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Monday January 30 2023
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Six Points... on another win over the Bengals

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Antonio Brown's 60-yard punt return for a touchdown was the dagger in a 35-7 victory over Cincinnati, but Pittsburgh's overall performance on special teams drastically altered the dynamic of a game that could have been much, much closer.

Special teams plays, and mistakes, have a major impact on the outcome and progression of a football game. I can already hear you saying “Well, duh.” It’s a statement that is painfully obvious following a game in which the Steelers put on a clinic special-teams-wise at the expense of the Bengals. Let’s look deeper into what impact the plays had, though, by comparing this past game vs. the first meeting between the two teams.

In terms of how each game started and progressed from there, there was a striking difference. In the first meeting, which took place before the bye week in Cincinnati, the Bengals came out ice cold, going three-and-out on their first two possessions. On the other side, the Steelers were firing early and scored touchdowns on each of their own pair of possessions.

Not long after that second score, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton found A.J. Green in the end zone. Ben Roethlisberger turned the ball over soon after that, and the Bengals kicked a field goal to turn a 14-0 lead into a meager four-point deficit. The two rivals were separated by a touchdown or less for the remainder of the game, and the close contest wasn’t decided until the final quarter.

Fast forward to Sunday’s game. This time, Pittsburgh came out cold while Cincinnati flourished. The Steelers went three-and-out to open the game and churned out only five plays and 12 yards on their second possession. Conversely, the Bengals pushed into the red zone on their opening drive and crossed into Steelers territory on their second attempt.

That trip into the red zone saw a touchdown get called back by a false start penalty. The Bengals had barely recovered from that debacle when Cameron Heyward broke through the field goal unit to block Mike Nugent’s attempt. Cincinnati’s second drive was moving well, but a holding penalty put them in a hole around midfield and they were forced to punt.

What could have been, at the least, a six-point lead for the Bengals was a 0-0 tie. Pittsburgh would score on their third trip out, and then tack on another touchdown after a Cincinnati three-and-out, to build yet another 14-0 lead. Suffice to say the block and the penalties were already looming large at this point.

Here’s where it gets even larger. After the second touchdown by Rashard Mendenhall, Stevenson Sylvester made a second huge play for Pittsburgh’s special teams, forcing a fumble that was eventually recovered by Emmanuel Sanders. In the first game, this was about the time that the Bengals answered the second score, cutting the game to 14-7.

Instead, they lost a possession and sat on the sidelines while the Steelers scored again to go 21-0. The Bengals would finally break onto the scoreboard on the ensuing possession, but a touchdown from Dalton to Green made it 21-7, not 14-7 like in the first matchup.

Not that much later, near the end of the half, Antonio Brown gave Pittsburgh’s special teams a hat trick of impact plays, scoring on a 60-yard punt return to put the Steelers up 28-7.

When the Bengals stepped out on the field in the third quarter, it was with a young core staring down a large deficit. Andy Dalton didn’t turn the ball over, but the Steelers defense was able to pressure him more than in the first meeting, mostly because they knew that the Bengals would have to pass and pass often. No sacks in the first meeting turned into three sacks in the second meeting, and the game was essentially wrapped up with 15 minutes to go.

Now we can see the impact of those special teams plays more clearly. Had the field goal not been blocked, the fumble not forced, or the punt not returned for a score, this game was on pace to play out very similar to the first meeting: a close, hard-fought game which could turn on a late play or two.

Instead, the key plays had already been made, a potentially close game had turned into a blowout, and the Steelers were able to coast for an easy division win.

Oh yeah, I just overlooked a special teamer again. You may notice that the first point had absolutely no mention of Jeremy Kapinos, Pittsburgh’s favorite free-agent punter. Had the block, the fumble, and the return not happened, the highlight of the special teams play would have been a night which saw the Steelers punter average over 57.0 yards on four punts.

Kapinos had an excellent camp and nearly beat out Daniel Sepulveda coming into the season. He also has experience working with the Steelers in the past, like when he filled in for Sepulveda in a similar situation last year. It wasn’t a surprise that Pittsburgh went to him when another knee injury sidelined their starter.

What was surprising is that he was still available. Here’s a guy averaging over 46 yards per punt on the season, despite kicking in the swirling winds of Heinz Field. Are you telling me a team has no room for a guy like that?

Hell, the Jaguars cut ties with their own punter midway through the season when he was averaging less than 40 yards per boot. They ended up replacing him with a guy just a hair over a 42-yard average. They couldn’t have used Kapinos to get them out of their jam? Or were they (and the rest of the league) just not paying attention to a guy that averaged 49.8 yards per punt in the preseason?

Get excited, Steeler Nation – the young guys are going to be good. One of the most interesting things to watch over the past two years has been the team’s transition from the group that won two Super Bowls in the past half-decade to a group that could add more trophies to the case in the next one.

