The Cincinnati Bengals did not find the Steelers offense so predictable in the first half when they allowed one of the lowest-scoring units in the NFL to match their highest point total from any of their previous eight games.
They didn't find it so measurable when quarterback Kenny Pickett passed for 141 yards, running back Najee Harris rushed for 56 yards and the Steelers converted 5 of 7 third-down chances in the opening 30 minutes.
But they certainly started calculating what the Steelers were doing in the second half when they stuffed the offense like a Thanksgiving turkey on the first seven possessions after halftime. The Steelers had 139 yards of offense in the second half, but 72 yards came on the late scoring drive after the game had effectively been decided.
Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt said after the game the Steelers offense was predictable because "they like to do the same plays over and over."
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"That's what they say when they're having success and don't say when they're not," coach Mike Tomlin said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, dismissing the notion.
Some of the predictability is understandable because offensive coordinator Matt Canada is working with a rookie quarterback and has to limit aspects of the playbook during his development process.
Nonetheless, after completing 14 of 19 passes and posting a passer rating of 112.0 in the first half, Pickett went as cold as the temperature in the second half. He completed just 5 of 15 passes for 47 yards on the seven possessions before the final late touchdown drive — and one of those was a 33-yard completion to receiver George Pickens.
"When I look at the tape, there were some repeat concepts, but Cincinnati was in some repeat concepts," Tomlin said. "That's football. When it's good on good, particularly in the latter part of the season, there are very little secrets. I don't know [if] we were all that surprised by anything they did offensively.
"So then it comes down to execution. We've got to execute better. We've got to make makable plays. That's where our focus is and less about the fodder [they] speak of."
How predict- ... er ... bad was it in the second half?
On their first four possessions after halftime, the Steelers went three-and-out without a first down, including when they took possession at the Bengals 21 after T.J. Watt's interception and settled for a field goal. Pickett was 3 of 8 for 13 yards on those possessions.
They managed one first down on each of their next possessions, which included the failed drive that began at the Cincinnati 47 and preceded the Bengals' 93-yard touchdown drive — a sequence Tomlin referenced as the most significant of the game. Then another three-and-out before the final series in which the offense went 72 yards for a touchdown with 45 seconds remaining.
"We had advantageous field position in the second half and we didn't take advantage of it," Tomlin said. "Those are sequences that changed the tenor or feel of the second half. I thought that was a tipping point."
But the Steelers have no plans to make a change at the one position that might need more of a veteran presence — quarterback. They are going to continue to stick with Pickett and live with his rookie development, even if it's at the expense of winning games.
"He's getting better in all areas, just the same way George Pickens is getting better," Tomlin said. "It's moving in the direction we would like it to. Could it move faster? Absolutely. I don't think anybody's patient, including Kenny. This is not a patient man's business. You work while you wait, and that's what he and we are doing."
On a good kick
Tomlin said he is pleased with the progress of punter Pressley Harvin III, who had punts of 56 and 54 yards against the Bengals and did a job with directional kicks, pinning returner Trent Taylor along the sideline.
"There's a component of play we evaluate and value that doesn't get a lot of recognition, and that's placement," Tomlin said. "This is not checkers, this is chess. When you're punting in the NFL, we want distance, we want hang time and we also want placement. Balls in the middle of the field are not good. Balls on the sideline are great. Pressley is doing a good job in Year 2 of growing in all areas."