It’s not that the Steelers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, yet again, that’s important, but rather how they beat them. That is where the significance of this divisional win resides. Not only was the Steelers home opener played under adverse conditions, the Steelers also had to overcome one of the worst healthy starts by Ben Roethlisberger in recent memory. Despite Ben’s subpar outing (he still threw for 259 yards and three touchdowns), along with Antonio Brown being a non-factor, the Steelers still beat the defending AFC North champion Bengals 24-16 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. The defense, proved to be the backbone of the win, by keeping the Bengals out of the end zone until late in the fourth quarter, allowing Big Ben and Co. the opportunities needed to salt this game away.
The Steelers biggest weakness last season, their secondary, played the largest role in shutting down A.J. Green and the Bengals passing game. While Keith Butler seemed willing to surrender the underneath yards, he wasn’t going to get beat deep. The secondary was successful in carrying out that strategy, holding Green to 38 yards on just two receptions. Ross Cockrell was responsible for being Green’s shadow for most of the game, and for the first time in what seems like ages, Green failed to find beat the defense for a touchdown. While Cockrell got his fair share of support over the top, he did a great job of staying in Green’s back pocket all day, completely shutting him out in the second half.
Robert Golden is apparently more than who we thought he was, not just a special teams demon. Since being named the starter at strong safety, Golden has shown more than anticipated speed an has made quite a few heady plays, including having the presence of mind to shove Bengals receiver CJ Uzomah, while in mid-air, out of the back of the endzone, before he came down inbounds for a touchdown. The emergence of Golden has given Keith Butler the flexibility to use rookie safety Sean Davis to cover the slot receiver in sub-packackages, and, has helped to stabilize and improve the secondary. Rookie cornerback, Artie Burns, also made a nifty play in the endzone to prevent another potential Cincinnati touchdown.
Yes, the Steelers defense accomplished quite a bit on Sunday, for the second week in a row. Besides shutting down AJ Green, they also put the kabosh on any attempt the Bengals made at a running game as well. While the defense didn’t record any sacks, they did pressure Andy Dalton into quite a few bad throws, and, forcing him to dump the ball off short to Giovani Bernard. A lot of the pressure that the defense got on Dalton was a direct result of the consistently tight coverage from the secondary, which has long been awaited development.
A young Steelers defense showed us this past Sunday just how talented, fast and physical they can be. They proved that they are capable of carrying the load until the offense can get something going. The capacity for the defense to be able to perform to that level was a big question for a Steelers team that was already a preseason favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The fact that the defense was able to perfom like that so early in the season, against a team like the Bengals, will only breed more confidence and continued improvement. Pair this young, developing defense with an offense that will soon see the return of LeVeon Bell and Markus Wheaton, and what you have is a Steelers team that could very well be the most complete and dangerous team in the NFL.
Yeah, it’s only been two games, but the Steelers defense looked as good on Sunday as they have in a long time, and it stands to reason that they are only going to get better as the year goes on. What Sunday’s win proves, is that the Steelers are further ahead, and much closer to being a complete team than was previously believed. With continuous progress and development on defense, teams like the Bengals and the Patriots could prove to be nothing more than minor speed bumps along the #Stairway2Seven.