Can the Steelers' Good Play Out of the Bye Continue Against Cincinnati?

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The Pittsburgh Steelers had one of their strongest performances this season in their 20-10 win last week against the New Orleans Saints.  An unstoppable rushing attack and the return of T.J. Watt provided a huge boost to a team that desperately needed it.  It was an all-around team win that the Steelers will look to build off of as they enter this week's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

I was hoping the bye week would provide the Steelers an opportunity to reset and work on some of their deficiencies, and that certainly looked to be the case last Sunday.  While they were only able to put 20 points on the board, they dominated in just about every facet of the game against the Saints.  

They doubled the Saints in total yards (379 to 186), outrushed them 217 to 29, and were able to keep the Saints off of the field by out-possessing them 38:56 to 21:04.  The Steelers defense also only allowed ten points and forced two crucial turnovers.  The Steelers looked to be clicking on all cylinders, which was definitely a welcome sight given the string of play we saw prior to the bye.

The Steelers were able to absolutely dominate the game thanks to the success of their run game.  The Saints' defense has been one of the better defensive units in the league the past few seasons but the Steelers got the best of them last week by punishing them on the ground.  

As I mentioned, the Steelers finished with 217 rushing yards, a staggering number given how little success this team has had running the ball.  Najee Harris led the way, in a week where there was a lot of talk about how he could very well see less carries and lose some work to rookie Jaylen Warren.  He finished the game 99 yards on 20 carries, a very respectable five yards per carry.  He really must've taken the diminished role rumors personally considering this was arguably his best performance of the season.  

Quarterback Kenny Pickett chipped in with 51 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown on eight carries and Warren contributed 37 yards on nine carries.  It was a successful rushing attack by every player that took to the ground and it was instrumental in securing the win.  Oftentimes this season, the Steelers' defense has been out on the field far too much, but the success on the ground allowed the Steelers to maintain possession and keep the Saints' offense on the sidelines.

While the offensive numbers do jump off the page, the one thing that was extremely noticeable from watching the game was just how important to this team, and defense, T.J. Watt is.  He made his return after being out with a pectoral injury suffered in Week 1 in the first matchup between the Steelers and Bengals.  His long anticipated return was well worth the wait.  Watt seemed to be all over the TV screen, involved in just about every defensive play.  And when he wasn't, it was because he was forcing a double team, which ultimately gave Alex Highsmith an easy pass rush on the other side.

In a game where safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was ruled out just days before due to an appendectomy, Watt made Fitzpatrick's absence just about go unnoticed.  There were questions surrounding the exorbitant contract that Watt was given last summer but his play has shown that he has been more than deserving of it.  Especially so when you consider how the defense seems to stumble when he is unable to play.  His return gave the team a lift that certainly showed on the field.

The big question that now remains is can the Steelers keep this up against a better opponent this week, or was this just a flash in the pan?  They will have their work cut out for them in a rematch from Week 1 with the Bengals who undoubtedly have revenge on their minds.  

To refresh those of you who may not remember, this was the game where the Steelers narrowly escaped with a win following a blocked extra point by Fitzpatrick in the waning seconds of regulation to force overtime, followed by a missed field goal by the Bengals in overtime.  A Chris Boswell field goal would ultimately secure the win in a game that I'm sure the Bengals feel belonged to them.  Therefore, I think it's safe to say that this will be no easy test on Sunday.

The positives that I mention above are good signs that the Steelers can turn this season around and keep the momentum going into this week's game against Cincinnati.  The run game has eluded this team all season, so hopefully last week's game will jumpstart it into being a more sustainable attack going forward.  Also, Pickett has now had a chance to get his bearings as the starting quarterback, and the bye can only have helped him with the extra preparation time.

Now, there are a few negatives that I have to mention as to why things may not be all unicorns and rainbows going forward.  For as successful as the Steelers offense looked to be against the Saints, they still did only manage to score 20 points.  And they were aided by some costly penalties on the Saints defense to help keep several drives alive that were about to sputter out.  

There is also the notion that teams almost always play better out of the bye given that extra preparation time.  These are not to take away from a good team win in one of the more convincing games this team has played.  However, I did feel they were worth mentioning as something that I took note of heading into this week's game.

For now though, I'm going to focus on the positives and hope that this type of play is something we can expect to see for the rest of the season.  Given the question marks and difficult schedule this team encountered pre-bye, I'm going to use this second half of the season as a good barometer for this team's future.  There are winnable games on the schedule mixed in with some tough division games.  

The Steelers now have most of their pieces back from injury and their rookie quarterback has gotten his feet wet in the NFL.  I definitely feel like this team can finish with a winning record among the games remaining on the schedule.  So, here's to hoping that the elevated play we saw last week can continue, especially this week.  It would be great to say we swept the reigning-AFC Champions!


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