By Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer
November 14, 2011
Rashard Mendenhall(notes) #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rushes for a two-yard touchdown in the first quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on November 13, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Steelers won 24-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
On a day the Bengals hoped to take off the training wheels and ride bikes with the big boys, they swerved ever so slightly. Pittsburgh scored two first-quarter touchdowns and made two fourth-quarter interceptions, mainly by memory. It's what the Steelers do and who they are. But the Bengals are learning.
What's next for them is to get back up on the bike and try again, next Sunday in Baltimore. The baptismal fire is a little late arriving this fall, but the game's on now. And soon enough, the Bengals will figure it out.
Tough loss? Not really,
The Steelers won, 24-17, but it was hardly decisive. If football were a five-quarter game, Cincinnati would have lapped the visitors. The Bengals won the fight on both lines in the second half. What they couldn't do, against the first championship-caliber team they've played this year, is finish.
The Steelers know how to finish. Their winning memory is institutional. That doesn't change the notion that, after four quarters Sunday, it was hard to tell who had the better team.
Marvin Lewis talked at length about "making plays." All coaches talk this way, but it was especially profound Sunday. The Bengals dropped an interception on a drive that ended in a Steelers touchdown. The normally rock-steady Andrew Whitworth committed two killer penalties in the fourth quarter. (Though each was not readily obvious, even after watching TV replays.)
Red Dalton had his poise-ful moments. He also threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, killing drives that began at the Steelers' 47- and 49-yard lines. These were plays that weren't made, or were made poorly.
Too bad for the Bengals, because the Steelers weren't great. Actually, the Bengals defensive line mauled them. They sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times and held Rashard Mendenhall to 44 yards on 16 carries. "We showed them our D-line ain't fooling around" was how Domata Peko put it. Take away one masterful 81-yard, third-quarter TD drive, Pittsburgh's offense generated 25 yards in the second half.
Meanwhile the Bengals offensive line kept Dalton clean. But Dalton is not yet Roethlisberger, and that was the difference. Roethlisberger's unmatched ability to keep alive plays with his size-16s cannot be exaggerated. He might not run 40 yards in four and a half seconds, but he still has some Fred Astaire in him when he's negotiating the pocket.
As Peko's said, "Ben is real good at scrambling around and just throwing the damned thing up in the air. And it's his guy sitting there waiting for it."
The Steelers scored the first two times they had the ball. The first TD came after Roethlisberger soft-shoed a blitz, stepped up, bought a half-second, then rifled a 16-yard strike to Jerricho Cotchery. The next TD was enabled when Roethlisberger dodged a web of Bengals pass rushers and threw 26 yards to Mendenhall, to the Cincinnati 49-yard line.
Roethlisberger has a field awareness Dalton has to learn, and a winner's penchant for being Big Ben when he needs to be.
Still, the Bengals had a chance. They rallied to a 17-17 tie when Dalton lofted a perfect spiral in the far left corner of the end zone to Jermaine Gresham. The kid threw that one off his back foot with blitzers in his facemask.
Pittsburgh answered with that 81-yard drive, setting up a fourth quarter that could have been triumphant for the Bengals, had they been further along in the know-how-to-win department. The Steelers offense went three-and-out the first three times it had the ball. But Dalton had a pass tipped for an interception, then watched as Steelers corner William Gay jumped a throw intended for Jerome Simpson.
Mix in the Whitworth penalties, and the deal was sealed.
The game worked as a measuring stick for the Bengals, though. It worked so obviously well, you could have almost called it before kickoff. The Steelers beat them, but it was hardly decisive. In what Willie Anderson used to call a "manhood game," the young Bengals had a chance.
Far from pushing the Bengals from playoff consideration, this game elevated them, as well as a loss could. As Bobbie Williams said, "They gotta see us again."
Williams likes to quote a saying that's painted in bold letters across the back wall of the team's weight room: "As iron sharpens iron, one man sharpens another."
The 12-year veteran guard saw the game as a teachable moment for the kids. "They got sharpened today, in all phases," he said.
The baptism continues Sunday, in Baltimore.