Mistake-prone Steelers let Cincy outbungle them en route to key victory

The score: Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 20

The bottom line: The Steelers did just about everything you could imagine to lose a late-season road game against an inferior opponent, committing critical penalties and failing to finish on numerous drives. But when that inferior opponent is the Bengals, the best strategy is just getting out of the way and letting them show you how it’s done, which is exactly what Pittsburgh did in the second half Sunday as Cincinnati committed even more critical penalties and turnovers and saw its offense go into hibernation en route to an embarrassing second-half collapse (again) that left the Steelers with a five-game winning streak, a slightly firmer grip on a playoff spot and a Christmas Day date with the Baltimore Ravens for all the marbles in the AFC North.

It was over when… In a game where officials missed numerous, egregious pass interference penalties against the Bengals secondary, two simple 5-yard holding calls on the home team in the final 2:00 sunk them. The second one, against Dre Kirkpatrick on Antonio Brown on a gutsy 2nd-and-11 pass call with 1:51 remaining, gave the Steelers a first down that allowed them to run out the clock on any Cincy comeback chances.

Play of the day: On the third play from scrimmage, Stephon Tuitt split a double team and stepped awkwardly as he mauled Andy Dalton, grabbing his facemask on the way to the ground. Instead of a three-and-out and a great start for the Steelers defense, the play ended with a Bengals first down and Tuitt headed to the locker room with a knee injury. While the Steelers recovered from the first issue, the second one might prove to be huge down the stretch and into the playoffs if Tuitt is lost. His play since Cam Heyward’s injury has been other-worldly and facing the AFC’s best teams without either would seem to be a losing proposition for Pittsburgh.

Hot topics:

+ Potentially as important as the Stephon Tuitt injury is the possible concussion Ladarius Green suffered last in the fourth quarter. With Green’s concussion history, you’d have to think there’s no way he’s clearing the protocol in one week, if, in fact, he was concussed. Green’s presence in the middle of the field the last month has been seismic. That said, Eli Rogers is finally emerging as the kind of threat he looked like he could be during the preseason and Sammie Coates looks like he’s finally ready to catch a few balls.

+ The potential loss of Tuitt on defense could be softened somewhat if Lawrence Timmons continues to play like he did Sunday, stuffing the run and making a critical interception in the second half. Bud Dupree appeared to get every snap again and was closer to his non-factor form than the disruptive player we saw in Buffalo last week, although he did make a couple plays in the second half.

+ Chris Boswell is a good kicker. The Steelers are lucky to have him.

+ Fitzgerald Touissant is not a good kick returner. He’ll be lucky to have a job next week.

+ What is up with David DeCastro? After showing consistent All-Pro form last year, the guy is all over the spectrum this season, mauling guys on one play, getting knocked on his rear the next and now good for at least three penalties a game.

+ Obviously, there’s nothing to the “Don’t Disrespect the Terrible Towel” narrative, right? Unless the other team thinks there is, then there might be, right?

Playoff picture:

+ The computers say the Steelers have an 86 percent of making the postseason, but here’s how tenuous that is: If Miami wins Saturday at Buffalo and Pittsburgh loses Sunday against Baltimore, Pittsburgh is OUT of the playoffs if Baltimore defeats Cincinnati in Week 17, regardless of the outcome of the Dolphins-Patriots game.

+ Pittsburgh path to the #2 seed is pretty unlikely. That now requires two Steelers wins, two Raiders losses and one Kansas City loss.

+ The two most likely scenarios for the Steelers are home as #3 seed hosting Denver or at #3 Baltimore as the #6 seed.

Zebra hunting:

+ As noted pre-game, this was a highly rated officiating crew, with white hat Bill Vinovich having worked the Super Bowl and NFC championship in the last two years. They did not perform that way Sunday, obviously.

+ The eagle-eyed crew was all over the Steelers in the first half, correctly assessing three critical penalties, the facemask on Stephon Tuitt, the pass interference in the end zone on Artie Burns and the chop block that took a TD off the board by Le’Veon Bell. However, the group’s eyesight got a little foggy in missing numerous illegal plays by the Bengals, most notably a blatant illegal hit by Vontaze Burfict on a defenseless Eli Rogers that should have kept a Pittsburgh drive alive; a textbook illegal celebration by Jeremy Hill, using a Terrible Towel as a prop, that should have given the Steelers excellent field position; a clear PI against Pacman Jones (that even Dan Fouts saw!) that should have set Pittsburgh up inside the Bengals 25 late in the second quarter; and not one but TWO second-half facemask penalties by Bengals defenders, both occurring in the end zone.

+ We’d love to know the explanation Mike Tomlin got on why that flag was picked up during the scrum early in the second half. It was clearly thrown for a foul different from the first foul (the push on Marcus Gilbert, which was actually the second foul and followed a cheap shot by Vontaze Burfict, but we digress).

Game mismanagement:

+ The Steelers last drive of the first half was an amalgamation of everything that’s wrong with Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger’s clock management. First, needing a TD, Pittsburgh played it safe and let :30 run off the clock after first down to get to the 2:00 warning. Then, after a long completion to Antonio Brown, they let ANOTHER :27 run off before snapping the ball. Later, after calling their first timeout, they completed a screen to Le’Veon Bell and allowed :34 to tick off .

+ Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for two points, up four, with 7:36 left, created a firestorm among fans, but we’re not sure that was merited. We tweeted at the time that it was the easiest two-point decision Tomlin (and his belly) would make and by that we meant you could make reasonable, math-based arguments on either side. Going for two was an attempt to go up by six points, keeping you in the game with a missed extra point on an imaginary ensuing touchdown. Considering Randy Bullock barely squeaked both his XPs earlier in the game inside the uprights, that seems like a reasonable outcome. Going for one would have been an attempt to preserve a chance at a game-winning field goal AFTER that ensuing imaginary touchdown. Option #1 is based on the assumption there would be only one more score in the game. Option #2 is based on the assumption there could be two. Again, you might prefer one over the other (and we’re sure the computers prefer one), but BOTH are defensible.

In the booth:

+ Although it was apparent immediately that Stephon Tuitt was injured on the game’s third play from scrimmage, neither Ian Eagle nor Dan Fouts mentioned it until three plays later when they got a TV shot of trainers attending to Tuitt.

+ Later in the first quarter, Fouts did one of the most annoying things an analyst can do, asserting that “you have to think” Jeremy Hill broke the plans of the goal line without one shred of video evidence to back up his “thought.” Safe the opinions for subjective matters, Dan.

Sweet tweet: @imau2fan: Here’s the other thing… Put the math aside, the Steelers aren’t even good at 2-point conversions lately. (Blogger’s note: Classic “missing the forest for the trees” reminder. Pittsburgh now 3-9 on two-point conversions, last four or five have had zero chance of being converted. Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t looked comfortable on a two-point play for months.)

Next week: Glad tidings of joy will fill the air as the beloved Ravens make a Christmas Day appearance in the Holy City of Pittsburgh with playoff implications looming large. Viewing note: This game will be on NFL Network, billed as a special edition of  “Thursday Night Football,” which we assume means an NBC crew. However, the 8:30 p.m. game Sunday between the Chiefs and Broncos also is billed as “Thursday Night Football” and will be simulcast on NBC and NFLNet and we’d assume that’ll be NBC’s No. 1 crew. Also, if you don’t have NFL Network, the only other place the game will air is WPXI, out of Pittsburgh. Depending on where you are and how you receive your TV signal, that might mean a “regular definition” only option or no option to watch at all. Again, that is if you do NOT have NFL Network.


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