Bengals best in AFC North?
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Early in the fourth quarter of a game that had long since forfeited any chance of turning up on ESPN Classic, it actually began to appear as though the Steelers were going to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals twice in seven weeks, and the reaction was reflexive:
You're pullin' my leg.
No wait, or was that what quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said to Bengals linebacker Brandon Johnson, who was quite literally pulling his leg as Big Ben lay in a pile of humanity after sneaking the football to a first down at the Cincinnati 11?
Johnson stood behind the pile, reached in, and yanked No. 7's foot like a guy trying to drag a deer out from under a Ford Taurus. Seeing this, Steelers guard Chris Kemoeatu arrived and threw Johnson to the turf of Heinz Field. And though the Steelers had to settle for Jeff Reed's fourth and final field goal and a seriously frayed 12-12 knot at that point, the dramatic theme of the game's final 11:20 had been established.
The Bengals and Steelers essentially threw each other to the turf for the balance of the show, and it was the Bengals who got up and wobbled off with an 18-12 victory and a one-game lead in the fast-calcifying AFC North Division. Cincinnati appears to be the best team in the you're-pulling-my-leg division, if only because the Steelers' usually heroic defense couldn't make one of Mike Tomlin's ready-splash plays on either of two Bengals field-goal drives in the fourth quarter. One lasted a clock-swallowing nine plays, the other 11.
"Part of the reason why big plays weren't there was because of the Cincinnati Bengals and Carson Palmer," Tomlin said admiringly. "They take very good care of the football; they make great decisions."
The decision to have no turnovers is always useful, but nothing states the obvious so acutely in this regard as the fact that the Steelers have lost three games this season, the very three games in which they did not force a turnover. In their six wins, they've come up with at least one, up to as many as four.
"I dropped a pick I should have had," said safety Ryan Clark, back in the lineup after his high-altitude respite in Denver. "It's hard to lose games that you thought you played well enough to win, but we've got to do more."
You wouldn't have to walk far from Clark's locker to get a decent argument on the point that the Steelers played well enough to win, but there was no disputing that first statement. When Chad Ochocinco broke his route too sharply and Palmer's delivery came well behind the Mad Tweeter, the football arrived at Clark's belly near midfield with a shrieking invitation to make the play that would likely have flipped the result. Instead, the Bengals converted a third-and-5 on the next play and went ahead, 15-12, seven plays later.
Physical mistakes, coaches love to say, are simply going to happen; it's the mental mistakes that kill you. Yesterday's killer came courtesy of James Harrison, who got pushed in the back just after the whistle by Andrew Whitworth, a monstrous Bengals left tackle, just as the clock flashed down toward four-and-a-half minutes. Harrison responded by punching Whitworth in the helmet, drawing a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary inexplicable bone-headedness that brought the ball almost to midfield.
"We've got to play sharper than that," Tomlin said. "Regardless of the circumstances that led up to it or whatever happened, that's just part of our day. That wasn't winning football."
In a situation that yelped for the very kind of critical defensive play that made many of Dick LeBeau's fella's famous, the closest they got to a delivery came from third-string defensive end Nick Eason, who nailed Bernard Scott for a 2-yard loss on third-and-3 at the Steelers' 23 on the play prior to the two-minute warning. That forced a field goal and got Ben the ball back, trailing by only six with 1:50 left, but Ben was in the middle of his least productive game of the season. He completed exactly one of his final nine passes in a game when offensive coordinator Bruce Arians had no interest in running at all. The Steelers ran 40 pass plays, 17 rushing plays, a terrible mix in just about any circumstance.
Thus we saw the first Steelers game of the past 26 (including the playoffs) that did not include an offensive touchdown, as touchdowns are difficult when you're converting 3 of 15 third-down opportunities.
"There's still a lot of football left," defensive end Brett Keisel said cheerily, perhaps aware that the defense has allowed only one offensive touchdown or none in five consecutive games, "but this is the stretch where great teams step up and make plays when it counts."
Yes it is.
First Published November 16, 2009 12:00 am