AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers

Bengals vs. Steelers preview

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
8:00
AM ET
video When: 8:30 p.m. ET, Sunday Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh TV: NBC

The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers have each clinched postseason berths, but that won't prevent their Sunday night showdown from having a playoff feel to it. That is because the stakes are significant if not borderline enormous when the teams meet for the AFC North title. The winner will secure a No. 3 seed -- possibly a No. 2 seed in the case of the Bengals -- and assure themselves of a home game in the playoffs. The loser has to negotiate the wild-card route in the playoffs, which will only make it that much harder to win the AFC title.

ESPN Bengals reporter Coley Harvey and ESPN Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the game.

Brown: Coley, is it to too simplistic to say that the outcome of this game will come down to how quarterback Andy Dalton plays in a second consecutive prime-time game? All this guy has done is take the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons yet he still battles the perception that Cincinnati wins in spite of him.

Harvey: I think it is probably too simplistic to say that, Scott. Now, will Dalton have a meaningful impact on the outcome of Sunday night’s game? Absolutely. He is, after all, the quarterback of the team. But something we’ve seen in the past two weeks in particular is that the Bengals can win in spite of, not because of him. Dalton had a relatively poor game at Cleveland two weeks ago when he notched a 27.3 QBR in a 117-yard passing performance that happened to come in a 30-0 win. Cincinnati’s swarming defense hounded Johnny Manziel throughout his first career start, and Bengals rookie running back Jeremy Hill’s 148-yard, two-touchdown day sparked the team’s 244-yard overall rushing performance. Similarly, Monday night against Denver, Dalton wasn’t very impressive, turning in a 29.0 QBR. Although his four high targets to A.J. Green, including one that resulted in an interception, weren’t very pretty, Dalton actually played a fairly clean game otherwise. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson made it clear that he wasn’t going to put the game on Dalton’s shoulders, and again, the Bengals came through with a win. With all of this said, though, we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that Dalton very nearly played a big role in a potential Bengals win over the Steelers three weeks ago. His two-touchdown, no-interception, 302-yard, 93.8-QBR performance almost was enough. Had it not been for a fumble on a handoff from Dalton to Hill at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bengals might have won. Instead, Pittsburgh rattled off 25 unanswered points on a defense that couldn’t stop it.

Simple question for me to start off, Scott. What is the mood in Pittsburgh right now? There’s been a buzz in Cincinnati since Monday night’s win. Is this what’s supposed to happen after a team wins in prime time? It’s a new experience around here, and the Bengals still like their chances Sunday given how competitive they were for three quarters against the Steelers three weeks ago.

Brown: Business as usual, Coley. At least that is what the players are saying. I think it is human nature for the Steelers to let up just a bit after saying they have been in playoff mode since the beginning of the month and then clinching a postseason berth last Sunday. We will see how coach Mike Tomlin and the veterans in that locker room are able to keep the young players focused, and certainly the Steelers know that there is a huge difference between winning the AFC North and entering the playoffs as a wild-card team. Steelers fans are excited about Pittsburgh returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, but I’m not sure they know what to make of this team. Steelers fans are used to rugged, hard-hitting defense defining their favorite team, but if Pittsburgh is going to make a lengthy postseason run the offense is going to have to lead the way.

Le'Veon Bell ran wild against the Bengals earlier this month, but he has been held to 110 rushing yards in the Steelers’ past two games. Do you expect the Bengals to load the box to stop Bell as the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs did? Or will the Bengals show a bunch of different looks as they did against the Broncos to try to confuse Ben Roethlisberger and keep the Steelers’ offense from getting into a rhythm?

Harvey: I’d expect the Bengals to do whatever they need to in order to stop Bell. The priority for the Bengals in the two games since Bell gashed them for 185 yards has been to shut down the run first. Granted, a lot of Bell’s yards came late, but the Bengals’ thought process has been that if they can get to ball carriers early with hard hits, they can turn opposing offenses one-dimensional. Teams are then forced to pass, which might not necessarily be a bad thing for Roethlisberger. One thing to note: The weather is expected to be a factor Sunday, with snow and/or rain in the long-range forecast. If any precipitation comes, you know both teams are going to want to keep the ball on the ground, meaning the seven- and eight-in-the-box scheme might be one Cincinnati employs. As much as the disguised coverages and different looks worked against Denver on Monday, they might not be necessary against Roethlisberger. Besides, the Bengals don’t believe rhythm is an issue for him. They’re more focused on Big Ben’s ability to scramble and extend plays, completing passes in those seemingly broken, out-of-sync moments.

Obviously Bell was the big difference-maker in the last meeting, including more than 100 yards in the fourth quarter. But what gives the Steelers confidence their offense still will be OK if he does get shut down as he has been the past few weeks? I know Roethlisberger will play the biggest role in that, but I guess I’m asking do the Steelers need a good rushing attack to thrive?

Brown: The Steelers have scored just 47 points in two games since their 42-point outburst against the Bengals. Take away cornerback William Gay’s third pick-six this season against the Atlanta Falcons and the Steelers have managed just four offensive touchdowns in their past two games. Is it a coincidence that Bell has rushed for just 110 yards in those two games combined? Probably not, and the Steelers need to get their team MVP going again. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, however, has too much of a defensive background to let Bell beat the Bengals again after he trampled them for 185 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards and three touchdowns, so I expect Cincinnati to crowd the line of scrimmage and show Roethlisberger some different looks to get him to check into running plays. Roethlisberger said he expects the Bengals to try to disguise things and confuse him, as they did with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. The hope for the Steelers, Roethlisberger said, is that they play well enough to force the Bengals to adjust to what they are doing, not the other way around.

How is the Jeremy Hill-Giovani Bernard dynamic working at running back? The Bengals look like they have two really good backs, and I’m wondering if both are happy sharing carries. How do you expect the Bengals to use them Sunday night?

Harvey: Scott, it has worked tremendously well since Jackson told the two coming out of the Steelers' loss that he wanted Hill to take on the starting, feature back role. Jackson’s preference all along has been to have one primary rusher, with another as a complement. It didn’t work out that way earlier this year. The two-man routine that had been employed just simply wasn’t as effective as he had hoped. I’ll say this. I’m sure deep down Bernard isn’t too pleased with having to take a backseat after being a rising star as a rookie himself just a year ago, but he isn’t showing that he’s upset. He’s saying all the right things about the new backfield breakdown, and he’s still viewed as a happy, contributing member of the locker room. On the field, it has been a benefit for the Bengals. Hill now has a defined role and is shining in it. Bernard still is effective in the short passing game and as a runner who can be used in space. The two will be used in this same capacity Sunday night, with Hill continuing to serve as the bell-cow back who also can rip off runs like his 85-yard rumble Monday.

It’s the time of year when players are banged and bruised and playing through pain. I know Pittsburgh had a few injuries in the secondary last weekend. How healthy are the Steelers on the back end entering this game? I ask in part because the Bengals’ A.J. Green is nursing a bruised biceps and could be iffy. If he plays, that might be an advantage for Ike Taylor.

Brown: I’m not sure Taylor or strong safety Troy Polamalu plays Sunday night. Coach Mike Tomlin has opted for healthy players over more pedigreed ones during the stretch run and that might not bode well for Taylor or Polamalu suiting up against the Bengals. Will Allen has been solid at strong safety and the return of Taylor would relegate Antwon Blake, who has made some big plays as a nickel back, to special teams. Whoever plays in the defensive backfield Sunday night will make containing Green a top priority. Blake told me earlier this week that the Steelers defensive backs have to keep Green in front of them -- something they did not do earlier this month in Cincinnati. The Steelers also have to do a better job of tackling the catch. That is critical in Dick LeBeau’s scheme and is one of the areas in which the defense struggled at times in the Steelers’ 20-12 win over the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday.

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PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor and strong safety Troy Polamalu each practiced on a limited basis Wednesday and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau liked what he saw from the veteran defensive backs.

