The Bengals' swarming defense flipped the script in the first half Monday night when they surged to a 17-0 halftime lead over the Steelers by forcing three turnovers and turning them into all 17 points as Pittsburgh suffered a key late shot penalty.
Just feats your eyes on those defensive stats that symbolized one of their best efforts in years. In blanking a foe in the first half for the first time since 2017, the Bengals allowed the Steelers just 40 yards, held them to 1 of 9 on third down while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered through 7 of 16 passing for 19 yards and a stunning first quarter passer rating of 25.
Meanwhile, Bengals backup quarterback Ryan Finley lost their leading receiver when Tyler Boyd suffered a concussion before catching pass. But they were running it. While they were grinding it on the ground for 58 yards on 20 carries, Finley completed five of eight passes for 75 yards in the half. That did include some huge third-down conversions, as well as wide receiver A.J. Green's longest catch of the season on a beautifully thrown 30-yarder down the right sideline as Green ran past his nemesis on the corner, Joe Haden.
What a first quarter for the Bengals defense. They held the Steelers to two yards, forced two fumbles and engineered three straight three-and-outs. Roethlisberger hit just four of his first 10 passes for minus-five yards.
Remember what Bengals safety Vonn Bell said a few days ago about Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster dancing on the other team's logo? He said something about hitting him and that's exactly what he did on the third series when Bell gave Smith-Schuster a hellacious shot on over the middle on a short pass. It turned into Bell's third forced fumble in the last four games when linebacker Jordan Evans corralled it at the Pittsburgh 38 on a play that got reversed on Bengals head coach Zac Taylor's challenge.
With Boyd getting checked for that concussion, Finley went to rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins for two straight third downs on zones in front of Haden that broke the Bengals' 0-for-17 third down skein against Pittsburgh this season.
Then on first-and-goal from the 4, running back Giovani Bernard went to the right following tight ends Drew Sample and Cethan Carter and then scooted over the submarining Haden for the touchdown that gave them a 10-0 lead three minutes into the second quarter.
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Defensive end Carl Lawson blew up a reverse and facing a third-and-14, slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander logged his first interception as a Bengal when he made leaping grab over the middle.
Then when Alexander added a little strut at the end of his 21-yard return at the sideline, it was the Steelers that lost their cool when offensive lineman Chukwuma Okorafor gave Alexander a 15-yard shot.
Bernard did the rest. He repeated what he did seven years ago on Monday night as a rookie against Pittsburgh in the second game of his career. He added a receiving touchdown to that rushing touchdown when Finley flipped a ball to him and when three Steelers converged on Bernard, he slipped away for a 14-yard-catch –and-run that made it 17-0 with 4:20 left in the first half.
There would be no late drive in the half. Lawson made sure of that when he gave Roethlisberger just his 12th sack of the season.
It was the Bengals that jumped on the first mistake of the game when Roethlisberger couldn't handle the snap from center and Bengals middle linebacker Josh Bynes fell on it at the Steelers 19.
But the Bengals could only get four yards on six plays and a first down false start on Higgins at the Pittsburgh 10 was huge when running back Samaje Perine got stopped at the 5 on a nice run to set up a third and goal. But the left edge of the Bengals line couldn't seal off Alex Highsmith and he sacked Finley to bring on Seibert for his first Bengals field goal try, a 34-yarder that gave them a 3-0 lead with 5:12 left in the first quarter.
Cornerback Darius Phillips was huge in that Steelers third series. He blew up a screen on first down when he dropped wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud for a two-yard loss and on third down and with the Bengals crowding the line, Lawson clipped Roethlisberger's arm and Phillips was blanketed all over Dionate Johnson and almost picked it.
The Bengals defense came out aggressively. On third-and-six, the Bengals went with a double A gap blitz while Alexander showed blitz, backed out and Roethlisberger threw behind Smith-Schuster to force a punt.
The Bengals came out running right and they were looking at second-and-two after Bernard ripped off an eight-yard. But he was stoned on second down on the same play and when he went right again on third-and-two, Bernard was thrown for a loss when linebacker T.J. Watt beat up Sample for his 20th tackle for a loss this season.
The Steelers' second series, another three-and-out, featured good coverage by cornerback William Jackson III on the last two snaps and on the last one he knocked away a lob down the sideline headed to wide receiver James Washington. Again, the Bengals backers were showing Roethlisberger pressure in the A gap.
The Bengals' second series also was another three-and-out as they extended their third-down conversion drought to 0-for-15 this season. They had another third-and-two and Finley went for Higgins on a slant that was defended by cornerback Steven Nelson.
It was a formidable task for a back-up quarterback working behind a revolving offensive line against a Steelers pass rush leading the NFL in sacks, quarterback knockdowns and blitzes.
And yet, they responded. Finley got sacked only once in the half. And they toyed with Finley running some zone reads.
Fred Johnson got the start at left tackle, the third different spot he's started a game this season and his first at left tackle. He had one there last year in the season finale of his rookie year and is one of eight different starting left tackles in the last three seasons.
When Johnson lined up there Monday night, it marked the eighth straight game they started a different offensive line combination. He was the only newcomer with the Bengals sticking with how they finished last week: center Trey Hopkins, the only lineman to start the last seven straight, right guard Quinton Spain, right tackle Bobby Hart and left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo.