#STEELERS PREGAME STRETCH: Misdirection?

With most eyes on Baltimore, hopefully the Steelers remember to beat the Bengals

WEEK 16

CINCINNATI BENGALS (6-9) VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-6-1)

CBS, SUNDAY, 4:25 P.M., HEINZ FIELD, 68,450

Last week in a nutshell

Headline: SAINTS ELSEWHERE / After playing perhaps the best 10 minutes of their season to seize the lead against the heavily favored and home-standing Saints, the Steelers collapsed in the game’s final 10 minutes on both sides of the ball, fumbling twice in Saints territory, failing on a fake punt and allowing Drew Brees to easily convert on a 3rd-and-20 en route to a winning score that left Pittsburgh’s playoff chances on life support.

This week’s announcers: Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon (not to be confused with Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts or Jim Nantz and Tony Romo). Not that we’re telling you anything you can’t see with your own eyes, but three of CBS’ top crews are all cut from the same mold: Non-descript white guy PxP and ex-QB on analysis. Frankly, we think this crew is better than Eagle and Fouts, but Gannon is prone to the same lack of awareness Fouts often suffers from during broadcasts. Information courtesy www.the506.com.

Weather – or not: Clouds and sun, 43. Thus ends the most benign weather year we can remember for the Steelers. Not even any wind to mention. Information courtesy www.accuweather.com

Referee: Carl Cheffers. This overofficious crew had Steelers-Browns II this year, assessing 112 penalty yards on 15 assessed penalties. For the year, this crew is just above the already overofficious league averages, assessing 14 penalties and 117 penalty yards per game against league averages of 13.5 and 116. Last week, CBS used a graphic very similar to these stats in several of their broadcasts (but not during Steelers-Saints). That’s an unfortunate nod to how (needlessly) important officiating is becoming in determining the outcome of NFL games. Of course, we saw the worst possible example of that in New Orleans last week with a clueless crew that statistically throws a lot of flags that benefit the home team and calls a lot of pass interference penalties do just that (incorrectly, of course) against the visiting Steelers. That crew, in particular, has made so many grievous errors this year that we wouldn’t be surprised to see white hat Craig Wrolstad demoted next year. Information courtesy www.footballzebras.com, www.profootballreference.com and www.nflpenalties.com.

The last time: The Bengals were 4-1 and still fancied themselves contenders back in October when the Steelers did what they almost always do, sucked the life out of the home team and its long-suffering fans, this time on a 31-yard TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown with :15 left that turned a 21-20 Bengals lead into a 28-21 Steelers victory.

The line: Pittsburgh -14.5 /45.5. Smarts say: This actually opener higher (!!!) at -16.5 before quickly dropping and steadying at -14.5. The over/under is interesting to us because the Steelers are averaging 28 points per game on offense and facing a Bengals defense that is near the bottom of the league in almost every category. At -14.5, we’d think something in the low 50’s would be warranted. The spread and O/U would come together for something like 30-16 Steelers. As an experiment, let’s use average scoring (full info right below) to come up with our own line. Pittsburgh’s offense is averaging 27.5 (4th in league) while Cincy’s defense is allowing 29.3 ppg (dead last in the league). Let’s put those two together and come up with 34 points for Pittsburgh. Cincy’s offense is averaging 23.7 ppg and going against a Steelers defense that allows 23.1 ppg, both are mid-ranked so let’s ride with those number and go with 23 points for the Bengals. So, our homemade line is Pittsburgh -11 with an O/U of 56. Information courtesy www.pregame.com

When the Steelers have the ball:

PIT offense, 2nd passing, 31st rushing, 4th scoring (27.5 ppg), 4th sacks allowed (23)

CIN defense, 30th passing, 29th rushing, 32nd scoring (29.3 ppg), 25th sacks (33)

When the Bengals have the ball:

CIN offense, 23rd passing, 22nd rushing, 14th scoring (23.7 ppg), 8th sacks allowed (33)

PIT defense, 16th passing, 8th rushing, 15th scoring (23.1 ppg), 3rd sacks (48)

Takeaway/Giveaway: CIN 17/17 +0 (8th in league); PIT 15/25 -10 (28th in league)

So…: Ben Roethlisberger touted this game as “AFC North football” but what does that even mean anymore? The Steelers are 31st in rushing offense. The Bengals are dead last in the league in scoring defense. Is that AFC North football? Obviously, the Bengals defensively have been a disaster this year, so we’re not sure a physical, low-scoring dogfight (which is we think #7 meant by that phrase) is the desired outcome for the Steelers. Their offense should run the Bengals off the field. Information courtesy www.nfl.com and www.espn.com.