“I saw Ike running very well today and Troy took several plays in the practice so we’re staying optimistic on them,” LeBeau said after practice.

Polamalu has missed the last two games because of a knee injury while Taylor has been out during that same span because of shoulder and forearm injuries.

The Steelers are in good shape from a health standpoint as they prepare for their Sunday night game against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals.

Every player practiced in at least some capacity on Christmas Eve.

Left tackle Kelvin Beachum (back), linebacker Vince Williams (ankle) and tight end Matt Spaeth (elbow) were all full participants in practice.

The Bengals, who will battle the Steelers for the AFC North title, had a couple of key players out Wednesday.

A.J. Green sustained a bruised bicep last Monday night and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis gruffly said Wednesday that the Pro Bowl wide receiver did not practice and is day to day. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, meanwhile, left the team facility early because he is sick.

LeBeau said he expects Green to play against the Bengals.

QB snapshot: Ben Roethlisberger

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
1:00
PM ET
A quick observation of Ben Roethlisberger and how he played in the Pittsburgh Steelers' win in Week 16.

Roethlisberger may not be generating national headlines as he did earlier in the season when he tossed six touchdown passes each in back-to-back games.

But the 11th-year veteran may be playing just as well during a three-game winning streak as he did the only other time Pittsburgh won three consecutive games this season -- one that Roethlisberger keyed with 14 touchdown passes and 1,127 passing yards during that span.

Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger played an efficient, turnover-free game in the 20-12 win against the Kansas City Chiefs, throwing for 220 yards and a touchdown and completing 72 percent of his passes against a defense that has not allowed a 300-yard passer this season.

He's in complete command of the offense after battling through a mini two-game slump last month, and the quarterback matchup Sunday night is the biggest reason to like the Steelers' chances against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals.

Roethlisberger, showing tremendous patience in the Steelers' past three games, has not thrown an interception since a 35-32 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Nov. 30.

Roethlisberger, who leads the AFC with 4,635 passing yards, has thrown 132 consecutive passes without an interception. If he continues to take what the defense gives the offense, the Steelers could be tough to beat Sunday night at Heinz Field.

Roethlisberger trumps Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton when it comes to history in both big games and prime-time contests.

The two-time Super Bowl winner is in the midst of his finest statistical season -- Roethlisberger has a chance to throw for 5,000 yards in a season for the first time of his career -- and is playing his best football when it matters most.

Dalton threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-21 loss to the Steelers on Dec. 7. But the fourth-year veteran also lost a game-changing fumble and has simply been a different quarterback when he plays under the lights.

Dalton is just 3-6 in prime-time games even after beating the Denver Broncos Monday night.
PITTSBURGH – In a game in which Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison delivered another turn-back-the-clock performance, Stephon Tuitt showed why he has such a promising future.

And why the future is now for the rookie defensive end.

Grimes
Tuitt
Tuitt played the best game of his fledgling career Sunday afternoon as he recorded his first NFL sack and forced his first fumble in the Steelers’ 20-12 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

The play on which the Chiefs committed the game’s only turnover encapsulated why the Steelers have long thought they got a steal in the second round of the 2014 draft when they gleefully selected Tuitt.

The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Tuitt belted Chiefs Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles after a 3-yard catch and run, forcing a fumble that linebacker Vince Williams recovered. The turnover halted a Chiefs' third-quarter drive with the Steelers holding a tenuous 10-6 lead.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seemed just as excited as Tuitt, who is only 21 years old, after the latter flashed speed and great pursuit on one of the key plays of the game.

“The energy out there was great,” said Tuitt, who recorded three tackles against the Chiefs. “The way we prepared during the week, we really knew that we were going to be able to do that today.”

Tuitt has shown steady improvement while patiently biding his time. He did not receive significant snaps for much of the season but has emerged since Brett Keisel went down with a season-ending triceps injury.

Tuitt supplanted Cam Thomas as the starting left defensive end three games ago and the former Notre Dame standout is just now showing how good he can be with the Steelers poised to win their first AFC North title since 2010.

