Steelers lucky they were playing Bengals
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CINCINNATI -- Watching the fitful operation of Bruce Arians' offense across three quarters of shaggy football yesterday, you wouldn't have suspected the Steelers under the direction of Ben Roethlisberger had any aptitude for something as precise as, you know, timing or anything.
But the reality is that this fifth Steelers win of 2008 was essentially an indecorous little monument to that very thing.
There is no better illustration of good timing than putting the three worst quarters of conceptual offense this season on stage against the perfectly awful backdrop that is the Cincinnati Bengals. Winless and virtually skill-less, the Bengals still kept the Steelers well within range all the way into the fourth quarter, making the thousands and thousands of Steelers fans in Paul Brown Stadium wonder what might have happened to Mike Tomlin's fellas had they been matched against a pro team.
"It's not what professional football is all about," was the way Bengals coach Marvin Lewis chose to characterize this mismatch.
No, what this was about was the Steelers dickering for two and half hours over how to take the Bengals apart, then hitting on a couple of big plays and a turnover in the fourth quarter to gallop off, 38-10.
"We killed ourselves in the first half; I called a bad game," said Roethlisberger, who pitched a bad game as well until very late. "I told [offensive coordinator] Bruce [Arians], now I know what it feels like to do that. He told me I did. I should have just stuck to what I saw a lot of times rather than trying to force things. I really felt that we could have had 28, 30 points at halftime."
That's only because they should have.
Instead they ran three consecutive pass plays on first-and-goal from the 3 (settling for a field goal), threw a swing pass to Mewelde Moore on third-and-2 from the Bengals' 44 that Moore fumbled out of bounds well short of the sticks, and pretty much seemed intent on not allowing Moore to take over the game for them until it was almost too late.
"We left a few scoring opportunities out there in the first half, we messed up a third-and-1, we just barely moved ourselves out of field-goal range with a few penalties," Tomlin noted without apparent alarm. "I think any judging at this point is putting a mental ceiling on what we're capable of."
Funny, for most of this winning afternoon, his offense was a lot closer to the floor than the old mental ceiling. It's immensely evident as the most difficult stretch of schedule begins that the Steelers' injuries are precluding the total development of any clear offensive profile.
"We haven't developed our full personality," said center Justin Hartwig, whose linemates managed to keep Roethlisberger vertical all day. "Sometimes we sputter. It's my first year at center and I've got a lot of responsibility, and there are going to be some errors here or there. But we're getting into the hard part of the schedule so we need to start peaking."
Fortunately for the Steelers, while the offense was shooting itself in the foot, as Tomlin described the first half, the Bengals were shooting themselves in the head. The NFL's worst offense started with five three-and-outs, one of which ended in a punt that went virtually straight up, not even reaching the first down marker.
The Steelers refused to capitalize, settling for a 10-7 halftime lead and a flimsy 17-10 cushion entering the fourth quarter, by which point it appeared the Steelers were content just to bore them to death.
Had it not been for the first of Lawrence Timmons' two sacks -- this one coming with the Bengals facing third-and-10 from their 37 with 12 minutes remaining, Cincinnati might even have used a semblance of momentum to launch a tying drive.
"When you're in the football game and you've got the football across midfield down by a touchdown, you've got an opportunity there," Lewis said. "We didn't get the thing done. I'm angry. It's not good."
Instead, five plays later, Roethlisberger found Nate Washington streaking behind emergency roster addition Geoffrey Pope for 50 yards and a touchdown.
"I thought, 'He can't be that open,'" Roethlisberger said. "Willie Colon pushed the defensive end right by me and I just let it go."
Timmons' second sack aborted Cincinnati's next possession, and Roethlisberger went deep again immediately, this time to Hines Ward, who was interfered with by beaten corner Jonathan Joseph at the 14. Moore scored from 2 yards out three plays later to make the swelling arithmetic look more appealing than it was.
Though it was as plain as the black and gold facepaint throughout the stands yesterday that the Steelers will need to be a world more focused and accomplished on offense to deal with the defending Super Bowl Giants Sunday, Arians said it's not a matter of fully developing their offensive personality.
"This is the personality, that whoever we put in there is a starter, no matter that we're without [Willie] Parker, without Marvel Smith, everybody's a starter and everybody is finding their roles," said the OC. "The quarterback missed a couple of throws he usually doesn't in the first half, but I'll tell you, there wasn't a blink at halftime. You knew 7 was going to do it. It's obviously we're going to sink or swim with him, and we're going to swim."
They swam well enough yesterday, but it was good the Bengals were around to show 'em that doggy paddle.
First Published October 20, 2008 12:00 am