On the spot:

Pittsburgh: Keith Butler

Why: Although things have been marginally better the last few weeks, this Steelers defense doesn’t seem the right talent to match up and play coverage or rush the passer and create havoc and it’s been that way since Butler took over for Dick LeBeau and it certainly doesn’t show any signs of improving any time soon. Game after game, opponents are able to exploit matchups and get their best receivers into coverage with Steelers linebackers or hybrids. Season after season, Pittsburgh is near the top of the pack in sacks, but they never generate any kind of splash plays or turnovers. A loss to Jeff Driskell would perfectly summarize the frustrations here.

Bengals: No one, really

Why: When there is zero accountability, there is nothing to be “on the spot” about. The Bengals have been great, good, bad, embarrassing and indifferent during Marvin Lewis’ 16 years, but aside from a few assistant coaches getting fired during the embarrassing years and a few others getting hired away during the great years, not a thing has changed with the franchise.

Key matchups:

Bengals RB Joe Mixon vs. Steelers LBs/hybrids. Why: With A.J. Green on IR already and Tyler Boyd battling a knee injury, Mixon has become the focal point of the Bengals offense. The Steelers did a decent job against Alvin Kamara last week with the exception of Sean Davis’ terrible coverage on a swing pass to Kamara that went for a huge gainer. If Davis can’t go this week, that lends a new layer of potential communication issues for the Pittsburgh defense to deal with, something that was a huge issue early.

Playoff picture:

+ Through their own doing, the Steelers no longer control their playoff destiny and their chances are slim and very slim.

If Pittsburgh beats Cincinnati and the upstart Browns beat Baltimore (for a second time this year), the Steelers get in as the AFC North champ and #4 seed.

PIT: CIN

BAL:, CLE

If Pittsburgh beats Cincinnati but the Ravens win to claim the North crown, the Steelers can get in as the Wild Card #6 seed if Tennessee and Indianapolis tie in the Sunday night game. Otherwise, the winner of that game is in.

IND: @TEN

TEN: IND

Elsewhere, the Chargers, Chiefs, Patriots and Texans are in, but only New England has sewed up its division.

The Chiefs win the West if they can beat Oakland. If they stumble, the Chargers can steal the division by beating Denver.

LA: @DEN

KC: OAK

The Texans win the South if they can beat Jacksonville at home. If they lose, the winner of the TEN-IND claims the division and the Texans fall to #6.

The Patriots can hold onto the #2 seed by beating the Jets at home or claim #1 and home field throughout if they win and the Chiefs lose.

HOU: JAX

NE: NYJ

Quick hits:

+ Although the obviously wrong pass interference call on Joe Haden in the end zone got all the attention in the game last week, the other call on Haden was by far worse in our mind because it exemplified the overofficiousness that threatens to ruin pro football. The first PI call is clear incompetence that can be dealt with by performance management (fire the clueless official). The second PI is what has to be fixed in a much more in-depth way. First, let’s start with the situation: 4th-and-2 in the fourth quarter in a one-score game with playoff implications for both teams. The mindset of every official on the field before that play MUST BE “let the players decide this.” It has to be trained and taught and reinforced: “Let the players decide this.” Any penalty called on that play has to be clear and obvious, the same (supposed) standard as an instant replay overturn. Breaking down the play, there was all kind of contact at the line of scrimmage between Haden and Michael Thomas that was deemed legal by officials (since it would have been defensive holding otherwise). For there to be a pass interference penalty, Haden had to illegally impede Thomas’ ability to catch the football while it was in the air. So, first of all, it was in the air for less than one second. That’s where the penalty must have occurred, by rule. In this case, you have a very basic NFL play, a quick slant. The official’s point of emphasis on defending a slant is not the front arm, with which the defender is trying to tip the football, but rather the back arm, which is behind the receiver. If the defender uses that back arm to push or turn the defender before the ball arrives, a pass interference penalty is warranted. Watch the play again and you’ll see no contact at all by Haden’s left arm behind Michael Thomas. No hook, no turn, no push. It’s text book defense, actually. So you have one of the game’s best quarterbacks trying to execute a critical play to one of the game’s best wide receivers being defended by one of the game’s best corners. Should be a classic NFL play. Instead, an official needlessly inserts himself into the play and got it wrong. LET THE PLAYERS DECIDE THIS. Repeat after me, Alberto, LET THE PLAYERS DECIDE THIS. We know many fans and media members, including Pittsburgh variety of both, believe the second PI was a good call. To that, we simply say. Watch the play again, judging ONLY this time the ball was in the air and consider with an open mind.

