The Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals have met twice a year for the past two decades, and on most of those occasions the Steelers have been challenging for division titles while the Bengals have been also-rans.
Those familiar roles are reversed this season, but Sunday night’s result didn’t reflect that reality, as the floundering Steelers laid a 30-20 nationally-televised beating on the AFC North-leading Bengals at a chilly Heinz Field.
By roaring to a 24-0 first-half lead, the Steelers (6-8) snapped an ill-timed two-game losing streak that all but eliminated them from postseason contention. They rebounded from a narrow home loss to Miami last week with one of their cleanest games of the season, preventing their third straight loss to the Bengals.
Ben Roethlisberger turned in an efficient performance, connecting on 19 of 24 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. He hooked up with Antonio Brown for five receptions, 66 yards and a first-quarter score, while running back Le’Veon Bell (five catches), No. 2 receiver Emmanuel Sanders (five) and tight end Heath Miller (four) were frequent targets as well.
Brown, who has at least five catches in each of the Steelers’ first 14 games, also returned a punt for a touchdown late in the opening frame that put the home team ahead 21-0. Following an unsuccessful opening drive, Pittsburgh scored the next four times it touched the ball.
Cincinnati (9-5) entered the night needing a win and a Baltimore loss Monday night to clinch its second division crown in five years, but those arrangements will have to wait. The Bengals are still a near lock to make the playoffs for the third straight season, which would be the first time in franchise history they’ve done so.
The Steelers’ defense got pressure in Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton‘s face for most of the night, containing Cincinnati until a 13-point fourth quarter made things mildly interesting. Dalton ended up 25 of 44 for 230 yards and two touchdowns, but he seldom looked comfortable until Pittsburgh resigned itself to passive defending late.
Top Bengals receiver A.J. Green made a game-high nine catches for 93 yards, while Marvin Jones snagged five for 48 and a fourth-quarter score. Giovani Bernard, the only running back chosen ahead of Pittsburgh’s Bell in the 2013 NFL Draft, accrued just 33 yards on 13 carries, although he did get a second-quarter touchdown. Bell, who picked up 57 on 24 rushes, outpaced Bernard 107-46 in total yards.
Defensive backs Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen led the Steelers with seven tackles each as the Bengals went to the air often; Ziggy Hood got Pittsburgh’s lone sack. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict picked up a game-high 11 stops for Cincinnati.
The Steelers got a pair of lucky breaks to take a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. After a Bengals three-and-out, punter Kevin Huber dropped the snap and was tackled just outside the end zone, giving Pittsburgh possession at the Cincinnati 1-yard line. Instead of getting two points from a safety, the Steelers got seven on the board two plays later when Bell barreled over the goal line.
Another short Bengals drive handed the ball right back to the Steelers, and they used a no-huddle approach to move 47 yards in eight plays for a 14-0 advantage. Roethlisberger, who completed his first 12 passes of the night, bought time in the pocket before firing a 12-yard touchdown pass to Brown with 2:24 left in the opening quarter.
Brown was at it again moments later, returning a punt 67 yards up the middle of the field for a 21-point spread. It was the second punt takeback of Brown’s NFL career, both of which have come against Cincinnati. Adding to the Bengals’ misery, Huber suffered a broken jaw on the return when Terence Garvin laid him out with a punishing blind-side block. Placekicker Mike Nugent took over punting duties for the visitors.
Shaun Suisham capped a 10-play drive early in the second quarter with a 25-yard field goal, matching the Steelers’ largest lead of the season. Pittsburgh led Cleveland 27-3 in the second half of their November matchup.
Following an exchange of turnovers early in the third quarter, the Steelers added three more points on Suisham’s 26-yard boot. Pittsburgh’s offense once again displayed effective rhythm in the no-huddle, with Roethlisberger and Bell accounting for intermediate chunks of yardage through the air and on the ground.
Six-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison returned to Heinz Field for the first time as a member of the opposition, but his evening proved short. The former Steelers standout and NFL defensive player of the year sustained a concussion in the first quarter and didn’t return.
The Steelers will travel to Green Bay for the first time since 2005 for a 4:30 p.m. kickoff next Sunday against the Packers (7-6-1).
Notes: Attendance on the frigid night was 45,873, the smallest crowd in the 12-year history of Heinz Field…The Steelers won two replay challenges in the game, the second of which ruled Jermaine Gresham fumbled the ball away early in the third quarter. It was Cincinnati’s only turnover until a desperation fourth-down incompletion late in the game…Former WVU star Adam “Pac Man” Jones ended Roethlisberger’s 207-pass streak without an interception on the Steelers’ first drive of the second half.