AFC North: 2013 Week 15 CIN at PIT Rapid Reaction

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 15, 2013

PITTSBURGH – A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers30-20 win over the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.

What it means: The Steelers stayed mathematically alive for the postseason, albeit barely. Unless a ton of things come to pass, the Steelers’ most impressive win of the season will have come too late for them to avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in their seven years under coach Mike Tomlin. The Steelers dominated from the outset, quickly answering any questions about how they would play with the postseason all but out of their reach. They erupted for 21 points in the first 15 minutes, dominating a quarter in which they too often had been owned this season. The Steelers had been outscored 77-43 in the first quarter before their final primetime game of the season. They didn’t allow a point against the Bengals.

Stock watch: The defense looked anything but old or a group that was just playing out the string, limiting the Bengals to 91 yards in the first half. But a pair of special-teams plays shaped the second meeting of the season between the AFC North rivals -- and helped Pittsburgh avoid a season sweep by the Bengals for the first time since 2009. A bobbled snap by Kevin Huber resulted in the Bengals punter getting tackled on Cincinnati’s 1-yard line, and two plays later Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell scored the first touchdown of the game. Huber’s night got much worse near the end of the quarter. Terence Garvin obliterated Huber on one of the blocks that helped spring Antonio Brown for a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown. The block left Huber with a fractured jaw, and it could lead to a fine if the NFL determines Garvin violated the Hines Ward Rule, which prohibits a blocker from using his shoulder, forearm or helmet to hit a player from behind or the side.

Woodley sidelined again: LaMarr Woodley can’t seem to stay healthy, and it’s fair to wonder if the Dec. 29 regular-season finale against the Browns will be his final one at Heinz Field in a Steelers uniform. Woodley hasn’t been the same player since injuring his hamstring more than two years ago, and the Steelers can’t justify the contract that makes Woodley the highest-paid defensive player in franchise history. Woodley, who signed a six-year, $61.5 million deal in 2011, aggravated the calf injury that sidelined him for three games earlier this season. And he is not even the best pass-rusher on the Steelers when healthy. If the Steelers have to choose between keeping Woodley or signing Jason Worilds after the season, the decision looks like a no-brainer.

Tough sledding for Bell: Bell averaged just 2.4 yards per carry and seemed to be a little too indecisive while rushing for 57 yards. But he also caught five passes for 50 yards and again showed glimpses of what kind of runner he can be at this level. He stopped Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson in his tracks with a withering stiff arm on the way to one of his more productive runs of the night. An earlier run, in which Bell hurdled Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, was brought back because of a holding penalty on tight end Matt Spaeth. Bell joined Franco Harris and Bam Morris as the only rookie running backs in franchise history to gain at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

What’s next: The Steelers play the Green Bay Packers next Sunday at Lambeau Field. The game could mark the return of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has been out since early November with a broken collarbone. The Packers remained in playoff contention Sunday with a come-from-behind win at Dallas, increasing the chances that Rodgers will play against the Steelers.

Rapid Reaction: Cincinnati Bengals

December, 15, 2013

PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 30-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What it means: Much of the Bengals' focus this season had to do with proving themselves to the rest of the football universe. As a team that has spent much of its history in the lower tier of the AFC, the Bengals entered this season with the belief that many others doubt them, and they even carried that thought with them into this week when a third straight postseason berth was on the line. But in actuality, there were few who doubted the Bengals this past week. There was an overwhelming belief by pundits that they might actually be a force once the postseason began. When the New England Patriots lost to the Miami Dolphins earlier in the day, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Cincinnati would win and retain the No. 2 seeding the Patriots' loss was about to give them. All the Bengals had to do was win. But that didn't happen. They didn't even show up at Heinz Field, and now, like before, the Bengals still have to rely on help from others in order to script their postseason story. With a win, they would have fully controlled their fate.

Stock watch: Offensive line -- falling. Cincinnati's offensive line has been rather solid all season, consistently ranking among the best in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. The group didn't look quite as strong Sunday, as the Steelers were getting consistent pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton. Most of the pressure came in the first two quarters. It eased a bit in the second half as Pittsburgh was trying to protect the lead and wasn't rushing Dalton quite as regularly. What also helped Dalton was the fact he and his receivers became more committed to running quick-strike screen and slant routes that didn't give the pass rush much time to develop. The early pressure led to Dalton being sacked in the first half for the first time since Nov. 10 at Baltimore. It was the only sack the Bengals' line allowed.

Injuries pile up: Injuries have ravaged the Bengals all year, and they hit them even harder in this game. With Dre Kirkpatrick starting at cornerback in place of veteran Terence Newman, the Bengals already were down one of their top defenders. Late in the first half, though, they also lost linebacker James Harrison. The former Steeler was run from the game with a concussion in the same quarter that Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber left with a fractured jaw.

Green short of 100: Bengals receiver A.J. Green was seven yards short of 100. He hasn't gone beyond the 100-yard mark since that same Nov. 10 game when Dalton was previously sacked. He had a chance to do that on the Bengals' last drive, though, but he didn't catch up to a Dalton deep pass.

What's next? The Bengals will try to get back on track next weekend when they return home and host the Minnesota Vikings in the first of two regular-season games left at Paul Brown Stadium. Minnesota blew past Philadelphia on Sunday, 48-30.