In week seven the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated their AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals 29-14 at Heinz Field. They added to their divisional lead, as the Baltimore Ravens lost and fell to 3-4. The Steelers have now beat all three divisional opponents. Along with the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots, the Steelers lead the AFC with a 5-2 record. The Steelers have already beat the Chiefs and the Patriots come to Pittsburgh in week 15. Here are my gut reactions to the Steelers best game of the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers Week Seven Gut Reactions
The Steelers offense was impressive. They racked up 420 yards, scored two first half touchdowns and didn’t let Ben Roethlisberger get sacked. Also, they managed 152 rushing yards, didn’t commit a penalty and didn’t turn the ball over. But there are still troubling metrics. The offense went two for 11 on third down and one for three on fourth down. Even more troubling was six trips into the red zone resulting in only scoring one touchdown.
Both the lack of red zone and third down success have troubled the offense all year long. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has never been a great red zone play caller. Head coach Mike Tomlin mismanaged the game clock at the end of the first half while the Steelers were in the red zone. Tight end Vance McDonald dropped a touchdown on a beautiful pass from Roethlisberger. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and even more questions. But the most important one is “Can the Steelers find answers?”
Too Much Ringing?
Last week finally saw Le’Veon Bell play like his old self. His patience, vision, size and running style make him a nightmare for any defense. Week seven just solidified those observations. Bell turned in another great game, rushing for 134 yards on 35 carries and catching three passes for 58 yards. The only problem is Bell’s workload is not sustainable. He’s already racked up 169 carries and the season isn’t half way over. To put that in perspective, 300 rushes are considered a heavy work load for a running back. If Bell continues getting 30 plus carries per game he’s on pace for 400 plus carry season. Only five backs ever have ever broken the 400-carry plateau, with the record being 416 attempts by the Chiefs Larry Johnson in 2006.
The Steelers drafted James Conner in the third round of this year’s draft. It may be time to rest Bell occasionally and implement Conner more. He’s another big back and has impressive burst for his size. Also, Conner has had success in very limited action. He had 19 yards on three carries in week seven against a solid Bengals defense and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. Last season, having Bell unavailable for the AFC Championship hindered the Steelers offense in a major way. The front offense and coaching staff needs to do everything in their power to make sure something similar doesn’t happen this year as well.
Loose Ends At Tight End
For the second straight week, Steelers tight end Jesse James, wasn’t targeted at all. While Vance McDonald was targeted three times. McDonald, who was acquired from the San Francisco 49ers before the season, had two receptions for 37 yards and one drop in the end zone. Due to McDonald being a late acquisition he didn’t have training camp with the Steelers and it’s taken him some time to learn the system. He has been progressing slowly and is being worked into the offense. Although he does have an extremely high drop rate, he’s never had a quarterback like Roethlisberger. There’s a lot to like about McDonald’s game. He’s a very effective run blocker and runs with an attitude after the catch. James’ days as the Steelers main option at tight end may be over.
Picking Up Where They Left Off
For the second straight week, the Steelers defense was dominant. They sacked Andy Dalton four times and intercepted him twice. The Bengals offense was shut out in the second half because of constant pressure on Dalton and their inability to control the line of scrimmage. Their crowded backfield, featuring Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard only rushed for 71 yards. The Bengals were also held to only three third down conversions on 11 attempts. The Steelers secondary was equally effective. Holding the Bengals passing game to only 108 yards. Essentially, the Bengals offense came into this game red hot and were completely dominated by the Steelers defense.
Even more impressive, the Bengals were limited to only 19 yards of offense in the second half. Cameron Heyward dominated a poor Bengals offensive line. Both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree were constantly pressuring Dalton. Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier seemed to be all over the field as he made play after play. But most importantly, the defense tackled well as a unit. They accomplished all of this with one of their best defensive linemen, Stephon Tuitt, on the sideline. Which begs the question; how good can this defense be?
One of the biggest one on one matchups on the field was Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green against Steelers second year corner Artie Burns. Green came out of the gate hot. Making three receptions on his first three targets for a total of 41 yards. It looked like he was going to have a big game, but it didn’t happen. A combination of pressure on Dalton and Burns’ lockdown coverage made Green a non-factor. He was targeted three more times, but didn’t have another reception. Those 41 receiving yards? That was Green’s total stat line. Burns showed that even though he’s only in his second season, he has the ability to shut down the NFL’s best receivers.
The Steelers played their best game of the season in week seven, they had a season high 29 points and shut down a Bengals offense that came into the game hot. Next the Steelers go on the road to take on the Indianapolis Colts, a team that got shut out in week seven and will be without their star quarterback, Andrew Luck.
Although the Colts field a bolstered defense, Roethlisberger has had 13 touchdowns and zero interceptions against them in his last three games. The Colts also have an elite wide receiver in T.Y. Hilton. Can Burns duplicate his success against Green when he lines up against Hilton? Will the offense continue to improve? Only week eight holds the answers.