On Second Thought: Steelers-Bengals, Week 8
by Ivan Cole
We were without Homer J today, who is in the Canadian Rockies doing some serious bucket list stuff. I was inclined to consider him lucky even though he was missing what promised to be a big and exciting game. Now I think he was also lucky to have missed this little tragedy.
This was not to say that we suffered from an attendance standpoint. PaVaSteelers was present, and Hombre de Acero, who provides us with “5 Smoldering Questions,” was making one of his infrequent visits back home from Buenos Aires, Argentina. So, with those two and my brother I suffered in good company.
The first drive
All signs pointed to a pleasant afternoon on the Steelers first offensive drive of the game. Ben was showing some rust, but not enough to hamper the team’s march down the field. There was little nervousness until it was first and goal inside of the ten. A CBS graphic pointed out that the Steelers led the NFL in games where they had failed to score a touchdown on its first offensive possession (15). I didn’t have that information at my fingertips, but even without it there was an intuitive concern that the good feelings would be soured and there would be a note of danger if Pittsburgh was forced to settle for three points.
So it was as much relief as joy when Antonio Brown caught that slant pass from Ben that gave the Steelers a lead that would hold up for most of the rest of the game. AB’s method of celebration was different in tone from what you might consider normal for him, and drew a lot of amused reactions. He got on his knees and raised his arms Heavens-ward in apparent thanksgiving.
Greg, the owner of Wiener’s Circle where we were gathered, was somewhat relieved. A Navy Vet and decidedly old school concerning player behavior, he has this thing about player celebrations, particularly when they happen in relation to somewhat mundane occurrences such as making a catch. When it was pointed out that some players may actually realize something of a financial windfall when they accomplish these things his position softened a little, but just a little.
For many of the rest of us we concluded that he was praying to God (or to Ben as the case may be) that he had been delivered from the purgatory of trying to make a decent living with Pittsburgh’s backup quarterbacks. As it was Ben got pretty much everyone involved in the drive with the exceptions of Heath and Markus Wheaton. The situation with Heath would be rectified in spades later in the game.
The Bengals willed their way down the field in their first offensive possession and settled for a field goal. At this point in the proceedings it appeared that it was absolutely essential that Cincy come away with points every time they touched the ball. Given the reputation of the Bengal offense and the fact that Ben was back and had available all his key offensive weapons, particularly Brown, Bell, Bryant and all the others, you could be forgiven for believing that the outcome could more closely resemble the Giants/Saints game where both teams combined for over 100 points of offense.
But let’s be clear about a few things. In spite of their, now, 7-0 record, the Bengal offense is far from frightening. Or maybe it’s just a matter of giving props to the Steelers defense. They give ground, but you are rarely left with the impression that they concede control. The fact is that one of the bottom line and tragic issues that has been exposed as the Steelers fall to .500 is that the defense has played well enough for Pittsburgh to have the undefeated record. And this in spite of the fact that they have been as personnel challenged as the offense, while Cincy has been remarkably healthy through this point of the season. More about this angle later.
Now, if you are subject to depression or crying jags, you might want to skip down a few paragraphs.
The Steelers’ offense sputtered a little for the remainder of the 1st quarter, but one thing was clear as we watched them work; that Le’Veon Bell was at the top of food chain here. Yes, they stopped him from time to time, but they weren’t going to stop him all the time. And despite Ben and AB and Martavis and Heath and DeAngelo, it was clear that Bell was the guy.
I saw it first.
Everyone else was celebrating the nine yard gain on the pass play, but I saw the body language as he fell out of bounds. And then I saw him clutch his knee. And the joy was gone.
Everything was different after that. Someone said the season was over and that was a hard sentiment to argue against. I was ping ponging between depression and anger. Anger because what are the chances of Bell suffering the same injury against the same team as just being ‘part of the game’? I fully acknowledge that I was looking for someone to scapegoat and blame for depriving Steelers Nation of its joy. Vontaze Burfict, most likely still smarting from the emasculation he suffered at the hands of Willie Colon, seemed a perfect target.
I wasn’t alone. PaVa, who monitors the game thread at Behind The Steel Curtain, reported that the folks there were on “suicide watch”. Sandwiched between the expressions of resignation and despair were calls for Jihad. And you would have dismissed it as just disgruntled fan talk, but apparently some on the Steelers defense were thinking along the same lines.
As we watched shots of Bell being examined on a table in a manner reminiscent of the last time these two teams met in December 2014, the intensity on the field seemed to go up significantly. Bengals receivers seemed to be getting the worst of it, with Mike Mitchell bringing realistic meaning to the term ‘cutting an opponent in two’. He also picked up a penalty for taunting that drew more understanding from those assembled than might ordinarily be the case.
Hombre opined that player availability (injuries plus suspensions) now appeared to be the defining issue of this season. Don’t expect Tomlin or anyone else in an official capacity with the team to acknowledge this. In fact, expect them to deny it vehemently. But the facts don’t lie.
The closest thing to Pittsburgh being able to put its full complement of players on the field (and that’s excluding Maurkice Pouncey and Kelvin Beachum, aka “All Pro Center” and “starting Left Tackle) was for one quarter of one game. And even then that is ignoring Ben’s early return from injury. The full complement will not be seen this year. Nor is it confined to the offensive side of the ball. What is most impressive about the defense is that they have played at a high level with key pieces (the Allens, Tuitt, McCullers, Shazier, Jones) missing for various periods. And, of course there were the placekickers.
Please spare us all the standard is the standard mantra.
This brings us to the other piece of unfortunate business for this afternoon. The defense played their collective behinds off today, especially in the second half, and deserved a better level of support from their offensive brethren.
Many of us have been trying hard to hate on Antwon Blake, and this seemed the perfect opportunity. He appeared over his head in his match up with A J Green, but he continues to tackle like a maniac and his interception at the goal line would have been the big story of a Steelers win, had there been a Steelers win. Cam Heyward’s block of an attempted field goal, Mitchell and Harrison and Shazier and Cockrell, just to name a few. Time and again they turned away the supposedly high octane Bengals offense. Sixteen points surrendered (only six until the last couple minutes of the game) should, no, must translate into a winning effort. Only it didn’t.
Granted, Cincinnati has a defense too. But not one good enough to hold this offense to ten points on their own steam. Miller, Bell, while he was around and DeAngelo Williams held up their end for the most part. Both AB and Bryant dropped passes that any professional receiver should have caught. But special mention has to be made about Ben who at times seemed to have regressed to the Bruce Arians era. His three interceptions broke this team’s back, to put it simply.
I came away sad for a defense that deserved better. Sad for Ben whose fears came to fruition. But especially sad for all fans of pro football who will be deprived of the brilliance of Le’Veon Bell.
Looking for humor? In the game’s final moments I joked that someone in Steeler Nation was going to call for the return of Landry Jones. PaVa reported that several already had. That’s awfully close to hitting bottom, folks.