What we learned: 5 takeaways from Steelers’ season-ending win over Bengals
Five things we learned from Steelers 16, Bengals 13:
1. The turnover differential stood out – again – for all the wrong reasons.
In a performance that defined their season, the Steelers gave away seven points on an interception return for a touchdown while producing no turnovers against Bengals, who were starting a backup quarterback.
T.J. Watt forced a pair of fumbles, but the ball found its way back to the Bengals each time. For the season, the defense produced seven fumble recoveries and eight interceptions. That latter stat tied for the franchise-low in a season, matching the eight interceptions generated by the 1940 bunch that played five fewer games while going 2-7-2.
Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, threw another ill-advised interception while under the belief that the Steelers had a free play. They did not, and Shawn Williams returned the pick 58 yards for the Bengals’ only touchdown.
The Steelers finished the season ranked 28 th in turnover margin, ending at a minus-10. The problems started in the opener when Roethlisberger was intercepted three times in the first half and James Conner lost a fourth-quarter fumble that helped Cleveland rebound from a 14-point deficit.
Turnovers continued to hurt the Steelers at inopportune times, with Stevan Ridley and JuJu Smith-Schuster losing fumbles at New Orleans that contributed to the loss that put the Steelers on the outside of the playoff picture.
Only because of Matt McCrane’s sure-footed kicking were the Steelers able to avoid a loss Sunday to an inferior opponent.
2. Speaking of that kicker …
McCrane might not have the strongest leg in the NFL – he didn’t put one kickoff into the end zone – but his accuracy may have ensured him of a chance to compete with Chris Boswell in training camp.
Boswell is owed a $2 million roster bonus in March, which the Steelers may decline to pay a kicker who missed seven field goals after getting a big contract before the season. McCrane, who already is signed for 2019, would be a low-cost option to provide competition if the Steelers keep Boswell – or cut him and try to re-sign at a lesser amount.
McCrane admitted that he needs to build up strength and size in order to make longer kicks – his 47-yarder barely made it over the crossbar. No matter if he returns to the Steelers, he showed he is deserving of a spot on some team’s 90-man offseason roster next summer.
3. James Conner deserved more carries.
Perhaps the Steelers didn’t want to tax Conner, who returned from a three-game absence because of a high ankle sprain. Not only did they sprinkle in rookie Jaylen Samuels on passing downs, they gave Conner the ball just six times on runs in the first half.
Sure, the Bengals were crowding the line of scrimmage with Antonio Brown sitting out because of a knee injury. But it wasn’t like Conner was having difficulty hitting his stride while the rest of the offense sputtered.
Conner’s six runs in the half gained 29 yards. He finished with 14 attempts for 64 yards, a healthy 4.6 average. That left Conner 27 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season. Any milestone should take a backseat to team goals, but Conner was running effectively while getting limited touches. Against a porous run defense such as the Bengals, he should have gotten the ball more frequently.
4. Some familiar problems on defense resurfaced.
After being susceptible to the big run at various stages of the season, the Steelers gave up a 51-yard burst to Joe Mixon immediately after taking a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter.
Mixon’s run set up Randy Bullock’s 32-yard field goal that tied the score with 6:17 left. Mixon rushed for 105 yards on 13 carries, a 8.1 average. Like Conner, he deserved more touches, particularly with quarterback Jeff Driskel completing 50 percent of his passes and throwing for just 95 yards.
On the other hand, the Steelers did sack Driskel four times and finished with 52 on the season. And Watt continued to emerge as a star, ending his second year with 13 sacks — or one-quarter of the entire defense’s total.
5. Eli Rogers had a positive end to his season.
With Brown sidelined, Rogers got his share of work outside and in the slot. He was targeted nine times, catching seven passes for 57 yards. His biggest catch was a 10-yarder when the Steelers needed exactly that distance to convert a third down on their go-ahead drive late in the fourth quarter.
The positive finish was important to Rogers, who was active for only three games after missing the first three months recovering from an ACL injury. When healthy, he has shown to be a favorite second or third option for Roethlisberger. Given the uncertainty at the position behind Brown, Smith-Schuster and rookie James Washington, Rogers showed he is worth another look in August.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.