CINCINNATI – Graying, limping and really just not very good for five games and 27 or so minutes this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were somewhere between susceptible and teetering Sunday night as they found themselves in a double-digit hole.
A good team might have knocked them out. Because the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t, the Steelers might not be dead yet.
In a game both teams needed, the Steelers outclassed and outmuscled the Bengals, 24-17. It was vintage Steelers in that it happened via clampdown defense and with a sense of both urgency and maturity. Five key starters were sidelined with injuries, so the Steelers plugged new guys in, spread the wealth offensively and finally finished a game to get to 3-3 on the year. The Steelers had blown fourth quarter leads in all three losses and had lost four straight road games dating back to last season but were able to put this one away.
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“We played winning football,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
They won this one because the Bengals didn’t make them pay for early miscues — and because the home team let the Steelers get back to their old, bullying ways in the second half, when the Bengals managed all of 70 yards. The Bengals got just 185 yards for the game and completed one pass all night to all-everything wide receiver A.J. Green. Jonathan Dwyer was the Steelers’ closer, running for 70 of his 122 yards in the second half.
“It’s all about finishing games,” said cornerback Ike Taylor, who was toasted in the last game at Tennessee but was a major reason the Steelers kept Green from ever getting rolling. “We finally did it for the full 60 minutes.”
The Steelers went from a 14-3 hole to winning the time of possession by 15 minutes, a trio of backup running backs and two offensive line fill-ins teaming to drive the Bengals back and push the Steelers back to second place in the AFC North and to level ground for the season, which very much means contention in the jumbled AFC.
Troy Polamalu is out indefinitely, gifted center Maurkice Pouncey was one of the injured linemen and six defensive starters are 32 or older, but the Steelers are still the Steelers, and they’re in the AFC North race. Ben Roethlisberger is the division’s best quarterback and he threw for 278 yards, completing passes to eight receivers. With their top two running backs out, seven players got carries and the Steelers averaged 5.8 yards per rush. Rookie Mike Adams made his first start, sliding in at right tackle.
“It was Pittsburgh Steelers football,” Adams said.
It’s why these Steelers can’t be dismissed. The Ravens are 5-2 but very much limping into their bye week. The 3-4 Bengals haven’t won since September, and two of their three wins are against the Browns and Jaguars. The Steelers can’t erase their own bad losses to the Titans and Raiders, but after beating up the Bengals they can say they’re 1-0 in division play.
“Division game — we had to have it,” veteran guard Willie Colon said. “We needed it. We were down (after losing in Tennessee). We’re not a team that talks about potential. We have to be about doing it. These games aren’t easy to win. They’re four quarters of pure knockout sessions and we had to put in all four.”
The Steelers have work to do. Roethlisberger was sacked three times and is still getting hit too much. He threw a drive-killing interception in the end zone in the second quarter, and Mike Wallace dropped three passes, one in the end zone and another that might have been a touchdown. They showed a trick play with Antonio Brown throwing what should have been a sure touchdown on an end around to Baron Batch, but he inexplicably dropped it.
They’ll take survival and work on perfection. Winning this game — however they had to — was what Tomlin likes to call “necessary.”
“Obviously we were down a few guys and I liked the contribution from the men that stepped in their place,” Tomlin said. “It was what was needed. Hopefully we can build upon it.”
If any AFC North team thinks it’s going to be the one to knock out this incarnation of the Steelers, it had better bury them deep. Sunday night’s game was one the Steelers always seem to win, and with fresh faces — and their fresh legs — filling in the way they did, it was a win that proved for now, anyway, that reports of the Steelers demise are a bit premature.