LAWS OF THE JUNGLE

Steelers win, Bengals lose and brutality reigns in Cincinnati (and in the NFL)

The score: Pittsburgh 23, Cincinnati 20

The bottom line: If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know these days have been coming for the NFL for a long time. The insane money in the game and our love of its inherent violence have created an incentive for men to turn themselves into steroid-fueled, armor-clad destruction machines. There’s no way to legislate it or officiate it and there’s no turning back. We don’t want to pretend like we have any kind of high ground about what’s happened to pro football. But we know there will be more injuries like the one Ryan Shazier suffered Monday and more thrilling victories like the one the Steelers pulled out in the final seconds. It’s a vicious, beautiful contradiction that is a reflection of its fans. This is us.

It was over when…: You could feel this one getting away from the hapless Bengals beginning in the waning seconds of the first half but it wasn’t until A.J. Green of all people dropped a perfect Andy Dalton pass on the first play of their final drive with four minutes left that you knew how it would end for Cincy. Sure enough, two plays later, Dalton ran himself into the rarest play in football – a Bud Dupree sack – and the rest was foretold.

Play of the day: How Antonio Brown held onto his touchdown catch midway through the fourth quarter after taking a vicious head shot from George Iloka we will never know. But he did and the man whose health was a question mark right up until game time once again made the critical catch at the most critical time for his team.

Player of the game: Le’Veon Bell simply running over Cincinnati DBs was as much a part of that Pittsburgh comeback as anything. A lot has been made about a perceived lack of “flash” with Bell this year, but that chatter ignores that he is largely running without holes. Did you see some of the holes Gio Bernard was running through for the Bengals? Bell would kill for three or four of those a game. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is simply not getting it done in the run blocking game, but the fact that Bell continues to “quietly” have games like the one he had Monday with 182 all-purpose yards is a testament to his versatility and toughness.

Hot topics:

+ As we type this, good news is trickling out about Ryan Shazier’s scary spinal injury suffered on an innocuous looking first-quarter tackle, that is, innocuous looking with the exception of Shazier’s head being down at impact. Although nothing is official yet, it sounds like a similar injury to the one Tommy Maddox suffered 15 years ago, a spinal concussion where full feeling and function eventually returns. Maddox played football again in two weeks. We don’t know now when or if Shazier will play football again. Of course, that’s not the most important issue, but let’s imagine that he does play again. Do you think he’ll be able to change the way he plays, especially the way he tackles? We do not. We have said it before in this spot and we’ll say it again: Football is a violent game and there is potential every single play will be the last for every single player involved. Each of us has to wrestle with the fact that none of these players would ever consider doing what they’re doing for a living if we didn’t want to watch it.

+ A popular and smart Pittsburgh sports columnist wrote eloquently on Monday that those of us who’ve been critical of Bud Dupree are getting it all wrong, that Dupree is doing largely what the Steelers need him to do in their defensive scheme and that’s drop into pass coverage on most downs. We freely admit we watch and evaluate Dupree as a pass rusher so we kept an open mind in watching #48 in Monday night’s game and… nope, sorry, he’s terrible. We did not keep a snap count but we did watch him on every play he was on the field and he definitely rushed the passer more than he dropped into coverage. Until he recorded an important fourth-quarter sack, he had zero pressures. He finished the game with two tackles. He had no passes defensed. Even the sack was ripe for analysis as Dupree was simply pushed out of the play by the right tackle and got a gift when a scrambling Andy Dalton ran right into his arms Admittedly, one game doesn’t prove anything either way and so we’ll be keeping an eye out for Bud’s coverage contributions down the stretch.

+ It didn’t count, by my word, Martavis Bryant’s kickoff return for a nullified score was a thing of beauty. That’s the first real snippet of the physical “alien” we remember before his year-long suspension. Let’s hope that’s something he builds on.

In the booth:

+ Jon Gruden’s act wore thin on us a long time ago, but it apparently still works for many people. We’re not sure, though, how they overlook the fact he can’t do the simplest things correctly in broadcasting, which is calling players by their correct name. From continuing to mispronounce Roethlisberger (who’s in his 14th year in the league) to misidentifying Antonio Brown as “Bryant” and William Gay as “Randall” Gay multiple times, Gruden is a nightmare.

+ We though Sean McDonough did an excellent job of realizing the gravity of Ryan Shazier’s injury quickly and communicating that without speculating or getting melodramatic.

+ ESPN’s and Gruden’s evening-long Vontaze Burfict lovefest got more and more bizarre as the night wore on, culminating in a crazy-talk sequence where Gruden decided to single out JuJu Smith-Schuster’s blind-side shot on Burfict as a dirty play in a game full of them (and a career full of them for Burfict). It was one of the most tone deaf sports moments we’ve ever seen. The hit was technically clean but illegal because Burfict was in a defenseless posture. The taunting looked to us like little more than a natural reaction to a big hit. Again, we sit and watch this brutal game but we want it to be pleasantly brutal. It’s hypocritical and Gruden was the chief hypocrite Monday night. (That said, knowing how the NFL works, we’re not sure there won’t be some one-game suspensions handed out for Monday’s festivities.)

Game mismanagement:

+ Sigh. Once more, Mike Tomlin has no clue how to handle the end of a half when the situation calls for draining the clock rather than preserving it. His timeout just after Bud Dupree’s third-down sack at 2:48 should have only served to preserve 40 seconds for the Bengals to try and tie the game. We say “should” because, of course, Tomlin’s old buddy Marvin Lewis was on the other side, failing to call timeouts on the Steelers first two plays after the two-minute warning. So, the time Tomlin foolishly saved for the Bengals was foolishly given back by Lewis. Good jobs all around.

Zebra hunting:

+ What to say? One of the most over-officious crews in the NFL called a lot of penalties they shouldn’t have and missed a lot they should have called. But as noted above, we’re not sure there’s anything officials can do to avoid the kind of carnage we saw.

+ We predicted a long time ago in this space that kickoff and punt returns would eventually be eliminated from the game and we feel like we’re probably within five years of that now. Too many injuries and too many penalties on plays that have too little impact on the game.

Sweet tweets:

+ @BigRagu: George Bell, Antonio Bryant & Karl Roethlisberger with Brian Boswell putting the icing on the bread. (Blogger’s note: The fact that this is not too far removed from actual Gruden commentary is both hilarious and scary.)

Next week: The Steelers stay in prime time, returning home to face the hard-charging Baltimore Ravens, coming off a fairly easy win over the Lions that saw them lose perhaps their best player, corner Jimmy Smith, for the season to an Achilles injury. At 7-5, the Ravens are still in the #6 slot in the AFC playoff picture and certainly have more at stake than the Steelers, who can lose one game down the stretch and still get the AFC #1 seed if they defeat New England.

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