PITTSBURGH — The Steelers pulled off their most convincing win of the season in a 34-11 thrashing of the Cincinnati Bengals. No one expected that, but the team behind Mason Rudolph’s power pushed forward and came out with a dominant win. But what can be taken away from the victory?
Rudolph Saves the Day
Did anyone see Mason Rudolph saving the day? Well, some people did, but maybe not to this extent. Rudolph did everything the team needed from a quarterback. No, he was not spectacular. Yes, his accuracy, especially under pressure, was spotty at times. But this team did not need All-Pro level play from him; they just required competency. This group needed a point guard.
Rudolph did that. He proved one critical thing about NFL quarterback play. If you can win from the pocket and get the ball to where it is supposed to go, more often than not, good things happen. There were maybe two or three times all game. I can point to that Rudolph turned down a ball he should have thrown, but that naturally happens to everyone. Most guys are not perfect, even the all-time greats.
By getting it to the right guy, who is this offense is usually an open guy, the team was able to make plays for him. George Pickens stood out. A few other guys made big-time plays. But Rudolph threw with anticipation and rhythm, keeping this group on schedule.
“Yeah, I think as much as it’s — as hard as it is to sit and watch for two and a half years, I think you can sort of just go on autopilot mode or try to improve and put yourself — call the play in the huddle, the snap count, you know, try to go through, simulate what you would do if you were in there,” Rudolph said. “I think just when years go by your football IQ improves, and I credit that to our staff and Mike T. We have great meetings each week in the morning where he kind of gives a synopsis from a defensive perspective. I think I just felt good having the whole week of reps. Last time I played found out 12, 24 hours before, so nice to build the confidence through the week.”
If Pittsburgh gets that type of quarterback play for the rest of the season, they will have a chance each week. It’s not perfect. But the team is talented enough where that’s good enough.
Offensive Line Just OK
The Steelers’ offensive line continues to be perhaps the most frustrating part of the team. They have three guys that you would generally consider as building blocks. For one, Isaac Seumalo and James Daniels played well. In addition, the team blocked their behinds off in the run game. The once burgeoning run game came alive again behind a plan that highlighted their athleticism and physicality. Without D.J. Reader, the Bengals had no shot to slow that down all day, and Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris ran hard all night.
But pass protection continues to be an issue. For one, Broderick Jones has struggled at right tackle, looking a little bit unorthodox in his kickstep. It makes sense. We are talking about someone who is a natural left tackle and already came out as raw. Dan Moore Jr. struggled enough, too. But the team still allowed free runners to tattoo Rudolph throughout the night and it caused some of his more errant passes throughout the season.
Rudolph has to be a bit better in those spots, but the Steelers can not let the free runners pulverize Rudolph, or he might get injured at some point. That is a massive point of emphasis for them moving forward, and one of the biggest focuses this offseason should be improving center and left tackle.
The Challenge Wizard….Mike Tomlin?
Did anyone have Mike Tomlin winning two challenges on their bingo card? If you did, you just saw a once-in-a-decade occurrence. Tomlin has not won two challenges in a game since 2013. That’s the type of thing that Christmas miracles are made out of here. Whenever everything seemed to go right for this team, they did, and to Tomlin’s credit, he took a huge catch by Andrei Iosivias off the board with his first challenge.
It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but it is noteworthy and something the team has to embrace moving forward. It felt like Tomlin’s game management was superior to Zac Taylor’s on Saturday. Tomlin had plenty of aggressiveness at the end of the first half. They played complementary football, and that made Tomlin’s job so much easier, but he did a much better job than last week.
“We talked about scared money don’t make money,” Tomlin said. “That’s the mentality we went into this week.”
Joey Porter Jr. Does it Again
Each week, we keep saying that Joey Porter Jr. can not stop everyone. The rookie is on a tear and eliminating top receivers consistently. Even when those players, like Tee Higgins, go off for over 100 yards, he gets shut down when Porter is in proximity. Higgins did most of his work away from Porter, who covered him on 32 of his 40 routes. He caught just two receptions for 15 yards whenever he got targeted.