“We always used to tell him, ‘Your time’s coming. You just have to play your part,’” said left guard Ramon Foster, who practices regularly against Tuitt. “And now he’s really showing it. I’m proud of the way he’s playing so far. But he’s got to get better because the season is just getting started. It’s getting really hot now.”
CINCINNATI -- Next Sunday's Bengals-Steelers game will be in prime time.

The NFL announced during halftime of Sunday's night's Seahawks-Cardinals game that next Sunday's game between the AFC North rivals will have an 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff at Heinz Field. It will be broadcast by NBC.

The game had been originally scheduled for 1 p.m. ET, but was subject to being flexed into the night slot because of the NFL's rules about late-season scheduling. Typically, games are flexed in Week 17 if postseason implications are on the line.

It was a bit of a surprise announcement, considering the Bengals could actually end their playoff mystery Monday night when they host the Denver Broncos on ESPN. With a victory, Cincinnati would be in. With a loss, the Bengals must win next week at Pittsburgh in order to reach the postseason for a franchise-record fourth straight year. The Bengals could still sneak in with two losses, but it would need help from others.

The Steelers clinched a playoff spot Sunday afternoon by beating Kansas City 20-12.

If the Bengals win Monday's game over the Broncos, they still could play for a division title. Currently, Cincinnati leads the AFC North, but only by a half game by virtue of its Week 6 tie with Carolina.

Coming six days after the Bengals' game against the Broncos, this will be Cincinnati's fourth prime-time game this season. It went 0-2 in the first two, losing in blowout fashion to New England (43-17) and Cleveland (24-3). Since 2011, the year quarterback Andy Dalton became starter, the Bengals are 2-6 in prime time. Factor in an 0-3 record in the playoffs since then and their "big-game" record drops to 2-9.

Pittsburgh won the teams' Week 14 meeting in Cincinnati 42-21, bolstered by 25 unanswered fourth-quarter points.
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PITTSBURGH -- If James Harrison re-retires after this season and doesn’t return to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a 37-year-old, he won’t be able to blame the young man sitting next to him in the home locker room at Heinz Field on Sunday.

After turning in another age-defying performance in helping the Steelers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 20-12 to return to the playoffs, Harrison said the decision to return next season was out of his hands.

“My little dude told me I can’t come back for another year,” he said.

“No, I did not!” was his son's response.

After what might have been the Steelers’ finest defensive performance of the season, Harrison admitted that the idea to keep playing might pop up.

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison
AP Photo/Tom PuskarSteelers outside linebacker James Harrison, shown walking out of Heinz Field with his son Sunday, hasn't closed the door on a return next season.
“The way I feel it may drift into my head a little bit,” Harrison said. “I’ve got to keep it blocked out.”

Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft, had trouble keeping Harrison blocked out, and quarterback Alex Smith paid the price.

The Steelers sacked Smith six times, their most in a game in two years, and Harrison led the charge. He sacked Smith 1.5 times and also recorded a pair of quarterback hits and two tackles for loss. Harrison’s teammates fed off his energy, and the Steelers did not need to blitz relentlessly to get to Smith.

All six of their sacks, in fact, came when they rushed four or fewer players, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The flexing of the muscles by a defense that has been maligned this season couldn’t have come at a better time. The Steelers appear to be putting everything together, and they will secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs if they beat the visiting Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday.

“We’re starting to mesh together, and guys are doing their job more consistently,” Harrison said. "Not too many lapses. That’s just really showed today, and that’s something we’ve got to continue to do.”

Harrison has given his younger teammates someone to follow as the 12th-year veteran has extensive postseason experience and keeps proving he can play at a high level.

“He was beast mode,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said after Harrison tied Jason Gildon for the most multisack games (17) in franchise history. “You all don’t watch the ins and outs of practice, but that happens at practice all the time.”

“He’s ageless and timeless and continues to be big for us,” Steelers linebacker Vince Williams said.

Harrison never had any intention of playing again after he announced his retirement on Sept. 5 at Steelers headquarters. The Steelers talked the five-time Pro-Bowl linebacker into playing one more season after right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones dislocated his wrist a couple of weeks into the season. But Harrison made it clear that he returned more out of a sense of obligation to his former teammates than a passion to play.

He also maintained that he would have never rejoined the Steelers had his two young sons been against the idea.

It looks like one of them would not have a problem with him playing next season as well.

So, James, any chance you will play in 2015?

“I'm worried about Cincinnati, man,” he said.

Harrison then laughed and turned around.

Grading the Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 15, 2014
Dec 15
11:00
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ATLANTA -- Here are the marks after the Pittsburgh Steelers improved to 9-5 with a 27-20 win against the Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger showed sublime patience for the second week in a row, taking what the defense gave the Steelers. He didn't miss many throws even with the Falcons blitzing early and often. Roethlisberger again threw for well over 300 yards while completing just over 77 percent of his passes. Grade: A

Running backs: The Falcons held Le'Veon Bell to 47 yards -- his second-lowest total this season -- and just 2.4 yards per carry. The Falcons were determined to shut down the run and left very few openings for Bell. He did score a 13-yard touchdown on the Steelers' favorite running play, following blocks by pulling right guard David DeCastro and Will Johnson, who had lined up as a tight end, into the end zone. Grade: C

Wallace
Brown
Receivers: Antonio Brown caught all 10 passes thrown his way and finished with 123 receiving yards. The two-time Pro Bowler showed tremendous footwork in making a 28-yard sideline grab near the end of the first half, which set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Bell. Markus Wheaton and Heath Miller each made timely grabs and Bell chipped in 72 receiving yards. Grade: A-

Offensive line: The Steelers did not get enough of a push against a defense that had been allowing just under 123 rushing yards per game. But the Steelers ran the ball when they had to and the line allowed just one sack in a noisy stadium and against a defense that blitzed Roethlisberger on 40 percent of his throws. Grade: B

Defensive line: The Steelers allowed 4.9 yards per carry and did not get enough of an inside rush when they played their nickel package. Defensive end Cameron Heyward had one of the Steelers' four quarterback hits, but Ryan had too much time to throw and was not sacked in a game for the first time this season. Grade: C

Linebackers: Vince Williams and Sean Spence continued to play ahead of rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier at weakside inside linebacker and they showed why at the Georgia Dome. The two combined for 10 tackles, and Williams made the biggest stop of the game when he buried Harry Douglas after a third-down catch in the fourth quarter, 2 yards short of the first-down marker. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds got robbed of what could have been a game-changing sack in the second quarter. Grade: B

Gay
Defensive backs: William Gay starred for the defense, returning a pick 52 yards for a touchdown and setting a franchise record with his third interception return for a score in a season. Gay also broke up two passes but it was a pretty rough day for the rest of the Steelers' cornerbacks, especially nickel back Antwon Blake. The Steelers did not get enough out of their safeties as neither Troy Polamalu nor Mike Mitchell broke up a pass. Gay's big day saves the grade here. Grade: C

Special teams: Shaun Suisham made both of his field goal attempts. Brad Wing averaged 43.0 yards per punt and dropped two of his three kicks inside the 20-yard line. Antonio Brown returned a punt 31 yards and Markus Wheaton averaged 25.0 yards on both of his kickoff returns. Take away a 43-yard kickoff return by Devin Hester -- and that was erased by Gay's interception -- and the Falcons' return man did very little. The Steelers would take a performance like this one from their special teams every week. Grade: B+

Coaching: The Steelers handled the Falcons' blitz and stuck with the run enough to make the passing game effective from start to finish. The defensive statistics weren't pretty but the Steelers consistently made stops and twice forced field goals. The Steelers did not play to lose at the end of the game and Mike Tomlin won a key challenge. Grade: A-
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ATLANTA -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's 27th and final completion in a second consecutive impressive performance -- and in December, no less -- may have been one of his easier ones Sunday.

It came right after the two-minute warning of a game in which the Steelers had controlled but also let the Falcons hang around until the end. With the Steelers facing a third-and-one from the Falcons' 39-yard line, Roethlisberger faked a handoff to running back Le'Veon Bell and rolled to his right.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger didn't throw for a single TD pass against Atlanta, but as long as Pittsburgh won the game, he says he's fine with that stat.
The Falcons had gone all in on stopping the run, allowing Heath Miller to slip into the secondary. Roethlisberger hit the veteran tight end in stride for the catch that allowed the Steelers to run out the rest of the clock in a 27-20 win at the Georgia Dome.

The play covered 25 yards, but it was worth much more than that, even if it did give the Steelers a game-preserving first down, because of what preceded it.

At the two-minute warning with the Steelers needing to make one more play, Roethlisberger chatted with Todd Haley on the sidelines. The Steelers' offensive coordinator gave the veteran quarterback his choice of two plays and Roethlisberger opted for the one that closed out the Falcons.

That Haley did not insist on a run with the Steelers needing only a yard for a game-clinching first down or try to talk Roethlisberger into handing off to Bell shows how good of a good place the strong-willed offensive coordinator and equally strong-willed quarterback are right now.

The dynamic Bell has a knack for many things, especially showing both patience and power behind his underrated offensive line to get a yard seemingly whenever the Steelers need one.

Twice earlier in the game the Steelers had given the ball to Bell on third-and-one. Those plays netted a touchdown and a first down.

But Haley trusted his quarterback -- just as he had done the previous week in Cincinnati after calling for a deep pass with the Steelers backed up on their own 6-yard line in the fourth quarter of a close game.

Roethlisberger's 94-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant broke open the Bengals game. His 25-yard pass to Miller kept the ball away from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who overcame a slow start to throw for 310 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

"We anticipated them to really try to stop the run on third down and we had a good play," Roethlisberger said of his final completion of the game, "and I got outside of the pocket. I figured worse-case scenario I'd just go down and use up clock."

He didn't need to slide or curl up in the fetal position after Bell's presence allowed Miller a free run in the Falcons' secondary. And Roethlisberger made Atlanta's defense pay one final time for its aggressiveness, something he had done all afternoon.

The Falcons blitzed Roethlisberger on more than a third of his pass attempts. He responded by completing 12 of 14 passes for 191 yards on plays in which the Falcons rushed him with at least five players, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

It helped Roethlisberger that he has so many options as far as spreading the ball around.

"Antonio Brown gets a lot of recognition. Le'Veon Bell gets a lot of recognition, but those guys are able to do what they do because when other guys are called upon they deliver," Coach Mike Tomlin said after the Steelers improved to 9-5. "We have a nice group of complementary guys that don't get a lot of volume in terms of opportunity but when they get the opportunity they deliver."

What also bodes well for the Steelers in their final two games is Haley and Roethlisberger operating on the same wavelength and both operating at a high level.

And then there is this: Roethlisberger could not have cared less that a big statistical game -- he completed 77.1 percent of his passes for 360 yards -- did not add any touchdown passes to his season total.

