During a substantial portion of the first half in Cincinnati on Sunday, the faithful of Steelers Nation could be excused for concluding that the Black and Gold had come out flat versus yet another eminently beatable opponent and, once again, were reverting to their familiar and widely panned road act. After the Bengals moved out to leads of 17-3—and then 20-6—shortly before halftime, it looked like quite a tall order for the slow-starting Steelers’ offense to stage a comeback.
When Cincinnati placekicker Randy Bullock booted a 22-yard field goal at 2:51 of the second quarter—to raucous applause from a success-starved Cincinnati crowd—little did anyone suspect that those three points would mark the end of the Bengals’ offensive success for the afternoon. Nor could anyone imagine that a Steelers defense absent the services of Stephon Tuitt since the beginning of the first quarter would somehow slam the door on the Bengals’ offense throughout the entire second half, limiting them to a measly 38 yards of total offense during the final 30 minutes.
By the time when Lawrence Timmons pounced on Andy Dalton’s pass to snuff out a Bengals’ drive as time was running out in the third quarter, returning the ball to Cincinnati’s 34-yard line, it had become obvious to most of those in attendance that Pittsburgh had seized full control of the game. While the Steelers’ defense registered only one takedown of the sack-prone redhead, they nevertheless held Dalton to a paltry 157 yards passing and a lowly 60.3 passer rating for the game.
For the most part, this remarkable defensive resurgence was spearheaded by the yeoman efforts of veteran defenders Timmons and James Harrison, along with strong run support provided by safeties Mike Mitchell and Sean Davis. These four players led the team in tackles, accounting for a total of 29 including 16 solo stops. It was a prime example of the “next man up” credo of a team competing aggressively for a divisional crown.
Ben Roethlisberger also appeared to snap out his doldrums near the end of the first half, when he led an eleven-play, 54-yard drive to set up one of three 49-yard field goals by placekicker and special-teams phenom Chris Boswell. And even though Ben had only one TD pass in this game—a 24-yard trademark fastball down the middle to Eli Rogers at 7:29 of the fourth quarter—Roethlisberger matched the number on his jersey, engineering a total of seven scoring drives garnering 305 yards.
While Steelers fans are accustomed to watching the Bengals fold up their tent in some of the most uncanny ways, the utter disappearance of Cincinnati’s offense during the second half was a remarkable development indeed. In addition to crediting the Steelers’ patchwork defense with what undoubtedly was a heroic, second-half effort, it’s more difficult now to sustain the myth that Mike Tomlin and his staff are inept in making mid-stream adjustments when things fail to unfold according to their pre-game plans. In a complete reversal of their lackluster, first-half performance, the Steelers came back out of the locker room on a brisk December afternoon and sustained the momentum at Paul Brown Stadium throughout the final 30 minutes of football.
To be sure, we witnessed some of the same shortcomings in Cincinnati which have troubled Steelers Nation since early in the season. The Steelers’ running attack that had looked unstoppable the previous week in Buffalo was either ineffective or penalty-plagued throughout most of the first half in Cincinnati. Once again as well, Ben looked out of rhythm with some of his receivers, throwing the ball over their heads on a few occasions. But on the other hand, No. 7 also hurled enough beautifully thrown passes to sustain the belief that he’s continuing to round into top form at just the right time of the season.
What feels different about the huge win in Cincinnati is that the Steelers succeded in overcoming, not only a poor first half, but also a rash of very costly penalties which, at an earlier stage of the season, might have spelled defeat. But this time, the Steelers kept their heads up, flat-out refusing to be denied in their quest toward a playoff berth. This is the kind of mental toughness that Pittsburgh fans have seen before in the Steelers’ storied championship teams and it’s precisely the kind of attitude necessary to compete for a trip to the Super Bowl.
But there’s no time now for Pittsburgh to rest on their laurels, because running the table is the still-incomplete mission that the Black and Gold accepted in Cleveland five weeks ago on November 20th. Now their nemesis—the Baltimore Ravens—will be jogging into Heinz Field with designs on pulling even with Pittsburgh and possibly dashing the Steelers’ postseason hopes in the process. On Christmas Day, for the second time in two weeks and likely with some key players still missing on both sides of the ball, the Steelers will face the weighty challenge of meeting their bitter divisional rival in a must-win game for each team.
While this holiday matchup will be played before a friendly home crowd, the big win in Cincinnati proved that the Steelers are a steadily improving team with the toughness and versatility to win a tough road game when the chips are down. It’s all about rising to the occasion, as any NFL team with championship designs must do at crucial junctures. And it’s precisely what the Pittsburgh Steelers must do again on Christmas Day to lay claim to the AFC North divisional crown.