+ When the story of this Steelers season is written, we think it should start with three fumbles that changed the complexion of not only games, but how we view the team:

1. James Connor’s fourth-quarter fumble in the opener in Cleveland not only helped turn a dominant Pittsburgh performance into a tie that likely will be the difference between making the playoffs and not, it started the RB drama narrative rolling, something that became a distraction all year.

2. By Week 12, though, the ship had been righted and Pittsburgh rolled into Denver on a six-game winning streak with a chance to all but put away the AFC North early. The feeling of that game (and the entire remainder of the Steelers season) changed on one first-half play with little-used tight end Xavier Grimble deciding to try and run over a Broncos DB en route to the end zone, instead of making a cut and scoring easily. Grimble’s fumble through the end zone started a string of freak plays and bad luck that has yet to let up.

3. Although Stevan Ridley’s early fourth-quarter fumble against New Orleans was certainly costly, it was not the gut kick that came when JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh’s most reliable and consistent star, put the ball on the turf in the final minute with his team driving for a game-winning or tying score. It doubly hurt that Smith-Schuster was clearly trying to get down to secure his gain that would have put the team in FG range with at least five or six plays left.

+ We don’t know if the Browns can beat the Ravens again or not (and neither do any of the experts), but we do feel a lot better about Baker Mayfield in this game than we did about long-time choker Philip Rivers in last Saturday night’s game against Baltimore.

+ It’s the annual “Snub Ben as MVP” week in the Steelers locker room and while it may seem silly to many to have the team vote turn into a circus story every year, we think there is something worth considering going on here. Roethlisberger last actually won the team vote after the 2009 season. The Steelers last visited the Super Bowl in the 2010 season. We’ve have plenty of evidence since then that the Steelers do not have a professional, unified locker room. There was the locker room game ban, the locker room Facebook Live video and the cryptic Troy Polamalu comments to provide us just a few clues. We think it’s safe to assume the MVP vote further illustrates a locker room environment that is not entirely conducive to winning and, perhaps even more importantly, reflects a culture that could lead to ongoing losses to teams with inferior talent. Not that that would ever happen.

The pick: If you need some hope for Sunday, look no further than… two years ago when the Steelers lost control of their playoff destiny, suffering one of the worst losses in franchise history in Week 16 to a 5-10 Ravens team quarterbacked by Ryan Mallett. In Week 17, Pittsburgh needed to beat the Browns and have the longshot Bills beat the Jets. “No chance,” the pundits tweeted. “Don’t deserve it,” the fans huffed. Of course, deserve’s got nothing to do with and not only did the Bills beat the Jets to propel Pittsburgh into the playoffs, it set up that classic Wild Card win over the Bengals with the double personal foul penalties at the end. So, not only can it happen, it just did. We believe the Browns are going to beat the Ravens Sunday. Our concern is that the Steelers aren’t going to uphold their end of the bargain. Don’t think it can happen? It just did. Ask Ryan Mallett… Cincinnati 23-20.

Last week: We were right, unfortunately, about the Saints’ dome field advantage and ensuing victory, but wrong about them covering. That leaves us at 6-8-1 straight up and 6-9 against the spread, losing (fake) money, but not as much as that dude who put 11 grand on the Patriots two weeks ago. Speaking of which, the Steelers are 40-1 right now to win the Super Bowl. If they somehow make the field, they have as good a chance as just about everyone. That’s a low-risk, high-return proposition right there.

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