"That's what's special about this team," Roethlisberger said. "I don't care about stats. All I want to do is win a football game. I'm sure Le'Veon doesn't care if he gets 100 yards or not. [Antonio Brown] no touchdowns? Doesn't matter. We just want to win football games and by any means necessary."
ATLANTA -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Pittsburgh Steelers' 27-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome:
  • The Steelers’ final road game of the regular season seemed like a home contest at times -- and the players and coaches noticed. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Steeler Nation,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the Steelers improved to 9-5. “They were special in the building today. We are used to seeing it, but it never gets old. Terrible Towel-waving fans were noticeably loud -- whether Steelers players were trotting onto the field for pregame warm-ups or the Steelers were making a big play on offense or defense. Steelers fans were loud enough that some of the Falcons players were asked if they felt like they had a home-field advantage Sunday. “I know that Pittsburgh fans travel well since I am from Philadelphia and I know that Philly fans travel well, too,” Falcons cornerback Robert McClain said. “The fans were there for us. We did not execute.”
  • Worilds
    The Steelers were generally tight-lipped about a penalty that went against outside linebacker Jason Worilds and helped the Falcons get back into the game. With the Steelers leading 13-0 in the second quarter, Worilds sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for an 11-yard loss. The play was wiped out, however, after Worilds was called for roughing the passer, even though it appeared to be a legal hit. Three plays later, Ryan threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester. Worilds declined to answer questions about the call after the game. So did Tomlin. “I’m not going to talk about that call because it was horrendous,” Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward said. The Falcons weren’t entirely happy with the officiating, either. A questionable holding call on Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant with just over three minutes left in the game saved the Steelers from punting. And the Steelers were able to run out the rest of the clock. “You guys question a number of things. We have the same thing about the game as well, and officiating is one [part] of it,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said after his team fell to 5-9. “Unfortunately that’s not anything that we can talk about as the head coach in the National Football League.”
  • Several Steelers sustained minor injuries during the game, including inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (back), strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee) and free safety Mike Mitchell (groin). All, however, returned to the game. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert missed his third consecutive game despite practicing every day last week. Gilbert, who is working through ankle and knee injuries, had been listed as probable on the Steelers’ final injury report of last week. Tomlin said Gilbert did not have a setback Saturday that caused him to miss the Falcons game but that, “We’ve got to go with the most healthy bodies.”

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

December, 14, 2014
Dec 14
4:05
PM ET

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' 27-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: The Steelers finally took care of business against an NFC South team, and at just the right time, as their first victory in Atlanta since 1996 kept them in control of their own destiny in the AFC North. If the Steelers (9-5) win their final two games -- and both are at Heinz Field -- they will win their division and receive no worse than a No. 4 seed in the AFC playoffs. The Steelers, as they usually do against teams with losing records, made it more interesting than it needed to be after opening up leads of 13 and then 14 points. But the defense made enough stops and put a touchdown on the scoreboard. The Steelers were also able to win even though the Falcons held Le’Veon Bell to 47 yards on 20 carries.

Stock watch: Bell didn't find a whole lot of running room against a defense that had given up more total yards than any in the NFL. The second-year running back did rush for a pair of touchdowns against a Falcons defense that was determined not to let him beat them. Bell also caught five passes for 72 yards.

Flagging a bad flag: Jason Worilds -- and the Steelers by extension -- got jobbed by a roughing-the-passer call in the second quarter. Worilds obliterated Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan for what would have been the outside linebacker’s third sack of the season. But the jarring hit that left Ryan temporarily woozy drew a flag, even though Worilds did not hit the seventh-year veteran in the helmet or below the knees. The impact of the hit caused Ryan’s head to snap back and the penalty forced the Steelers’ defense to stay on the field. The Falcons were given a first down at the Steelers’ 21-yard line instead of facing a third-and-22 on their own 46. Three plays later, Ryan threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Devin Hester to cut the Steelers’ lead to 13-7.

Quite a hat trick: William Gay set a Steelers record when he returned a third interception for a touchdown this season. Gay again lived up to the “Big-play Willie Gay” moniker, jumping a deep in-route on the first play of the second quarter and weaving his way 38 yards for a touchdown. Gay’s score gave the Steelers a 13-0 lead, and it came after the Steelers had to settle for a pair of field goals despite dominating the first quarter. Gay previously returned interceptions for touchdowns this season in victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans.

Game ball: Roethlisberger picked up where he left off last week in Cincinnati, playing another magnificent game on the road. Roethlisberger completed 27 of 35 passes for 360 yards and he did not throw an interception for the second consecutive game. Roethlisberger controlled the game from the outset and his 25-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller on third-and-1 with less than two minutes left in the game sealed the Steelers' win.

What’s next: The Steelers play their last two regular-season games at home, starting next Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs. They close the regular season Dec. 28 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Steelers will likely be without cornerback Ike Taylor on Sunday when they visit the Atlanta Falcons.

