‘Changing of the Guard’: Why the Steelers have struggled with the Bengals’ first-season sweep since 2009
The Steelers-Bengals rivalry is one of the most one-sided in NFL history.
Pittsburgh has been a constant power over the past half century. Cincinnati has, for the most part, been a doormat. In their 53 seasons, the Bengals have only reached the playoffs 14 times. The Steelers have reached the playoffs 13 times since the start of the 2000 season and have made them 31 times in total since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. They also have six Super Bowl wins to none by the Bengals.
The comparative results largely reflected this disparity. The Steelers started the 2021 season 64-37 in 101 games.
This was not the case this year, however. The Bengals beat the Steelers 24-10 in Week 3 and beat them 41-10 on Sunday. The margin of 31 points tied for the second largest points differential in a Bengals victory in rivalry history. The Steelers were swept away by the Bengals in the regular season for the first time since 2009.
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Sunday was just the latest example of how roles have turned for both franchises, at least for now. The Bengals are on the rise and the Steelers plan to leave franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the not-so-distant future.
What went wrong for Pittsburgh on Sunday and what does it mean for the team to move forward? Sporting News dives in for a look.
Ben Roethlisberger’s decline continues
Not all former quarterbacks can stay like Tom Brady. Age certainly seems to have caught up with Roethlisberger, and quickly.
Roethlisberger, 39, had his worst game of the season on Sunday, posting a 61.2 odds against the Bengals. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 231 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also lost a fumble. Note: his second worst score of the season, 70.9, came in Week 3 against Cincinnati.
It’s also worth noting that Roethlisberger’s touchdown came with 2:49 left, with Cincinnati already leading 41-3.
Roethlisberger has had a season full of ups and downs. In the four weeks leading up to Sunday, he completed 67.6% of his passes for 973 yards and seven touchdowns without interceptions, topped off with a three-touchdown game against the Chargers in Week 11.
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But make no mistake, it hasn’t been a great season for Big Ben. According to Pro Football Focus, he entered Week 12 ranked 36th out of 38 NFL qualifying quarterbacks. His 7.2-yard average target depth is the shortest of his career.
Of his passing attempts this season, 4.1% were considered worthy of turnover by PFF, while only 3.2% were considered important throws. This is his highest percentage of turnover in a season with at least 100 passing attempts since 2016, when it was 4.6, and it is the percentage of important throws. the lowest in a full season of his career.
Roethlisberger is no longer a Pro Bowl or even an above average quarterback. His appalling match on Sunday reinforced that point.
The rushed attack and the offensive line failed
So, yeah, the whole offense is a mess right now. But offenses can still survive without a proper quarterback. But it becomes problematic if they don’t have the running talent to keep the ball moving.
And that has been the case with the Steelers. Gone are the days of Le’Veon Bell in the backfield, waiting for his chance to run.
Rookie Najee Harris was in heavy demand and he was unable to provide the necessary distance. He placed seventh in the NFL with 685 rushing yards earlier in the week, but only because he placed third with 188 attempts. Overall, he was 39th in the NFL with 3.6 yards per carry.
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And that average was a problem again on Sunday. He made eight carries to just 23 yards – 2.9 yards per game.
Pro Football Focus considers Harris to be an intermediate backstroke, ranking him 33rd out of 59 qualified backstrokes.
Harris is not the whole problem. He didn’t get much help from the offensive line. PFF ranks Pittsburgh as the second worst race blocking team in the NFL with a score of 53.2, although the line ranks 11th in pass blocking with a score of 66.5.
Roethlisberger’s lost fumble on Sunday came when he was sacked in the third quarter. He was sacked three times in total for 13 yards by the Bengals.
PFF is not kind in its individual ratings for Pittsburgh linemen. Center Kendrick Green is 33rd of 38. Guards Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner are 35th and 40th of 78, respectively. Tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore Jr. are 65th and 72nd of 81, respectively.
Tight ends Zach Gentry and Pat Freiermuth are the only Steelers with passing block ratings above 80 and wide receiver Cody White is the only player with a running block rating above 68, according to PFF.
So, yeah, there are a lot of offensive issues. Roethlisberger stands out the most given how much of a franchise icon he has become.
The lack of depth of defense showed
The Steelers might have the best defensive punch in the NFL. PFF ranks Cameron Heyward as the second best inside defenseman in the league and TJ Watt as their third best edge defenseman.
But there are problems below the surface.
For starters, they have big problems defending the pass. It might not have been so striking in the penalty area on Sunday, as Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had just 190 passing yards and a single passing touchdown. Burrow, however, was incredibly efficient, making 20 of 24 passes and averaging 7.9 yards per attempt.
The Steelers entered the game 13th in the NFL with 6.6 passing yards allowed per game. They had a 3.75-1 touchdown-to-steal ratio, the fifth-worst in the NFL.
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Tre Norwood, Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick rank 77th, 83rd and 87th out of 91 securities, respectively. The corners are better – James Pierre, Joe Haden and Arthur Maulet are 40th, 45th and 60th out of 118 respectively – but the secondary remains a major problem overall. The only other defensive players with better scores than Pierre are linebacker Joe Schobert (23rd of 84) and Chris Wormley (24th of 131).
PFF ranks Pittsburgh as having the fourth worst cover rating against wide receivers.
This could be a problem for the Steelers in the long run. According to PFF, Burrow has the eighth best offensive rating, the Ravens ‘Lamar Jackson is 15th and the Browns’ Baker Mayfield is 26th out of 38 quarterbacks qualified.
What’s more, what’s troubling for Pittsburgh is that the rush defense was torched on Sunday and there are plenty of signs the situation could get worse. Joe Mixon ran 28 times for 165 yards with two touchdowns, and the team Bengals rushed for 198 yards and three scores on 38 carries.
The teams haven’t challenged Pittsburgh much on the field this season. The Steelers faced the 11th fewest rushing attempts at just 266, but they allowed the most rushing yards per attempt in the NFL at 4.8.
Still, PFF rates the Steelers’ run defense positively. Their score of 70.5 is the fourth highest in the NFL. But that number is skewed by higher scores earlier in the season. The Steelers received their four best running defense scores in the first five weeks. Since the start of week 6, their best score is 62.7. Pittsburgh allowed less than 5 yards per carry in each of the first four weeks. Since then, teams have averaged over 5 each week.
Heyward and Watt are stars, and Schobert, Wormley, Pierre and Haden have been above average this season. But the passing rush can’t always dictate the play, and when the Steelers can’t reach the quarterback, they give up yards. If the offense continues to struggle, it will be necessary to rely on the defense to keep the games close.