defense. On offense, the plan was never going to be to get away from using the ‘killer B’s’; Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Unfortunately, when Bell suffered a third-quarter knee injury, the Steelers were one-sided on offense and threw unprepared Dri Archer and Josh Harris into the mix. It looked like it was going to be a disaster, especially when the coaching staff called for an ill-timed fake punt that was so obvious that Brad Wing would have done better to just take the tackle instead of tossing up an easy interception.
The play allowed Cincinnati to stay in the game and forced the Steelers to count on the defense to come up big. Coach Tomlin got to have a little post-game chat with Bengals defensive back Reggie Nelson that required head coach Marvin Lewis to come scrambling. While it is unclear what the issue was, there were some hard feelings between the two teams over some poor calls, rough play and emotions that were undoubtedly high throughout the game. If the Steelers’ staff hadn’t made adjustments and put in the personnel needed, they could have easily shot themselves in the foot. Instead, they propelled themselves into home field advantage in the playoffs by hosting the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field in Wild Card week (January 3-4, 2015).
Despite having a bit of a stomach ‘bug’, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger held up well throughout the game. He had a couple throws that he allowed to sail on him, including one to tight end Heath Miller in the end zone. The offensive line did a nice job protecting Roethlisberger as he completed 24 throws for 317 yards and two touchdowns. Roethlisberger threw one interception in the game when the Bengals, who hadn’t put together much of a pass rush the entire game, suddenly threw a player at his blind side and Dri Archer didn’t adequately pick up the block. Roethlisberger hurried the throw and it ended up in the hands of the opponent.
Although Maurkice Pouncey did use good hands in recovering a batted ball, he forgot to wait until his teammates were set before he snapped the ball. The result was a fumble that was also recovered by the Bengals. Pouncey and the line got things put back together in time to give Roethlisberger an opportunity to find Brown open down field and hit him mid-stride for a 63-yard touchdown. Brown was matched stride-by-stride by Martavis Bryant who came into contact with Brown, then slid. If the teammates had ended up tackling each other, it would have been a huge mistake. Instead, the touchdown put Pittsburgh on top once again by 10 points and were all the Steelers needed to win.
Bell had eight carries for 20 yards rushing. Brown had seven receptions for 128 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Heath Miller once again proved invaluable to the Steelers offense, adding three receptions for 41 yards. Harris would have had the biggest night of the season as a running back for Pittsburgh had Ramon Foster not drawn a holding penalty that negated a big gain.
READ MORE: T.J. Watt Suffers Groin Injury, Won't Return To Sunday's Steelers Game
Cornerback Brice McCain entered the week 17 game with a single interception he earned in week 4 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On Sunday night, McCain struck twice, intercepting Andy Dalton and giving the Steelers defense a boost in the takeaway category. McCain’s play made some wonder if Ike Taylor would truly be missed if he were unable to return in the post season from a forearm and shoulder injury. McCain had excellent support from William Gay, Will Allen, Antwon Blake and Mike Mitchell. Blake’s strip of Green was critical to the Steelers being able to secure the win.
The Steelers front seven were able to limit Dalton to just 27 completions for 244 yards and two touchdowns, hold running back Jeremy Hill to 100 yards rushing and no touchdowns and shut down the rushing attack of Giovani Bernard. Bernard did score on a forward shovel-pass from Dalton that nearly any NFL defense would have struggled to stop. Lawrence Timmons lead the Steelers defense once again this week with seven total tackles. Cam Heyward, Jason Worilds and Sean Spence all had a sack for a combined team total of three. A lighter James Harrison applied nice outside pressure and with Steve McLendon and Daniel McCullers stacking the center of the defensive line, Dalton was forced out of his comfort zone for most of the night.
There must have been a split second in the mind of (Antonio) Brown this week when he said, “I can take this all the way,” because he did something the Steelers have been unable to do all season in the return game; take a punt back for a touchdown. Brown took the Kevin Huber punt 71 yards for six points. Kicker Shaun Suisham nearly missed a field goal, but finished the night two-for-two by utilizing the upright in his favor.
The blame can’t be put on Wing for the poor selection of a fake punt call, but someone should have told him to hold onto the ball. Outside of that single play, Wing sent one punt 42 yards down the field. His average on three punts was 37.7.
This unit has played consistently average throughout the season with a spattering of highlights.
Emotions were running high in a game that would not only decide a winner, an AFC North champion and playoff positioning, but seeding in those playoffs. Pittsburgh has been playing every single week the past five weeks like they were in a must-win situation. After missing the playoffs for two straight years, the Steelers can feel good that they were able to not only sweep Cincinnati this season in their two meetings but likely give the Bengals another likely result – a return to the playoffs where they are one-and-done. The Steelers are bruised and if Bell has more than just a knee strain, they will struggle moving forward. The good news is that the final game of the 2014 NFL regular season shined a light on a team that went from being the poster boys of misunderstood football youth to championship caliber in the space of a few weeks.
Overall grade: B-
For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.MORE NEWS: Pittsburgh Police Investigating Shooting In Homewood
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on