CRUNCH TIME

Steelers assume control of AFC North as defense makes a statement

The score: Pittsburgh 29, Cincinnati 14

The bottom line: For the first time in a long time, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense took control of a football game and absolutely would not relinquish it, no matter how many opportunities the team’s still-somehow-somewhat-struggling offense created to do just that. The result was an impressive throttling of Cincinnati that gave the Steelers a commanding lead in their division and the best record in their conference.

It was over when…: After a multitude of red zone and third down failures by their offense, the Steelers lead was only 12 midway through the fourth quarter and it felt imminent that one fluky play would get the Bengals back in the game. That’s when Mike Tomlin called for the most bizarrely timed and perfectly executed fake punt you’ll ever see, with Robert Golden lofting a perfect strike to uncovered gunner Darius Heyward-Bey for a 44-yard gain that resulted in yet another field goal, of course, but clearly took the starch out of Cincinnati, which went four-and-out on its next series, highlighted by Andy Dalton simply throwing away his team’s final theoretical chance at a comeback.

Play of the day: The score was tied at 14 a little over midway through the second quarter when Ben Roethlisberger threw an unassuming check down to Le’Veon Bell on 2nd-and-2 on their own 41. But 42 yards later, Bell had frozen two defenders with a juke and split them, stepped out of another potential tackle then violently stiff-armed Dre Kirkpatrick as he cracked into open field on a highlight-reel play that set Pittsburgh up to take a lead it would never relinquish.

Player of the game: T.J. Watt was everywhere for the Steelers defense, blowing up running plays with weak-side pursuit and pressuring Andy Dalton all day. He finished with five tackles, an assist and a sack, displaying the same kind of motor that made his older brother legendary. It might be coincidental that Pittsburgh’s defense is showing signs of character for the first time in a long time, but we doubt it is.

Hot topics:

+ We’ll cut to the chase here. There are numerous issues causing the Steelers 3rd-and-short and red zone failures (the team now has attempted 46 field goals in its last 19 games and has four games during that span with five or more FGs attempted) but the most common problem is poor judgment on the part of the team’s quarterback. Too many times on 3rd-and-goal, Ben Roethlisberger takes a shotgun snap and seems to have one option (and one option only) in mind, quickly bailing on the critical play if it’s not open. We’ve seen that once in each of the past three weeks. It also appeared he may have audibled into the ill-fated run play with :07 left in the first half Sunday and that’s another thing we’ve seen happen many times with short circuited drives.

+ It’s certainly not only on #7. Sunday’s game might have been a blowout and we might not be talking about red zone at all had Vance McDonald hung onto a pass Roethlisberger put right in his hands on 1st-and-goal at the 5 with :16 left in the second quarter. Drops were an issue with McDonald in San Francisco and it certainly looks like that will continue in Pittsburgh. That said, the big catch he made running down the seam in the second quarter, which is there every single week, illustrates why McDonald will be crucial to the team in big games.

+ Bud Dupree was pretty much invisible for most of the game Sunday, but came to life for a critical pressure and a huge sack during a 10-play span in the fourth quarter Sunday. Such is the life of an NFL pass rusher. You might do nothing on 40 snaps per game, but it you record sacks or better yet sack-strips on the two snaps per game, you’re going to be a gazillionaire.

+ Speaking of invisible, for the second straight week the Steelers patchwork offensive line made an opposing star disappear. This week it was Geno Atkins, who recorded one tackle, one assist and zero pressures Sunday.

+ Was that our imagination or was that as small a factor as A.J. Green has ever been in a Pittsburgh-Cincinnati game?

In the booth:

+ The more you see and hear Tony Romo, the more you notice his lack of polish, but no one will accuse him of being fake for TV, demonstrated aptly twice Sunday as he got noticeably upset twice over perceived technical shortcomings during the CBS broadcast, much like viewers do, often taking their frustrations to Twitter.

+ Romo also went locker room on us, commiserating with Andy Dalton on a throwaway, noting that Dalton was probably “pissed” about the broken play

+ How cute was JuJu Smith-Schuster’s hide-and-celebration with his teammates? It turned Jim Nantz into a Steelers fan for about 10 seconds.

Game mismanagement:

+ On the plus side, Mike Tomlin did a lot of things right in the final two minutes of the first half, in using his timeouts to ensure a late-half possession.

+ On the minus side, a possession that should have ended in a touchdown ended in a field goal, largely because Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger wasted 10 seconds using a spike at :21 when they had a timeout left and could have stopped the clock at :31. That wasted time, which is inherent in EVERY SPIKE is why you don’t spike as long as you have timeouts.

+ The Steelers then mismanaged the final timeout they “saved” anyway, allowing four seconds to run off the clock before getting it recognized with :03 left in the half and losing another shot at the end zone in the process. The key to getting that timeout quickly is telling the official before the play that you’re going to call it if you don’t score, but it seems like Tomlin rarely thinks two plays ahead.

Zebra hunting:

+ As noted in the pregame blog, that was one of the most highly regarded crews in the NFL and their performance Sunday should stand as an example and lesson to those who aspire to being highly regarded. And the lesson is simple yet so hard for so many to grasp. The key to being a good official is to NOT CALL PENALTIES except when they are a) obvious and b) affect the outcome of the play in question. Bill Vinovich’s crew gets a gold star for throwing six flags Sunday. You think there wasn’t offensive and defensive holding in that game? A different crew might have thrown 16 flags.

+ In a sequence in the second half, Vinovich’s linemen struggled with spotting the ball, which nearly every NFL crew struggles with because they can’t match the athleticism of the players. The official spotting Xavier Grimble’s third-down catch was a solid four yards behind in trail position and missed the spot by almost a full yard when he caught up. Had the Steelers challenged, they’d have gained about 30 inches (going from 4th-and-1 to 4th-and-inches) but lost a timeout (a challenge on a spot is only considered successful if it results in a first down). The Steelers didn’t challenge, of course, they went for it with Terrell Watson clearly coming up short (although it would have been enough yardage had the first spot been correct), but getting a great (but incorrect) spot from the same official. The Bengals did challenge that won, did win the challenge and took possession.

Sweet tweets:

+ @JohnDabkovich: If Chris Berman were still doing Primetime, what are the chances he’d call Joe Mixon, “Joseph Millhouse Mixon?” (Blogger’s note: High, the chances are high.)

Next week: The Steelers travel to Detroit next Sunday night for their first marquee TV game of the season against a Lions team that’s given up 79 points in its last two games. The Lions will be coming off their bye, just like the Bengals were.

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