Porter’s length and grabbiness make him a frustrating player at times. He got called for the thirteenth penalty on Saturday, a holding call near the top of the league. But Porter’s length and aggressiveness are what makes him great. Honestly, you live with the penalties to bring out the dog in him that makes him fit for these types of matchups.
“I am not going to let that alter my game,” Porter said. “I know what I got going on, and I feel like I am doing a good job. Once you start second-guessing your ability, you start playing bad. And I am not going to let that happen. So if I get a flag, it’s like, ‘Whatever, next play,’ and I am going to keep on working.”
That’s just the mentality that Porter brings to the table and the one he needs to have. Defensive coordinator and secondary coach Grady Brown has challenged him to get better from all of that. He needs to improve. But where it stands right now, Porter’s a young player looking to grow his game in the best manner. Using his best attributes and accommodating what he does is the best way.
Peterson Shines at Safety
In the past, many older, future Hall of Fame cornerbacks have moved to safety to extend their careers. You can look at Rod Woodson, Charles Woodson, Ronde Barber, and others. Patrick Peterson stated that could be something that ends up working for him throughout the rest of his career. His goal was always to play 15 seasons, and while he is on leg 13 of that tour, the move to safety could get him there. He is as intelligent as ever and has elite ball skills, even if the athleticism is as elite as it once was from that spot.
Peterson grabbed an interception and made several other plays over the top to make it much harder on Jake Browning. He even stuck his nose in the fan enough time to justify it. I’m not saying Peterson is some savant back there and that he will be some revelation as an All-Pro or something; I’m not saying that. But this move benefits the Steelers and Peterson, who are losing more athleticism by the year to play outside cornerback.
The move to slot helped him. His game at safety seems rather suited to be put there. If the team can continue to work with him at that spot, it’s not hard to think that Peterson could extend his career and become an instrumental piece for the team from that spot.
Eliminate the RBs and TEs
The Steelers came into this game to eliminate the running backs and tight ends from the game plan. No team had become more screen heavy than the Bengals over the last few weeks. They had run the second most screens since their loss to the Steelers in Cincinnati. But Pittsburgh planned for that, and silenced Joe Mixon, Chase Brown, Tanner Hudson, and Drew Sample throughout the game.
Higgins went off without Ja’Marr Chase. Tyler Boyd even got some production but never put up big numbers. Mike Tomlin and the defense planned to take them out of the game and did just that.
“We talked about it at the top of the week that there had been an emergence of their backs in the passing game,” Tomlin said. “Joe Mixon had caught 12 balls since the last time we played them and Brown’s evolution in terms of what they had been doing, what had been happening, and I think that was one of the reasons Browning was playing so efficiently. He was completing passes at such a high rate because very little risk in terms of including those guys in the passing game, particularly the way that he was.”
Myles Jack and Mykal Walker talked about flying to the flat and buzzing to take those guys down. They did just that. That group caught just six passes for 26 yards, while Sample added three catches for 38 yards. That’s a fantastic effort to eliminate something that had become an issue for this group.
On the offensive side of the football, the Steelers did everything they needed to do. But they stayed ahead of schedule and did not have many costly turnovers. A holding call on Dan Moore Jr. and an illegal shift penalty were the two blemishes on that mark, but they did not get hit with consistent penalties that kept them behind the sticks. It’s something basic that we have talked about for weeks, and the Steelers changed their fortunes on Saturday.
“We just did the basic things well,” receiver Allen Robinson II said. “You know, we stayed ahead of the sticks, didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, did not have any penalties that pushed us back.”
Credit to the team for that. They needed that to push forward and it was the difference between many of their past performances. For the first time all year, the team surged to a complete game, and for the most part, a clean game.