Monday Night Football went exactly as you could have hoped for if you’re a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Not only did the team pummel the rival Cincinnati Bengals 27-3, but it felt like Steeler football. The defense was strong throughout the game. The offensive line rediscovered their form and dominated the line of scrimmage. James Conner and the running back group ran roughshod over the Bengals defense early and often. Mason Rudolph was efficient as well, dinking and dunking all night before hitting Diontae Johnson deep in the third quarter. The big story, however, is the running game. Largely absent through the first three games, James Conner and the group made their presence felt on Monday night.
James Conner, Running Backs Power the Pittsburgh Steelers to Victory
James Conner and Jaylen Samuels Make a Dynamic Duo
If anyone needed a bounce-back game, it certainly was Conner. After being mostly ineffective and fumbling the ball late in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the pressure was on. Conner entered the game averaging 2.9 yards per carry. He had scored two touchdowns in three games and had not recorded over 100 yards rushing or receiving in those games combined. Conner took advantage of a porous Bengals defense that was conceding 4.9 yards per carry entering the game. Conner tallied 42 yards rushing on 10 attempts, however much of his work was done on jet sweeps. Those sweep plays counted as pass receptions, giving Conner eight receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown. This was the third straight week Conner’s yards per carry increased. It was also his first week with over 100 all-purpose yards. Just the boost he needed.
Also having himself a game was Jaylen Samuels. Samuels recorded 114 all-purpose yards and contributed two touchdowns himself. Used to spell Conner on occasion, Samuels found most of his work in the Wildcat formation. The Steelers employed the tactic multiple times throughout the game, using Samuels as the quarterback to shovel pass to Conner or keep it himself. His three “pass attempts” were all completed for 31 yards and a touchdown. He finished with a 109.7 passer rating. Samuels kept the ball on one occasion on the one-yard line for a rushing score. Most of his yardage was as a receiver, but he had a great night just like Conner. Rookie Benny Snell was largely irrelevant. Conner and Samuels did it all, combining for 240 all-purpose yards. Dynamic duo indeed.
The Defense Stands Tall
Just as Conner had a much needed bounce-back performance, so to did the defense. Pittsburgh’s pass rush sacked Andy Dalton eight times as well as 12 overall quarterback hits. Newcomer Mark Barron recorded an interception in the endzone to end a Bengals drive. Rookie Devin Bush had nine tackles while also recording his first career sack. Bush didn’t lead the team in tackles this week, as Barron topped that department with 11 tackles. Bud Dupree and Cameron Heyward each forced a fumble, with T.J. Watt recovering one of them. Heyward, Watt, Bush, Dupree, Javon Hargrave, and Tyson Alualu each recorded at least one sack. This was a classic Pittsburgh defensive performance.
No Mistakes for Mason
Mason Rudolph had about as good a home debut as one could hope for in prime time. Rudolph executed the plays he was given masterfully, not making critical mistakes that could have cost the team the game. His 24 of 28 for 229 yards is a bit misleading, however. Pittsburgh utilized a lot of jet sweeps and jet counter plays that technically counted as pass attempts. However, Mason executed what was given to him, finding Conner downfield for a 21-yard touchdown pass to open the scoring for Pittsburgh. All the dink-and-dunk plays lulled the Bengals defense to sleep as Rudolph hit rookie Diontae Johnson deep for a 43-yard touchdown pass. Rudolph was known for pushing the ball deep in college. As his confidence continues to grow, the deep passing game will begin to feature more in the game plan.
Not much went wrong for the Steelers on Monday night en route to their first win of the season. Rudolph executed a game plan designed for him, rather than running an offense designed for Ben Roethlisberger. He was smart and efficient, not putting the team in danger and extending plays when needed like Big Ben. The defense showed up and showed out. Cincinnati had multiple red-zone trips and managed only one field goal. And finally, Conner got rolling early and was used often. There was finally some creative play-calling for the Steelers offense and it showed. Conner, in tandem with Samuels, dominated the Bengals defense all night long. Cincinnati did not have an answer. The result was a game that felt very much like Steeler football.