‘Change of guard’: Why Steelers struggled as they were swept by the Bengals in their first season since 2009
The Steelers-Bengals rivalry is one of the most intense in NFL history.
Pittsburgh has been a consistent powerhouse for the past half century. Cincinnati is, for the most part, a doormat. In their 53 seasons, the Bengals have only reached the knockout stages 14 times. The Steelers have reached the knockout stages 13 times since the start of the 2000 season and have hit a total of 31 since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. They also have six Super Bowl wins that are second to none by the Bengals.
Head-to-head results largely reflect that disparity. The Steelers enter the 2021 season with a 64-37 record in 101 meetings.
However, that did not happen this year. The Bengals beat the Steelers 24-10 in Week 3 and overtook them 41-10 on Sunday. The 31-point gap is tied to the second-largest point difference in the Bengals’ win in the opponent’s history. The Steelers were wiped out by the Bengals for the first time since 2009.
THAN: TJ Watt throws Joe Burrow to the ground during the first half of the Bengals-Steelers
Sunday is just the latest example of how the two brands are doing, at least for now. The Bengalis are on the upswing and the Steelers are facing the prospect of a transfer from franchise full-back Ben Roethlisberger in the not-too-distant future.
What happened Sunday for Pittsburgh, and what does it mean for the team moving forward? Sporting News dives in to watch.
Ben Roethlisberger continues to decline
Not every former defender can function the way Tom Brady does. Age seems to have caught up with Roethlisberger, and fast.
Roethlisberger, 39, had his worst game of the season on Sunday, with a rating of 61.2 against the Bengals. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 231 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also lost a fumble. Notable: His second-worst rating of the season, 70.9, came in Week 3 against Cincinnati.
It should also be noted that Roethlisberger’s touchdown came with 2:49 remaining in the game, with Cincinnati leading 41-3.
Roethlisberger has had a season full of ups and downs. In the four weeks before Sunday, he completed 67.6% of his passes in 973 yards and seven touchdowns without interception, capped by a three-touch game against the Chargers in Week 11 .
THAN: Updated AFC, NFC playoff images for Week 12
But make no mistake, this hasn’t been a great season for Big Ben. According to Pro Football Focus, he entered Week 12, placing 36th out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks in the NFL. His 7.2-yard average target depth is the shortest goal of his career.
Among his passing efforts this season, 4.1% were considered revenue-worthy by the PFF, while only 3.2% were considered large revenue. That’s his highest revenue-worthy percentage in a season with at least 100 passes since 2016, when it was 4.6, and here’s the shot-to-ball ratio during that time. the lowest length in a full season of his career.
Roethlisberger is no longer a Pro Bowl or even an average quarterback. His horror game on Sunday reinforced that view.
Rapid attack and failed attack line
So yeah, the whole offense is a mess. But offense can still exist without a suitable quarterback. But it becomes a problem if they don’t have the running talent to keep the ball moving.
And that was the case with the Steelers. Gone are the days when Le’Veon Bell was backstage waiting for a chance to run away.
Rookie Najee Harris was heavily relied upon and he was unable to provide the required amount of pitch. He’s seventh in the NFL with 685 yards of dash for the week, but only because he’s third with 188 attempts. Overall, he’s 39th in the NFL with 3.6 yards per take.
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And that average was again a problem on Sunday. He made eight executions for just 23 yards – 2.9 yards per play.
Pro Football Focus sees Harris as the running midfield man, placing him 33rd out of 59 qualified defenders.
Harris is not the whole point. He didn’t get much help from the front line. PFF Ranks Pittsburgh is the second-worst pass interception team in the NFL with a score of 53.2, although the team ranks 11th in pass interception with a score of 66.5.
Roethlisberger’s Sunday defeat came as he was fired in the third quarter. He was sacked by the Bengals three times totaling 13 yards.
The PFF is not kind in its individual levels to Pittsburgh roadsiders. Center Kendrick Green is 33rd out of 38. Guards Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner are 35th and 40th out of 78th respectively. tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore Jr are 65th and 72nd out of 81, respectively.
Sure End Zach Gentry and Pat Freiermuth are the only Steelers with a pass over 80, and wide receiver Cody White is the only player with a intercept over 68, according to PFF.
So yes, there are a lot of offense issues. Roethlisberger is only most striking given how much of a franchise icon he has become.
Defensive lack of depth shows
The Steelers may have the best defensive one-two punch in the NFL. The PFF ranks Cameron Heyward as the league’s second-best domestic defender and TJ Watt as the third-best full-back.
But there are problems below the surface.
For starters, they have big problems in defending the pass. This may not stand out much in Sunday’s score as Bengals QB Joe Burrow has only 190 yards of passing and just one touchdown. However, Burrow was extremely efficient, completing 20 of 24 passes and averaging 7.9 yards each.
The Steelers entered their 13th game in the NFL with 6.6 yards of passes allowed per play. They have an intercept to intercept ratio of 3.75-1, fifth worst in the NFL.
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Tre Norwood, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick ranked 77th, 83rd and 87th out of 91 safe, respectively. Corners are better – James Pierre, Joe Haden and Arthur Maulet are 40th, 45th and 60th respectively – but extra corners are still a big deal overall. The only other defensive players with a better rating than Pierre are wingers Joe Schobert (23rd out of 84) and Chris Wormley (24th out of 131).
The PFF ranks Pittsburgh as having the fourth worst coverage compared to wide receivers.
That could be a problem for the Steelers in the long term. According to PFF, Burrow has the eighth best offensive level, Raven’s Lamar Jackson is 15th and Browns’ Baker Mayfield is 26th out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks.
Also, worrying for Pittsburgh is that the peak defense was burned on Sunday and there are many signs that the situation could deteriorate. Joe Mixon rushed 28 times in 165 yards with two touches, and the Bengals as a team rushed 198 yards and three points with 38 attempts.
The team hasn’t challenged Pittsburgh on the field much this season. The Steelers faced the 11th fewest dashes with just 266, but they allowed the fastest dash yards per attempt in the NFL of 4.8.
However, the PFF positively assessed the Steelers’ hasty defensive ability. Their 70.5 score is the fourth highest in the NFL. But that the number is skewed by the higher classes earlier in the season. The Steelers received all four of their top defensive points in the first five weeks. Since the beginning of Week 6, their best score is 62.7. Pittsburgh allows less than 5 yards per carry for each of the first four weeks. Since then, the teams have averaged more than 5 per week.
Heyward and Watt are the stars, and Schobert, Wormley, Pierre and Haden have been above average this season. But the rush of the pass doesn’t always decide the game, and when the Steelers can’t reach midfield, they drop out. If the foul continues to struggle, the defense will need to lean on to keep games tight.