With the biggest win in since the Bengals had a quarterback with bright blond hair instead of bright orange; the Bengals have made the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 30 years. But, more importantly, the Bengals earned their ticket to the postseason instead of, like last year, backing into the playoffs by the dent of other teams’ misfortunes.
And beating the Steelers by playing a tough game and not rolling over when all seemed lost and Ben Roethlisberger received the ball with 3:18 left in the game and then with another chance after failing to take advantage of a missed field goal by the Steelers, it was a convincing argument that the Bengals truly earned their ticket to the postseason.
But the defensive dominance began with Leon Hall’s pick-six.
The Steelers, like they often do, sent Heath Miller in motion to determine the coverage. Roethlisberger snapped the ball after seeing off-man coverage, and then ran a route concept the Steelers employ heavily. In fact, that is the same route combination that Brandon Carr recognized after his time with Todd Haley in Kansas City that enabled him to jump the out-route for Dallas’ game-winning pick six against the Steelers.
On this play, Leon Hall (circled) had man coverage on Miller. The Steelers love to have him run a stick route out of this formation, which gives Miller the ability to break inside or outside depending on the coverage. Miller prefers to break inside and use his large frame to shield the ball, and Hall shaded outside with this in mind.
As soon as Miller broke inside, Hall jumped the route. It was another example of exemplary technique in off-man coverage, with hours of film study and understanding of the Steelers’ tendencies to boot. He drove downhill to beat Miller to his spot and was rewarded with a touchdown.
Credit defensive backs coach Mark Carrier, as the Bengals’ defensive backs, especially Hall and Terence Newman, have been outstanding on driving down on breaking routes when playing off-man coverage. Despite Adam Jones’ poor decision to try to jump a route, which caused him to get burned on a double move with no safety help, the secondary had an outstanding day against Pittsburgh.
And Carrier, a former safety, had to enjoy seeing Reggie Nelson’s game-changing interception with 24 seconds left.
The Steelers ran a corner route against Cover 2, and ran it well, and although Emmanuel Lamur may have lost depth by looking at the underneath receiver that Newman was covering on the scramble drill, Nelson was in perfect position over the top, deep enough to avoid a big gain that would allow the Steelers another shot at winning and ready for the overthrown ball by Roethlisberger, who was on the run and trying to make sure he threw it where Jones could not make an interception. Fortunately, he threw it where Nelson could.
And, of course, despite some ups and downs, Andy Dalton made big plays when it counted. Marvin Jones did an outstanding job of using his size and leaping ability to make big plays, including nearly making a highlight-reel touchdown catch in the end zone on an underthrown ball on a fade route.
But, as always, A.J. Green and Dalton made the most important play together. On the play after Nelson’s interception, Dalton hit Green on a 21-yard gain that set up the game-winning field goal, on what may be the biggest completion of Dalton’s career.