By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers are back atop of the AFC after dismantling the Cincinnati Bengals 29-14 at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon. The victory gives the Steelers complete control of the AFC North division as they have now defeated each of the other three divisional teams. The Steelers have won seven of the last eight meetings with the Bengals.
Pittsburgh (5-2) is on a two-game winning streak for the second time this year and is now tied with the Kansas City Chiefs, whom the Steelers beat 19-16 in Week 7, for the best record in the AFC.
The Steelers finally look like a dangerous offensive team. They have totaled 859 yards of offense the past two weeks, and the 29-points they scored Sunday are a season-high. They also have turned the ball over once in the last two weeks, a Ben Roethlisberger interception against the Chiefs.
Speaking of Roethlisberger, he looked the most confident he has all season against the Bengals. Roethlisberger completed 6-of-his first-7 passes, with two going for touchdowns. Overall, he completed only 14-of-24 passes (58.8%) for 224 yards. Both his completions and pass attempts were a season-low, but he averaged 9.33 yards per pass attempt, his second best of the season, as he spread the ball to seven different receivers with nine of his completions going for 10 or more yards.
However, the star of the game was once again Le’Veon Bell. Bell started out strong, thanks to the outstanding blocking by his offensive linemen, racking up 27 yards on six carries on the Steelers’ first drive. He had 32 rushing yards on eight carries during the team’s first three possessions and closed the half with 107 total yards of offense. Bell finished the game with 134 yards on 35 carries plus 58 yards on three receptions to give him a season-high 192 yards from scrimmage.
On the downside, Roethlisberger and leading receiver Antonio Brown hooked up just four times on 10 targets. The Steelers managed only two offensive touchdowns despite getting in the redzone on six occasions. Just as troubling is the fact the Steelers were 2-of-11 on third downs.
The Steelers defense was spectacular once again. They did struggle early to stop rookie running back Joe Mixon. Mixon averaged nearly seven a carry in the first half, racking up 48 yards on seven attempts, and the Bengals scored twice in their first three possessions.
Things changed after halftime. The Steelers ratcheted up the defense over the last 30 minutes, permitting a measly 19 yards. In the second half, the Steelers picked off two Andy Dalton passes, on consecutive possessions, with the first interception bouncing off wide receiver A.J. Green’s hands. They forced the Bengals to three three-and-outs and held them on downs late in the fourth quarter.
Overall, the Steelers limited Dalton to 17-of-30 passing for 140 yards. The Steelers also sacked Dalton four times for a total of 32 yards loss. Linebackers Ryan Shazier and T.J. Watt led the team with five tackles apiece.
Special Teams: B
Kicker Chris Boswell was outstanding. He made all five of his his field goal attempts and is now 9-for-9 on his attempts over the last three games. Three of those makes were less than 30 yards while the other two were 40 yards or longer. He also booted six of his seven kickoffs into the endzone with four touchbacks.
Punter Jordan Berry recorded 90 yards on two punts with a long of 51 yards. The Steelers were out-gained 80-to-23 yards on kick returns. Safety Robert Golden completed a 44-yard pass to Darius Heyward-Bey on a fake punt.
The Steelers have figured out that they need to run the ball often if they are going to win. The Steelers are 3-0 this season and 12-0 since 2013 when Bell gets 25 or more carries.
The Steelers didn’t just go vanilla with the running attack. They got Bell wide on a number of runs and in open space on pass plays. Pittsburgh began the game with an end around by Martavis Bryant which went for two yards. They also threw the ball down the field a number of times and called a fake punt midway through the fourth quarter in their own territory that led to the team’s final three points of the game.
Defensively, the Steelers’ game plan was almost perfect in the second half. They made the necessary adjustments in the second half to completely shutdown the Bengals offense.
The Steelers head to Detroit with a two-and-a-half game lead over Baltimore in the race for AFC North supremacy. In the meantime, the Lions are coming off their bye week looking to snap their two-game losing streak. The Lions defense is much improved from last year, although the offense has been sluggish to say the least. The Lions rank 20th in scoring and 21st in total offense.