PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers scored three first-quarter touchdowns, including two by Antonio Brown, and beat the Cincinnati Bengals 30-20 Sunday night at Heinz Field.
The win improved the Steelers record to 6-8, while the Bengals fell to 9-5 and would need some help to get a top playoff seed now.
The Steelers had a wonderful game-opening drive, mixing the run and pass and taking advantage of a 15-yard facemask penalty to move the ball from their 20 to the Bengals 44-yard line on a 12-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Brown. But the Steelers, who opened with an empty backfield and used that set throughout the game, wouldn't get much farther.
Three straight Le'Veon Bell runs netted just seven yards, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin decided to punt. Little did anyone know, but Tomlin would end up looking like a genius. Mat McBriar punted 30 yards to the Cincy 7, and Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green for nine yards on first down. Cortez Allen made the tackle. Troy Polamalu, playing near the line of scrimmage, nearly picked off Dalton on second down. And BenJarvus Green-Ellis was stuffed for no gain on third-and-one, as rookie inside linebacker Vince Williams plugged the hole.
Cincy punter Kevin Huber awaited the snap at the 1-yard line, but he dropped it. Huber picked it up and simultaneously was tackled into the end zone by Will Allen. However, it was correctly ruled that he was hit at the 1 before being driven into the end zone, so the ball remained there. Bell was stopped on first down, but ran it in on second down by following tight end Heath Miller in motion from the up-back spot.
Fourth-year pro Cedric Peerman appeared to give the Bengals excellent field position with the ensuing kickoff return of more than 30 yards, but officials ruled that when he appeared to wave off the other Cincy kick returner he was signaling for a fair catch, which put the ball at the 9. A Dalton run for nine yards was the best Bengals play, but after a short run for the first down there was a false start penalty to set them back.
On third-and-11, Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood sacked Dalton for an eight-yard loss, and Huber's booming punt was returned 11 yards by Brown to the Cincy 47. The Steelers needed 4:20 and eight plays to take it into the end zone. Bell ran for a first down and caught a short pass for another to get to the 15. After a three-yard Bell run, Roethlisberger ad-libbed for a while to allow Brown to get open in the flat. The two connected, and Brown ran it in for a 12-yard touchdown reception to give the Steelers a 14-0 lead.
Cincinnati gained just one yard on its ensuing series, and Huber's weak, 38-yard punt was returned by Brown 67 yards for a touchdown. Brown broke two tackles, and rookie linebacker Terence Garvin's crushing block on Huber cleared the way for the final 25 yards for the score. Steelers led 21-0 with 1:12 remaining in the first quarter.
The Steelers lost outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley to another right calf injury, while offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert sprained his right ankle. Gilbert was expected to return, but Woodley could be done for the year now. Huber got a fractured jaw from Garvin's hit, and James Harrison suffered a concussion.
The Steelers extended their lead to 24-0 on a 25-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham, but they had first-and-goal at the 5 and actually lost two yards. Roethlisberger got the 11-play, 64-yard scoring drive going with passes to Emmanuel Sanders for 21 and 12 yards. After a nine-yard toss to Heath Miller, Bell ran for the first down. He ran for eight to the 15, and Roethlisberger hit Brown for 11 to the 5. But that was it.
Roethlisberger's attempt in the end zone to tight end Matt Spaeth wasn't close, as the 6-foot-7 Spaeth stumbled. A pass to Sanders lost two yards on second down, and another incompletion ended the threat to force the Suisham kick with9:36 remaining before halftime.
The Bengals got back in the game with a touchdown on their ensuing possession, which started with a 54-yard kickoff return by Brandon Tate to the Steelers 47. Dalton connected with Green for 19 and nine yards for a first down at the 12. A shovel pass to rookie running back Giovani Bernard netted five yards on third-and-six, so Dalton needed to squeeze out two yards to the 1 on fourth down. Bernard was stopped on first down, but he barreled into the end zone for the score on second down to cap a nine-play drive in 4:22.
The Steelers got some of that back with a 10-play, 46-yard scoring drive in four minutes that ended with a 45-yard Suisham field goal. That gave the Steelers a 27-7 advantage with 1:14 remaining until halftime. Felix Jones ran for 12 yards on a delay, and Roethlisberger found Miller open for a nine-yard gain. Jonathan Dwyer replaced Jones and ran twice for 15 yards to the 32, but Jones returned and ran twice for four yards, but Roethlisberger's third-down pass fell incomplete. And Suisham kicked the field goal into the open end.
The second half began with Cincinnati and the Steelers trading turnovers. After a 14-yard pass from Dalton to tight end Jermaine Gresham, Polamalu forced a fumble that Hood recovered. A couple plays later, Roethlisberger tried to hit Sanders on a long bomb, but Pacman Jones picked it off. Roethlisberger underthrew an open Sanders, who didn't help much with keeping Jones from getting the pick.
The Steelers forced another punt on Cincinnati's next possession, and Roethlisberger led a nine-play, 55-yard drive in 4:19 that ended with Suisham's 26-yard field goal. It was extended from a 21-yarder because Guy Whimper had a false start. Big plays in the drive were a 20-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Brown and 13-yarder to Miller. A 10-yard taunting penalty gave the Steelers a first down at the 11. Two Bell runs for four yards each and an incompletion forced the Suisham kick that gave the Steelers a 30-7 lead.
The Bengals got another big kick return following the field goal, as Tate ran it back 36 yards. Dalton led a 13-play, 63-yard drive in 7:09. Gresham injured his right hip in the series that got to a first-and-goal at the 5 after an 11-yard pass from Dalton to Green. Three Bernard runs got the ball to the 1, and on fourth down beefy nose tackle Domata Peko (6-3, 322) came on as the up back. However, Dalton threw a jump ball for rookie tight end Tyler Eifert, who hauled it in over Ryan Clark in a mismatch.
The touchdown cut the Steelers' advantage to 30-14 with 14:09 remaining in the game. During the Steelers' ensuing possession, Roethlisberger completed an 11-yard pass play to Brown. It was the club's first third-down conversion in six attempts on the night. It was Roethlisberger's 338th completion, which broke his record set in 2009. The catch was Brown's 95th on the season, which tied Hines Ward's second-place total from 2003 and 2009. Ward also has the team mark with 112 catches in 2002.
With a possible playoff high playoff seed on the line, the Bengals didn't quit. Dalton led a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in 4:26. He completed three big pass plays at the outset, 19 yards to Eifert and 11 yards twice to Green. After Bernard's seven-yard run for a first down at the 18, the Steelers stiffened a bit. Lawrence Timmons stopped Bernard for minus-1 on second-and-10, and the third down play went for six to Mohamed Sanu.
So, it was fourth-and-five at the 13, but that didn't matter to Dalton. He connected with a wide-open Marvin Jones in the left corner of the end zone. Ike Taylor let him go, and Will Allen didn't get there in time in deep coverage. The Bengals went for a 2-point conversion, but Dalton's pass failed to make it 30-20 with 5:46 remaining.
The Steelers had a chance to run out the clock, but got just one first down. Cincinnati exhausted its timeouts, however, and had a rough going on its ensuing series. After a 13-yard pass to Eifert on first down to their 38, Dalton and the Bengals misfired four straight times to turn it over to the Steelers.
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