Posted: 10:40 p.m.
PITTSBURGH - The balance of power in the AFC North shifted in the Bengals' final drive of Sunday's showdown at hushed Heinz Field to the left side of their offensive line. And as they gashed the proud Super Bowl champions so close to the heart in the 18-12 victory, Steelers defensive end James Harrison could only respond with a right cross to the face of Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth.
"They didn't like it. They didn't like the fact we were running it right at them," Whitworth said. "It was frustration. That's what they're supposed to do, and they didn't like it when we punched back."
Harrison claimed Whitworth pushed him in the back after the play, but the Bengals got 15 yards on an unnecessary roughness call on a day yards were more precious than diamonds.
The Bengals defense out-Benned Ben Roethlisberger by putting an end to his out-of-pocket madness with four sacks, 10 passes defensed, and 10 straight third-down stops to end the game. Bengals running back Bernard Scott out Rashard-ed Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Zimmer out-LeBeau-ed Dick LeBeau, and the Bengals out-Steelered Pittsburgh to sweep the Steelers and take a one-game lead in the AFC North with all the tiebreakers in the division at 5-0 and 7-2 overall.
The best teams in the AFC?
The Colts. The Pats. And the team that made the turn from Elm Street onto Mehring Way to hear their buses serenaded by "Who-Dey" chants of a group of fans bellowing in the darkness at the players' entrance gate.
"Our divisional opponents are so tough, and we focus so hard on winning each divisional game," said Bengals safety Chris Crocker. "We have such intensity and such a focus. We know if we can beat Baltimore and Pittsburgh, then we're going to be right in the thick of things come December and on into January. That's really been our whole thing – win at home, and beat your divisional opponents."
The Bengals are always supposed to wilt in the pressure of the Steel-heat running game and run defense. The Steelers are supposed to throw to get a lead and then steal the clock with the running game.
But it was the Bengals that swiped time in the fourth quarter with the help of that last drive and with their franchise quarterback throwing just once out of 11 plays. The Steelers had it a total of two more minutes, but the Bengals mashed it enough at the end they had it nearly four minutes more minutes in the only quarter that counted.
When it was over, head coach Marvin Lewis looked like the game. Sweat bubbling off his head. Sandpaper voice hoarse with relief. Out of breath.
"Our guys did a good job of hanging in there today and grinding blow for blow back and forth," Lewis said. "I had a great belief at halftime if they just keep doing things the right way we'd make some plays. We made some plays down the stretch. Made some third downs that were big, some second downs that were big and kind of flipped the field position, which allowed us to get some field goals."
It was an emotional group coming off the field and into the locker room with a few harsh words for the rivals that have had their number for so long. But in the locker room, it was more subdued satisfaction.
"Very sweet. Very sweet. I'm almost diabetic right now it's so sweet," said WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson. "I'm so excited right now I can barely contain myself. It feels good. 5-and-0 in the division, I've never experienced anything like this. On to the next one. Bring on the Raiders."
Zimmer got another big day from his Junkyard Bengals who were rescued from the scrap heap.
"To me the best thing about this team is the places we've won," Zimmer said. "Green Bay. Baltimore. It's hard to win in Pittsburgh. You don't just go to Lambeau and win. We've won at some real Holy Grails."
Johnson became another symbol of the next-man-up mentality the Bengals have developed over the past few weeks in much the same fashion the Steelers have developed interchangeable parts for their grinding, physical football factory that has produced two Super Bowl titles in the last four years and been the road map to AFC North success.
With starter Keith Rivers sidelined with a calf injury, Johnson knocked away two passes on third down and added four tackles for a defense that didn't allow Roethlisberger to complete a pass over 21 yards.
When running back Cedric Benson went down for the second half with a sore hip flexor that doesn't look serious, the rookie Scott stepped in with some crucial runs against the NFL's No. 1 ranked run defense, including the nine-yarder behind Whitworth and left guard Nate Livings on the first snap of that last drive that resulted in Shayne Graham's fourth field goal of the game, an ice-cold 43-yarder that made it 18-12 with 1:56 left. Scott also threw in a five-yard run for a first down as the game lurched into a vintage AFC North quagmire of attrition.
