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‘Changing of the guard’: Why Steelers struggled in suffering first season sweep by Bengals since 2009



The Steelers-Bengals rivalry is one of the most one-sided in NFL history.

Pittsburgh has been a consistent powerhouse the past half-century. Cincinnati has, for the most part, been a doormat. In their 53 seasons, the Bengals have reached the playoffs just 14 times. The Steelers have reached the playoffs 13 times since the start of the 2000 season and have made them 31 times total since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. They also have six Super Bowl wins to none by the Bengals.

The head-to-head results have largely reflected that disparity. The Steelers entered the 2021 season with a 64-37 record in 101 meetings.

That hasn’t been the case this year, however. The Bengals beat the Steelers 24-10 in Week 3 and walloped them 41-10 on Sunday. The 31-point margin tied for the second-largest point differential in a Bengals win in the history of the rivalry. The Steelers were swept 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 the tables have turned for the two franchises, at least for now. The Bengals are on the rise and the Steelers are facing the prospect of moving on from franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the not-so-distant future.

What went wrong Sunday for Pittsburgh, and what does it mean for the team moving forward? Sporting News dives in for a look.

Ben Roethlisberger’s decline continued

Not every old quarterback can stick around the way Tom Brady has. Age certainly seems to have caught up with Roethlisberger, and fast.

Roethlisberger, 39, had his worst game of the season Sunday, posting a 61.2 rating against the Bengals. He completed 20 of 36 passes for 231 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions. He also lost a fumble. Of note: His second-worst rating of the season, 70.9, came in Week 3 against Cincinnati. 

It is worth noting as well that Roethlisberger’s touchdown came with 2:49 left in the game, with Cincinnati already leading 41-3.

Roethlisberger has experienced a season full of highs and lows. In the four weeks prior to Sunday, he completed 67.6 percent of his passes for 973 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions, capped by a three-touchdown game against the Chargers in Week 11.

MORE: Updated AFC, NFC playoff picture for Week 12

But make no mistake, this has not been a great season for Big Ben. According to Pro Football Focus, he came into Week 12 ranked 36th out of 38 qualified quarterbacks in the NFL. His 7.2-yard average depth of target is the shortest of his career.

Among his pass attempts this season, 4.1 percent have been considered turnover-worthy by PFF, while only 3.2 percent have been considered big-time throws. That is his highest turnover-worthy percentage in a season with at least 100 pass attempts since 2016, when it was 4.6, and it the lowest big-time throw percentage in a full season in his career.

Roethlisberger is no longer a Pro Bowl or even above-average quarterback. His dreadful game Sunday reinforced that point.

The rushing attack and offensive line failed

So, yes, the entire offense is a mess right now. But offenses can still survive without an adequate 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. Long gone are the days of Le’Veon Bell in the backfield waiting for his chance to run.

Rookie Najee Harris has been leaned on heavily, and he hasn’t been able to deliver the necessary yardage. He ranked seventh in the NFL with 685 rushing yards coming into the week, but only because he ranked 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 again a problem on Sunday. He took eight carries just 23 yards — 2.9 yards per play. 

Pro Football Focus sees Harris as a middle-of-the-road running back, ranking him 33rd among 59 qualified backs.

Harris isn’t the entire problem. He has not received much help from of the offensive line. PFF ranks Pittsburgh as the second-worst run-blocking team in the NFL with a grade of 53.2, though the line does rank 11th in pass blocking with a 66.5 grade.

Roethlisberger’s lost fumble Sunday came when he was sacked in the third quarter. He was sacked three times total for 13 yards by the Bengals.

PFF is not kind in its individual grades for the the Pittsburgh linemen. Center Kendrick Green is 33rd out of 38. Guards Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner are 35th and 40th out of 78, respectively. Tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Dan Moore Jr. are 65th and 72nd out of 81, respectively.

Tight ends Zach Gentry and Pat Freiermuth are the only Steelers with pass block grades above 80 and wide receiver Cody White is the only player with a run block grade above 68, according to PFF.

So, yes, there are a lot of problems on offense. Roethlisberger just stands out the most given how big a franchise icon he has become.

The defense’s lack of depth showed

The Steelers might have the best defensive one-two punch in the NFL. PFF grades Cameron Heyward as the league’s second-best interior defender and T.J. Watt as its third-best edge defender. 

But there are issues below the surface. 

For starters, they have major issues defending the pass. This might not have stood out as much in the box score Sunday as Bengals QB Joe Burrow had just 190 passing yards and only one passing touchdown. Burrow was incredibly efficient, though, completing 20 of 24 passes, and averaging 7.9 yards per attempt.

The Steelers came into the game 13th in the NFL with 6.6 passing yards allowed per play. They had a 3.75-1 touchdown-to-interception 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 safeties, 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 ratings than Pierre are linebacker Joe Schobert (23rd out of 84) and Chris Wormley (24th out of 131).

PFF grades Pittsburgh as having the fourth-worst coverage grade against wide receivers.

That could be a problem for the Steelers long term. According to PFF, Burrow has the eighth-best offensive grade, the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson is 15th and the Browns’ Baker Mayfield is 26th among 38 qualifying quarterbacks.

Additionally troubling for Pittsburgh is that the rush defense was torched Sunday and there are plenty of signs the situation could worsen. Joe Mixon rushed 28 times for 165 yards with two touchdowns, and the Bengals as a team rushed for 198 yards and three scores on 38 carries.

Teams haven’t challenged Pittsburgh on the ground much this season. The Steelers have faced the 11th-fewest rushing attempts with just 266, but they’ve allowed the most rushing yards per attempt in the NFL at 4.8. 

Still, PFF grades the Steelers’ rush defense positively. Their 70.5 grade is the fourth-highest in the NFL. But that number is skewed by higher grades earlier in the season. The Steelers received all four of their highest rush defense grades in the first five weeks. Since the start of Week 6, their best mark is 62.7. Pittsburgh allowed fewer than 5 yards per carry in each of the first four weeks. Since then, teams have averaged more than 5 each week.

Heyward and Watt are stars, and Schobert, Wormley, Pierre and Haden have been above-average this season. But the pass rush can’t always dictate the game, and when the Steelers aren’t able to reach the quarterback, they’re giving up yards. If the offense continues to struggle, the defense will need to be relied upon to keep games close.



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