THE BOTTOM LINE
Bengals center Trey Hopkins described it best last week.
He was talking about the Steelers interior defensive line when he observed, “They’re kind of like sharks in the water. They smell blood and it becomes a frenzy,” but he could have been talking about the mindset of Pittsburgh’s entire team under head coach Mike Tomlin. It hasn’t mattered who the Bengals head coach has been or the quarterback. When they’ve made a mistake, Tomlin’s Steelers have wasted no time to make them pay and feast.
The reason the Steelers are 11-2 and not something like 7-6 without a running game while trying to figure out how to put Big Ben in a new scheme is their defense and turning mistakes into points. It’s not just turnovers, and they’re at the top of the NFL turning a league-leading 23 turnovers into points, but it is any mistake or shift in momentum. If they get the right call, look out.
Check out last month’s 36-10 win over the Bengals in Pittsburgh. After the Steelers turned an Alex Erickson fumbled punt into a 3-0 lead, the Bengals cut the lead to 12-7 in the middle of the second quarter. But on the next drive, the Bengals committed a pair of 15-yard defensive penalties (roughing the passer and pass interference) and the Steelers converted for a touchdown. 19-7.
Then when the Bengals offense tried to deflate the rest of the half, they were called for a hold, they had to punt and the Steelers cashed a field goal after the half’s two-minute warning for a 22-7 half-time lead.
Then in the third quarter it took the Steelers just four minutes to take advantage of the Bengals losing a replay challenge on third down. 29-7.
So Bengals back-up quarterback Ryan Finley’s orders are the same for any quarterback against the Steelers. Mistakes at a minimum. And that includes getting rid of the ball and avoiding the sack. He’s been sacked seven times while throwing 19 passes and he faces a defense leading the NFL in sacks, quarterback knockdowns and blitzes.
It’s not the same defense that has accumulated those numbers. T.J. Watt is the Steelers only healthy starting linebacker, but he’s one of the best rushers in the game and maybe the best at creating turnovers. And interior linemen Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward are always a test for any offensive line. Plus, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is lurking back there with a Pro Bowl well in hand. One of his four picks is a pick-six and he’s a threat to go all the way on any snap.
Two encouraging things from last month’s game for the Bengals are their trio of running backs hit the Steelers for 100 yards rushing (throw in Shawn Williams’ 39-yard run off a fake punt and it was their third most rush yards against Pittsburgh in the last 20 years) and their run defense kept Pittsburgh in check well enough to have a shot if the offense hadn’t gone 0-for-13 on third down.
At some point the Steelers draw blood. The Bengals’ challenge is not to let it become a frenzy by being able to get Finley in favorable down and distance with the run game and not letting Pittsburgh’s run game drain the clock.