Except this time…
"We kept grinding, and at the end of the day, I think the offensive line won that battle up front and pushed them around and gave us a chance to finish off that last drive with a field goal," said Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer. "We had a couple of nice first downs on some runs, and kept battling. And if you're winning with field goals, you win. If you're winning with touchdowns, you win. We'll take a win any way we can get it."
Palmer may be a flashy Heisman Trophy winner from the coast, but he's a grinder at heart. He's got enough years in the NFL to fly first class on a Marvin Lewis charter but he gives his seat up to a lineman, and he enjoys watching the suddenly-elite Bengals defense. In the last eight quarters against the teams that were in last year's AFC title game, they've allowed one touchdown. In Palmer's 39th win as a starter the Bengals won with just 218 yards; their fewest yards in a win since his first NFL win on Sept. 19, 2004 against Miami.
"It was a blast to watch," Palmer said. "The way our defense played and just teed off on them all day and dominated the line of scrimmage and dominated the backfield, dominated downfield in coverage. It was a team win, but you can't say enough about our defense. They're playing like they are the best defense in the league and they believe that."
Why not? Last week the Ravens came in seventh in scoring in the NFL and got only a touchdown. On Sunday, on their home turf, a red-hot offense that had won five straight and was fifth in scoring, got no touchdowns.
"I don't know how many sacks we had in the red zone, but that was big," said cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who had two more passes defensed. "The key with Ben is keep him out of the pocket."
Two of the sacks came in the red zone to set up field goals. Crocker, who batted down a long pass to speedster Mike Wallace on the next-to-last play of the game, agreed the line was huge.
"That's on the defensive line keeping Ben contained," Crocker said. "They did a great job."
In this physical game the defensive line threw it around as much as their counterparts on the offensive line. They had three of the four sacks. They gave Mendenhall just 2.8 yards per carry on 13 tries and while the Pittsburgh area will grill head coach Mike Tomlin on Monday for not running more (Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore had 28 yards on three carries), the Bengals will take Roethlisberger's 40 passes.
They even got the game's only turnover in unorthodox fashion. In what Lewis called the most important series of the year, the first series of the second half, rookie cornerback Morgan Trent blitzed, batted the ball, and it rebounded to defensive end Frostee Rucker for a 24-yard interception return into the red zone to set up a tying field goal at 9-all.
"I was just running to the ball," Rucker said. "I was rushing and then there it was and I was just running to the ball."
"We worked all week on not trying to let Ben out of the pocket," said defensive end Jon Fanene, who had two of the sacks. "The DBs played great in the back and we kept him pretty much inside."
Zimmer blitzed a lot, but he also got enough pressure from the front four that he could pull it on and off. Check out that game's last drive that started at the Steelers 33.
Roethlisberger threw four straight incompletions. The first two against a blitz. The last two against blitz looks but weren't. The last look was so real that the Steelers kept wide receiver Hines Ward, their first-down genius, in to block. But the Bengals backed it off and the Steelers max protection wasn't good enough to keep out rookie rush end Michael Johnson working past left tackle Max Starks as he barged into Roethlisberger just as he threw one last time.
"We physically push people around, and the same goes on the defensive front," Palmer said. "It's a group of guys who play physically hard, they have high motors, they don't stop until the whistle has been blown. But they get the best of their opponents."
The Bengals just didn't stand up in the trenches; they stood up to the badgering. When Ward caught one of his four balls for 24 yards and tangled with Joseph on the sidelines, Joseph barked back.
"Just a little chirping. He told me, 'This is our house.' Nothing serious," Joseph said.
But the Steelers lost their composure with Harrison's punch. For the second time in a month in the final drive of a huge road division game, an NFL Defensive Player of the Year blew a gasket to aid the Bengals. Last month it was Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis in Baltimore. Sunday it was the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison.
"The frustration was showing," said right guard Bobbie Williams. "We're just going to keep plugging. It's a good feeling."