It’s only taken them 15 weeks or so, but the Steelers seem to have figured out what they want to be.
In beating the Bengals 30-20, they played the kind of efficient offensive football they’re capable of.
The questions about the vibe between offensive coordinator Todd Haley and Ben Roethlisberger won’t go away until they can perform on a consistent basis.
But Haley put Roethlisberger in good positions, using a quicker pace early in the game when the Steelers were building a 21-0 lead.
Roethlisberger’s stat line wasn’t eye-popping (20-of-25 for 191 yards and a touchdown), but it was mostly clean, and that was the important thing on a night when special teams plays gave him a cushion.
Before an Adam Jones interception which seemed to get held up by the wind, Roethlisberger had gone 207 pass attempts without a pick, a span of more than four games.
That kind of efficiency has given the Steelers a chance, as frustrating as their 6-8 record might be to those who expected more.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. It hasn’t been said often this year, or in recent years really, but the Steelers offensive line played a solid game.
They’ve used six different combinations of starting blockers this year, and it’s been hard for them to find stability between the injuries and ineffectiveness.
But they seemed to have found their left tackle in former seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum (after some higher picks failed to hold him off). Guard David DeCastro is playing to his draft status as well, as the former first-rounder has started to look like the kind of long-term anchor they were hoping for.
It’s still not an overly impressive bunch, but they were not a liability against the Bengals. And that’s progress.
2. The Bengals are clearly a talented team. But they clearly have a problem showing it when people are paying attention.
They could have clinched the playoffs with a win and some help, and the door was open for a bye week when the Patriots lost.
After losing first-round playoff games the last two seasons, and this flop in prime time, it’s reasonable to wonder why the offense tends to flat-line in big situations.
They have an impressive array of offensive talent, and Andy Dalton has been excellent at times this year. But he wasn’t Sunday night, when so much was on the line.
3. There’s a mythology about certain fan-bases that doesn’t always translate to reality.
It’s not that the Steelers have bad fans, but they get cold and tired and have to work on Monday like the rest of us.
The team announced a crowd of 45,873 or almost 20,000 short of capacity in Heinz Field.
With the team floundering at 5-8 entering the game and conditions less-than-balmy, it was reasonable for so many to stay home, even if it looked like a preseason crowd by halftime. But it was still a bit surprising to see.
4. Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones has had an up-and-down rookie season.
But batting down a two-point conversion pass in the fourth quarter was the kind of play he’s capable of making.
The Steelers need someone who isn’t drawing Social Security making plays on defense, and Jones developing into a consistent performer would be a significant step as they prepare to make a transition on that side of the ball.
5. Everyone has injuries, but the Bengals are a shell of themselves on defense.
Few teams could lose a player the caliber of defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall and not feel it, but it doesn’t take much to push the Bengals over the edge these days. Being without cornerback Terence Newman changed them, and when Dre Kirkpatrick left the game late, it left them with barely enough corners to play.
Coupled with James Harrison’s concussion taking him out of play, the Bengals were woefully short on playmakers.