Taylor
Taylor did not practice all week because of shoulder and forearm injuries and the 12th-year veteran is listed as doubtful for the 1 p.m. ET game Sunday on the Steelers’ final injury report of the week.

Outside linebacker James Harrison is listed as questionable after he practiced on a limited basis Friday for the second consecutive day. Harrison did not play last Sunday in Cincinnati because of a knee injury.

All of the Steelers’ players on the injury report are listed as probable for Sunday, including right tackle Marcus Gilbert. The fourth-year veteran practiced all week after missing the last two games because of ankle and knee injuries.

Gilbert will start at right tackle Sunday, barring a setback.

Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones, who hurt his hip last Monday night in Green Bay, is listed as questionable. The status of Jones, who had 259 receiving yards and a touchdown before leaving the game against the Packers on Monday, will be a game-time decision.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor did not practice for the second day in a row, adding more questions to his availability for Sunday.

Taylor did not play in the fourth quarter last Sunday in Cincinnati because of a knee contusion. He is questionable to play against the Atlanta Falcons because of shoulder and forearm injuries.

If Taylor does not play against the Falcons, William Gay and Brice McCain will start at cornerback, with Antwon Blake serving as the Steelers’ nickel back.

Gay practiced Thursday after missing drills Wednesday because of a quadriceps injury. Outside linebacker James Harrison, who did not play against the Bengals because of a knee injury, practiced on a limited basis.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert practiced for the second day in a row, keeping the fourth-year veteran on track to play Sunday in Atlanta. Gilbert has missed the last two games because of ankle and knee injuries.

Center Maurkice Pouncey surfaced on the Steelers’ injury report as he was limited in drills because of an ankle injury.

In other Steelers news, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell were voted the NFL FedEx Air and Ground Players of the Week, respectively.
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert practiced Wednesday, putting the fourth-year veteran on track to play Sunday in Atlanta.

Gilbert
Gilbert, who has missed the past two games because of ankle and knee injuries, was a full participant in drills a day after coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers need to see how well he moves in practice before deciding on his availability for Sunday.

A handful of Steelers players did not practice because of injuries Wednesday, including outside linebacker James Harrison (knee) and cornerbacks Ike Taylor (shoulder, forearm) and William Gay (quadricep).

Tomlin did not mention Gay Tuesday when he gave a Steelers' injury report. Gay's health is worth monitoring for several reasons. He is the Steelers' best cornerback and Taylor is questionable to play Sunday against the Falcons.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller and defensive end Cameron Heyward were all given veteran's days off as far as practice.
PITTSBURGH – Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones did not participate in a walk through Wednesday but coach Mike Smith sounds optimistic that Jones will play Sunday against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.

Jones
Jones caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown on Monday night in a 43-37 loss at Green Bay. The fourth-year receiver did not finish the game after hurting his hip in the fourth quarter.

“He’s made a good turnaround [and] we’re not even 48 hours from the end of the game,” Smith said during on a conference call with Pittsburgh reporters. “We anticipate that he’ll continue to progress as the week goes on. We all know when you have your best players you have a better opportunity to go out and compete, and we’re certainly hoping that the turnaround continues and that we will have [Jones] on Sunday. Julio is one of the most competitive guys that I’ve ever been around.”

Jones supplanted the Steelers' Antonio Brown as the NFL leader in receiving yards despite missing the end of the Packers game.

The 6-3, 220-pound Jones has 1,428 receiving yards – Brown is second in the league with 1,375 yards – and to say that Steelers could be a favorable matchup for Jones is an understatement.

The Steelers gave given up four passing plays that have covered at least 67 yards in their last four games and they are allowing 248 passing yards per game.

The Steelers allowed 224 receiving yards to Cincinnati’s A.J. Green last Sunday and Jones is as much of a matchup problem as Green.

“He’s got the physical skill set that you want to see,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of his top target. “He’s as big as anybody, he’s explosive, he’s got great top-end speed, he comes in and out of his cuts really well and he’s really versatile. We can move him all over. He can play outside. We can move him into the slot and he excels there.”

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