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Steelers score high grades in 29-14 win over Bengals

Chris Adamski
| Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, 11:09 p.m.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass during the first quarter against the Bengals Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws a pass during the first quarter against the Bengals Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Heinz Field.

Quarterback: A-

Roethlisberger needed only 14 completions to win. And even though he also had 10 incompletions (the 58.3 percent completion percentage is not world-beating), he passed the “eye test,” playing as well as he has in any game this season. His “maybe I don't have it anymore” clunker against Jacksonville seeming as if it was long ago, Roethlisberger had a game at 35 reminiscent of the ones he regularly put up at 25. Especially with how good the defense has been this season, if the Steelers get this Roethlisberger every time out, they'll be more than fine.

Backs/receivers: C+

Le'Veon Bell has been back to his former All-Pro self for four games (he has 662 yards from scrimmage in that time), and Sunday was another example: 38 touches, 192 yards. Still, the effort was not without its warts: 10 touches gained 1 or fewer yards. Antonio Brown didn't have a huge game by his standards (four catches, 65 yards), and worst of all, he reined in just four of 10 targets. But he did make those all count: 16 yards, touchdown, 23 yards, 19 yards. Martavis Bryant, a week after reports he wants traded, managed 5 yards on two touches (he was targeted twice — once on a deep pass that was incomplete). Vance McDonald had a drop but also had two catches. Jesse James was not even thrown to. Eli Rogers had his first catch in more than a month. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a touchdown reception.

Offensive line: B

Roethlisberger was not sacked, and he was hit only once. The line deserves credit for being the foundation for a 420-yard, 29-point offensive performance — season highs for a Cincinnati opponent. The nitpick is that too many times Bell was under siege, resulting in the aforementioned negative plays. The Steelers also went 0 for 4 on plays of third- or fourth-and-1 — albeit on two of those, they attempted long passes.

Defensive line: A-

You might quibble that the line couldn't have been that good with a nearly-7-yards-per-carry average for the Bengals' top back, Joe Mixon. But although Mixon managed two long runs, five of his seven carries were for 0, 1 or 2 yards. Outside of Mixon, the Bengals averaged just 2.1 yards per carry. Linemen Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu had a sack each. Overall, considering it was done without Stephon Tuitt (and essentially without the use of Daniel McCullers), the four men of the Steelers defensive line had an admirable effort.

Linebackers: B+

Each of the starting outside linebackers (Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt) had a sack, and Watt had five solo tackles and three quarterback hits in all. Other than the two long runs by Mixon (each was a delayed run in which the inside 'backers didn't contain their lanes well), it's difficult to find complaints.

Secondary: A

The Steelers already led the NFL by a wide margin in pass defense, and they allowed just 108 net passing yards Sunday. The cornerbacks finally got some interceptions, too: one each from Joe Haden and William Gay. Before Sunday, only Mike Hilton had one among the cornerbacks). Holding A.J. Green — the NFL's No. 2 receiver by yardage — to 41 yards on three catches is, obviously, extraordinary. In seven games, all opposing wide receivers have a combined 58 catches against the Steelers pass defense. Take a bow, Haden & Co.

Special teams: A

As tempting as it was to hand out an “A+” based on the beautiful fake punt alone, Jordan Berry had one mediocre punt among his two tries, and the coverage unit allowed a 19-yard return on the “good” punt. The Steelers' returns also were underwhelming. But Chris Boswell did go 5 for 5 on field goals and had touchbacks on four of seven kickoffs. Still, it all pales in comparison (the good and the bad) to the Robert Golden pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey in the fourth quarter. A true thing of beauty.

Coaching: B

My inbox and Twitter mentions still are jammed with complaints for Todd Haley, but this was a season-high 29 points and the second consecutive game with more than 400 yards. And while much of it is talent and execution, of course, how can you argue with the results Keith Butler's defense is getting? The Steelers were well-disciplined in the face of Vontaze Burfict's antics, which is a credit to Mike Tomlin. They also have remained focused after all the off-the-field drama.

Overall: A-

The Steelers are in control of the AFC North — and it's not even November. They also are tied for the best record in the AFC. Their offensive stars (besides Bryant) finally are playing like it, and the defense might be the franchise's best of this decade. Greater tests will come, but there's plenty to like about this team right now.

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