The Pittsburgh Steelers' dominant, well-rounded 35-7 victory over the division rival Cincinnati Bengals featured a number of impressive performances, but second-year wide receiver Antonio Brown and outside linebacker James Harrison were the two best players on the field on Sunday afternoon, plain and simple. Football is a team game, of course, but these two stood out in a big way, and if I was head coach Mike Tomlin, they'd be sharing the game ball.
Let's start with Brown, one of the league's most exciting young talents. Much has been written about how Brown is an up-and-comer, a superstar in the making. Forget all that; Brown is already a superstar. He's made game-changing plays in nearly every contest this season, averaging a healthy 15.5 yards per catch. On Sunday, he added two more long-gainers, including a dynamic 45-yard catch-and-run (video). On the play, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had a pretty nifty day himself, eluded pass rushers, stepped up in the "pocket"—I use that term loosely—and found Brown on a drag route over the middle of the field. Brown absolutely roasted the Bengals' man coverage, hauled it in, and was off to the races. The speedy receiver added nine yards on the ground on a double reverse, too. He's currently on pace to record his first 1,000-yard receiving season in his second year as a pro.
And when Brown's not embarrassing your coverage guys or rushing the football on the edge, he's doing damage in the return game. He returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown (video)—the first of his career—in a ridiculously good second quarter in which Pittsburgh scored 28 of its 35 points. There was nothing in the way of running lanes up the middle of the field, but Brown has such excellent vision and such fluid lateral movement that he was able to bounce it outside. Cornerback Bryant McFadden sealed the edge nicely, and from there it was a footrace down the sideline with only Cincinnati's punter left to beat.
It's difficult to imagine a future where Brown and third-year receiver Mike Wallace, who scored twice on Sunday, aren't notching 1,000-yard seasons for many, many years to come. Brown is young, but forget this talk of him being an "emerging" superstar. Like I said, he's already there.
On the other side of the ball, Pittsburgh's entire defense played splendidly. Despite a nice day by rookie receiver A.J. Green (6-87), the Steelers' defensive backs held the Bengals to a measly five yards per passing attempt, and stuffed halfback Cedric Benson at the line of scrimmage more often than not. (Pittsburgh's front three was particularly dominant.)
Despite the total team effort, though, Harrison leapt off the screen, notching three sacks on the day, which gives him eight for the year, despite missing multiple games to injury. Pittsburgh's pass rush was merely a rumor for much of the first half, as rookie quarterback Andy Dalton had five-plus seconds in the pocket on a number of his dropbacks, particularly on play action. However, Harrison turned it on late, flashing tremendous burst and power. He overwhelmed Andrew Whitworth—one of the finest left tackles in the game—at the point of attack and eventually knocked Dalton out of the game with an injury.
When you have a reciever like Brown, who can make a game-changing play through the air or in the return game, and a pass rusher like Harrison, who, when healthy, is capable of completely taking over on passing situations, you've got a shot against anyone. Hopefully these two individual performances translate to similar outcomes over the remaining month of the regular season schedule—and beyond.
Besides a date with the rough-and-tumble San Francisco 49ers, the Steelers have three cupcake matchups left on the slate—one against the St. Louis Rams, two against the Cleveland Browns—so they're in excellent position to make a playoff push, regardless of whether or not the Baltimore Ravens maintain their firm grasp on the AFC North divison crown.