The Packers are nearing the end of their own very-quiet transition. The old core (like the gunslinger I won’t name here, Donald Driver, Al Harris, etc.) gave way to a younger group (Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews, etc.) Other than the switch to Rodgers, it all happened quietly and with little fanfare. Of course, there are still members of the older group hanging around and playing at a high level (Charles Woodson) while others have assumed a lesser role (Driver).

Any of this sound familiar?

Pittsburgh is in the middle of its own transition. The days of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, and James Farrior are waning. Mike Wallace, Maurkice Pouncey, and LaMarr Woodley are leading the charge for a younger group that is poised to take over the locker room. Some of the older guys (Casey Hampton, Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel) will likely hang around, but Pittsburgh is rapidly becoming a young team again.

Woodley and inside ‘backer Lawrence Timmons look to be mainstays for the defense. Wallace and the duo of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown can take the league by storm on offense. Even the youngest players – Heyward, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, etc. – are showing flashes of their potential.

Simply put, this team has been a contender for years; it remains a contender now; and it looks like it will continue to be a contender in this decade as well.

One of the most telling things I saw this game had to do with an injury replacement. Chris Kemoeatu has started for the Steelers the past few seasons, exhibiting some positives (is a great pulling guard, is physical) and a mess of negatives (makes mental mistakes, is awful in pass protection). The negatives outweighed the positives around mid-season and the Steelers did something they don’t do that often, they benched him in favor of Doug Legursky.

At the time, I thought it was a necessary move. Kemoeatu hadn’t progressed in the past few seasons, despite being just 28 years old. Legursky offered steadier play and the upside that he’s only get better, even if the Steelers would lose their most versatile backup by inserting him as a starter.

When Ramon Foster went down with an ankle injury on Sunday, I figured they’d plug in Kemoeatu on the left side and swing Legursky over to right guard, a position he’s had to fill multiples times this season. Instead, Kemo stayed on the bench and Trai Essex came in for Foster on the right side.

Here’s what I took from that move: Kemo’s days in Pittsburgh are over. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him as a healthy scratch moving forward, if the Steelers decide to dress only seven lineman, as they have done for most of the season. With Jonathan Scott a candidate to fill in at both tackles and Essex capable of playing both guard and center, there’s no room for a guy who got benched from the only position (left guard) he could play.

My biggest concern right now? Shaun Suisham. I would be scared to death if I was on the coaching staff and a game came down to him making a field goal. It’s no coincidence that in the best Pittsburgh special teams performance I can remember, Suisham had the lone black mark, missing a 50-yarder (and it wasn’t really that close).

It didn’t matter at the time. The team only had ten men on the unit and David Johnson was flagged for an illegal shift as he tried to sneak in at the last second. It was also 35-7 at that point.

All the same, I think the staff wanted to test Suisham out while they had the chance, and he didn’t impress.

In a year where the majority of kickers have seen their field goal percentage go up, Suisham’s has gone down. He has made 75% of his kicks, third from the worst percentage in the league (Graham Gano, 70%). He has missed two kicks under 39 yards and three from 40-49.

That 50-yarder? That’s his only attempt of 50 yards or more this season, and that’s telling. When faced with a long field goal, the team would rather punt, and that thought process led to the kick-or-punt delay of game debacle at the end of the second Steelers game.

I don’t know if there’s a better option in free agency (there would almost have to be, right?), but I would be terrified to see him out there in the playoffs with the game on the line.

Make no mistake, Hines Ward will get to 1,000 catches. It’s important to him. It’s important to his teammates. It’s important to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Even though Mike Tomlin will never admit it, it’s important to him, too.

Arians said on Tuesday that he wants Hines to get it, but that he can’t let it get in the way of the team’s attempt to win a game. With the game decided at halftime on Sunday, he called a number of passes for Hines. One problem: Cincinnati knew the situation and doubled up on the veteran, preventing him from padding his way to 1,000.

Other teams, in similar circumstances will likely do the same. There’s also no guarantee that Pittsburgh will execute another blowout that would give them a chance to pad Hines’ reception totals.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t get balls thrown his way. He still has value as a receiver, and he can still contribute with his usual savvy zone play. The Steelers might not force it his way, but they also might not have to. He only has 10 catches to go until his milestone and four games to do it.

He’ll make it happen.

The Pittsburgh Sports Report will be hosting a Gameday Chat during Thursday’s matchup between the Steelers and Browns. PSR beat-writer Ken Torgent will head up the action LIVE from Heinz Field. The chat opens shortly before kickoff, which is at 8:20 PM this week. Come join in on the fun!

Kenneth Torgent is the Steelers beat writer for the Pittsburgh Sports Report. Follow him on twitter at @ktorgent.

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