It was another one of those Twilight Zone moments in the Queen City. Just at that marvelous second with the clock winding down in the final quarter — when Antonio Brown grabbed a perfect Ben Roethlisberger pass in full stride and split the Bengals’ defensive seam for the game-winning touchdown — you almost expected Rod Serling to walk out and deliver one of his deadpan monologues about the uncanny twists of fate. A Cincinnati crowd — which only a few minutes earlier had allowed themselves to believe the Bengals were on their way to a dominant season — sat in shocked silence with nothing left to do except trudge out of Paul Brown Stadium cringing under the whoops and whistles of visiting Steelers fans.
Perhaps the most impressive thing in a game filled with superlatives was a re-emergent confidence which enabled the Steelers to defeat Cincinnati once again in their own house — but this time without much assistance from the guys in the orange-and-black Halloween costumes. With the exception of some key drops by their receivers, the Bengals made fewer mistakes than they normally do against Pittsburgh. They avoided turnovers and the types of bonehead plays which previously had spelled defeat for them against the Black-and-gold. But despite playing better football overall, it still wasn’t enough to overcome the Black-and-gold’s offensive firepower, particularly when the outcome hung in the balance.
With 111 rushing yards on 19 carries — posting a brassy 5.8 average per carry — James Conner continued to make Steelers Nation forget all about the still-AWOL Le’Veon Bell. Roethlisberger had 32 completions for 369 passing yards, while both JuJu Smith-Schuster (111 yards on 7 catches) and Antonio Brown (105 yards on 5 catches) broke the century mark. Vance McDonald was a virtual one-man wrecking crew, principally during the first half, finishing with seven catches for 68 yards. The offensive line had another superb performance, keeping Roethlisberger unscathed throughout the game and opening holes for Conner who, once he got up to full speed, made a few gashes of his own.
Defensively as well, the Steelers exceeded expectations — particularly with the play of their secondary, which limited Andy Dalton to a pedestrian afternoon of 229 yards passing and only a 5.5-yard average per completion. Although the Steelers’ secondary has had some fits and starts in recent years — and with the notable exception of the under-performing Artie Burns — it appears finally to be rounding into shape as a cohesive unit.
In addition to picking up three sacks of Dalton, the defense limited a potent Bengal’s offense to only 21 points, mainly by shadowing their receivers and shutting down their running game (62 net yards rushing for Cincinnati). Vince Williams returned to action with a vengeance, leading the team with seven tackles including a sack. He also made a couple of key plays in pass coverage. So maybe Vince isn’t ready for bench-duty quite yet.
Pittsburgh’s special teams were generally good, with the exception of a couple of costly errors. The kickoff team surrendered a 51-yard, Alex Erickson return to midfield with only one minute remaining in the first half, thus giving the Bengals a head start on tying the game 14-14 at the intermission. Also, Jordan Berry shanked a 36-yard punt earlier in the first quarter which helped set up the Bengals’ first TD. On the brighter side, though, Chris Boswell was perfect on two field goals and two extra points.
Steady as she goes
For the second straight week, this was a win that every member of Steelers Nation could feel good about. The Steelers clearly were the dominant team and, if not for a couple of tough breaks (e.g. the officials’ call on what looked like a Conner TD in the third quarter, plus a dropped, room-service interception by Joe Haden which would have thwarted a Bengals’ TD), they might have won handily. Most importantly, though, the Steelers exuded the kind of quiet confidence throughout the game which gave the impression they knew they were the better team. This is the kind of confidence we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the Black-and-gold over the years. Furthermore, the ability of Roethlisberger to lead a game-winning TD drive during the final minute of play — a trademark of No. 7 when he’s playing his best football — is a very hopeful sign at this juncture of the season.
When you looked across the gridiron to the opponent’s side of the field as Sunday’s game ended, you saw a group of Bengals’ coaches and players who came into this matchup with the swaggering mindset that they were the rising power in the AFC North. As usual, the familiar chorus of “who-deys” filled the air throughout the game from a Cincy fan base that too often has mistaken the home team’s temporary success for permanent improvement. But by the time the final gun sounded, Cincinnati once again was stewing in the juices of its own bravado — failing to recognize the 2018 edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers as the same formidable adversary they’ve always been.
To the consternation of Marvin Lewis and a large chunk of southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, the Bengals had fallen victims to a Steelers team humbled by its 2-2-1 start and hungry for redemption. This wasn’t the Atlanta Falcons or Miami Dolphins teams which the Bengals had rallied to defeat in the two previous weeks. This opponent was a tough, clawing band of brothers who refused to fold in the final minute of the game when the chips were down.
In the end, it was the same tale of might-have-beens which has plagued the Bengals organization for decades. Intoxicated by its early-season success, Cincinnati once again had underestimated the Pittsburgh Steelers — a team nearing the midpoint of its season with renewed focus on its ultimate destination.