Steelers Rewind

Troy, Ike, AJ (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports)

Matthew Marczi pokes fun at the "ad hoc" defense, warns of a special-teams problem in the making, and breaks down Matt Spaeth.

It took 14 games, but the Steelers finally eliminated the opponent's big play. They held the Cincinnati Bengals without a 20-yard gain after allowing one in every game this season.

For all of their 67 offensive plays – including the Kevin Huber one-yard run on a botched snap – the Bengals averaged 4.2 yards per play, even with extended garbage time after falling behind 24-0.

Most impressive was the Steelers' run defense, which allowed Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis a combined 37 yards on 17 carries with a long run of seven.

The Bengals did have two passing plays of 19 yards, and I don't believe that final yard alone adds the "explosive" factor to a play, but there's no denying a correlation between allowing explosive plays and losing football games.

Going into last night's game, the 5-8 Steelers had allowed 17 plays of at least 40 yards, many of them scoring plays or those which set up scoring plays.

Given how large a role such plays have had in getting this team to where it is now, perhaps it's only fair to give this ad hoc defense a little credit for the small accomplishment. Even if it's too little, too late.

ACHILLES' HEEL

While the defense may not have surrendered an explosive play for the Steelers, the special teams – or more specifically, the kickoff coverage unit – certainly did.

The kickoff coverage unit must be specified because the special teams as a whole wasn't to blame. Shaun Suisham nailed all three of his field goals, Antonio Brown returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown, and Will Allen tackled the punter on the one-yard line.

But when it came to covering kicks – which was often, because the Steelers scored six times – the special teams often looked lost.

Ben Tate returned four of those kicks for an average of 32 yards, with a long of 52. Cedric Peerman would have had a return of 35 yards out to the 44 if he hadn't learned the sign for "Mine" from the Nelson Mandela memorial.

Overall, the Bengals had starting field position following kickoffs at their own 33, 23, 37, and 37, as well as Pittsburgh's 47, with a fair catch and touchback excluded, and it should have been worse. Without the accidental fair catch, the Bengals would have had an average starting field position after kickoffs at their own 35-yard line.

PARTNER IN CRIME

The Steelers re-signed tight end Matt Spaeth this off-season because they'd spent the past two years without a legitimate complement to Heath Miller.

Of course, Spaeth went down with a Lisfranc injury before even suiting up for a preseason game and he missed the first 12 games.

They finally got him back last week, and they threw him into the lineup right away before giving way to three-receiver sets later in the game. This week, they rode Spaeth most of the way. He often remained as an in-line blocker as Miller went out for passes.

More often than not, though, the Steelers used the two tight ends on opposite sides of the formation on running plays, a capacity in which Spaeth had come to excel during his time with the Chicago Bears.

Find a successful running play, and chances are good that Spaeth had a hand in it. Even when he drew a ticky-tack holding penalty on an eight-yard run by Le'Veon Bell, he came back on the next play blocking downfield on a screen to Bell for 17 yards.

Pittsburgh tried to keep the defense honest by sending him on a route every now and then. He even got a target in the end zone.

But mostly he was just out there to circle back around to Miller after making a reception to help him up and give him an ‘attaboy' tap on the helmet, glad to be back with his partner in crime.

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