Monday, November 14, 2011

Week 10: Steelers 24, Bengals 17

Steelers back in 1st place 

The Steelers have joined the Occupy First Place movement.

It seemed the Steelers would never again set foot in the AFC North's top spot after their loss to the Ravens last week.

But what did I tell you about the Ravens? I said last week that a loss Sunday in Seattle wouldn't surprise me at all. They conquered their black and gold demons by completing a season sweep of the Steelers, then Sunday it was Letdown City.

The Ravens' 22-17 loss to the Seahawks, combined with the Steelers' 24-17 win over the Bengals in Cincinnati, gave the Steelers (7-3) a half-game lead over the Bengals (6-3) and Ravens (6-3).

Because of their bye next week, there's nothing the Steelers can do if the Ravens win in Cincinnati. It would put Baltimore back in first by virtue of the tiebreaker, but for now the Steelers are occupying first place, protesting the Ravens' crowning as division champs.

Ooh, that smell

William Gay is doing a lot more than just occupying the starting cornerback job opposite Ike Taylor. He took a big leap in securing that role Sunday.

A Steelers defense that couldn't protect 92 yards in the final two minutes against the Ravens had only 49 yards behind it with four-and-a-half minutes to go Sunday. The Steelers led by seven, so the smell of overtime was in the air.

Then Gay freshened the scent.

The Bengals got to the Steelers' 25 when the fifth-year cornerback made his second career interception, jumping the route on a pass from rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to Jerome Simpson.

The Steelers got a couple of first downs from there to run out the clock. The final one came on a pass in the flat to Mike Wallace, who caught six passes for 54 yards. Considering how lah-di-dah Ben Roethlisberger has been on some of his passes in the flat this season (see Terrell Suggs), I think there might have been safer play calls in that situation. There was nothing but green turf in front of Nate Clements if he had somehow intercepted that ball.

Thankfully, it's a play call no one will remember.

Among the things Steelers fans will remember about Sunday's game is Gay's performance.

The Steelers' third-down defense sprung a few leaks against the Ravens, but Gay helped patch that up by ensuring three-and-outs on the Bengals' first two possessions Sunday. He broke up a third-down pass on the Bengals' first possession. Then on the first play of the Bengals' next series, he turned a completion into an incompletion by knocking the ball, and maybe a little snot, from Simpson after Simpson caught the ball.

Both of those defensive stands were followed by touchdowns. The first one was a 16-yard reception by Jerricho Cotchery, his first TD as a Steeler. The second was a 2-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall that gave the Steelers a 14-0, first-quarter lead.

Discipline on defense 

Just when it seemed like the good ol' days, when the Steelers could walk into Cincinnati and do whatever they wanted, the Bengals reminded everyone that this season might be one of those once-every-few-years reprieves from all those 4-12s and 5-11s of autumns past. These cats had enough fight to eventually tie the game 17-17 in the third quarter.

The Steelers regained the lead when Mendenhall again showed some goal-line grit, breaking free from numerous Bengal claws for a 9-yard TD run to give the Steelers a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter.

It didn't seem like a lead that would last for 17 minutes. Not on a day when the Steelers looked sloppy with their tackling, allowing 4.1 rushing yards per carry. Not on a day when the Steelers were penning another chapter in their historic tale of turnover futility. 

Gay wasn't feeling so generous.

On first-and-10 from the Steelers' 47, Gay broke up a pass intended for Andre Caldwell and rerouted it into the hands of Lawrence Timmons with about 12 minutes left in the game.

Gay's own pick later gave the Steelers their first multiple-takeaway game of the season. Good thing, too, because while there have been days this season when the Steelers' defense was good enough to win without forcing turnovers, Sunday was not one of those days.

Let's not forget that the Steelers didn't have to worry about A.J. Green for three quarters of the game. The Bengals were right back in the game at 14-7 when the rookie speedster split the double team of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark for a 36-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. This being Cincinnati, Clark went a little Kimo von Oelhoffen and rolled into Green's knee after the play, taking him out of the game.

Clark clearly did not hurt Green's knee on purpose, yet provided the Steelers a little unintended help on that play. He also helped by breaking his streak of consecutive games with a 15-yard personal foul. A little discipline goes a long way. 

Considering how suspect the Steelers' defense looked Sunday, I can't help but think that Green might have made a difference had he not been limited to the Bengals' Sideline Spinning class for the rest of the afternoon.

As they battle for AFC North supremacy, the Steelers are in an equally tenacious fight with the Dolphins to avoid a dubious place in history. They're still tied with the Dolphins for fewest takeaways in the NFL, and the Dolphins have played only nine games. The Steelers' six forced turnovers are still the fewest in NFL history through 10 games. But perhaps the better job Gay is doing at cornerback will help them turn the corner in that department.

What can Brown do for you?

Let's hope Gay's breakout follows a trajectory similar to that of Antonio Brown.

Of Brown's 44 catches this season, 26 have come in the past four weeks. He caught five for 86 yards Sunday, including four for 74 yards on a second-quarter drive that resulted in a 39-yard Shaun Suisham field goal and a 17-10 Steelers lead. 

The Steelers faced a lot of obstacles on that 16-play, 87-yard drive, including a gimme sack after Roethlisberger lost his shoe. Roethlisberger was sacked again a play later, and the Steelers faced a third-and-19. No problem. Brown took care of that with one of his two 21-yard receptions on the drive. The other one put the ball on the Bengals' 13, well within Shaun Suisham's field goal range.

Speaking of Suisham, maybe even he's getting his ass in gear. He's now made 16 of his 21 field goals, and that 39-yarder in the whipping Cincinnati wind wasn't exactly a chip shot.

Gay, Brown, Suisham and the rest of the Steelers have earned their week off. Maybe they can spend it being Bengals fans so they can occupy first place for another week.

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