The Steelers did what they didn't do all year Sunday night and won a road game by holding a fourth-quarter lead with their running game that finally drained the clock instead of their patience in Sunday night's 24-17 victory over the Bengals at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
The NBC audience was supposed to see an "Orange Out" with the crowd of 63,411 urged to wear the colors. Instead Pittsburgh's anti-Green movement changed the hue when it held the NFL's leading wide receiver to a career-low eight yards.
Wide receiver A.J. Green's one catch was a touchdown, but it couldn't save quarterback Andy Dalton from also playing his least productive NFL game for four quarters with 105 yards passing. And it couldn't save his team from losing three straight for the first time since Dalton assumed command Opening Day of '11 and dipping under .500 for the only time since the Bengals dropped the 13-8 game to San Francisco at PBS last Sept. 25 to go to 1-2.
At 3-4 and heading into a bye, both the Bengals playoff hopes and their offense are hanging precariously by the proverbial thread. The good news is they're heading into a bye. The bad news is they're heading into a bye.
Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, the first of three straight Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks the Bengals face at PBS over these three games that run from Sunday night to Nov. 11, chopped up the Bengals with ease when he converted nine of his first 13 third downs and completed 27 of 37 balls for 278 yards against a sluggish pass rush from the front four.
"The schedule doesn't get any easier," said Bengals cornerback Leon Hall. "We've got to go back and look at the last three games."
Now that Roethlisberger beat the Bengals with a backup running back racing for 122 yards, a backup center and backup right tackle playing well enough give him enough time to hit 73 percent of his passes, Denver's Peyton Manning and the Giants' Eli Manning loom Nov. 4-11, respectively.
"We have an opportunity to regroup. A chance to look at ourselves for a couple of days and move forward and come back get ready for two home games in a row, which are big," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We can get back to even and go from there. That's what we have to do. Right now we have to focus on that."
The view is a bit disjointed on offense, where the Bengals played the second half with their third center of the season when both Kyle Cook (ankle) and Jeff Faine (hamstring) were on the sidelines helping rookie Trevor Robinson.
With Green taken out of the game by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's soft zone like he had when he played against former Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson (Dalton targeted Green six times for that one catch), the Bengals leading receivers were rookie Mohamed Sanu and second-year man Ryan Whalen making their first catches of the season, seven of them for just 58 yards.
The Bengals are trying to find a mix. Whalen played 66 percent of the snaps in his first active game of the year and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins came in as their second-leading receiver but played only 40 percent of the snaps while playing half the special teams snaps. Sanu logged 36 percent of the plays.
Not helping the receiver mix was the fact rookie speed receiver Marvin Jones was supposed to play the most of his career Sunday but he never got the chance when he sprained his knee blocking on a kickoff and he could be out as much as four weeks as the Bengals try to find Green's T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry. No one with any consistency has emerged. For instance, Dalton took five shots at tight end Jermaine Gresham and got three catches for 19 yards.
"Andy has continued to progress; we need to continue to play well around Andy," Lewis said. "It was another game where he did not force the ball, and that's what we want to make sure of. We have to make sure we get to the right spots for him so he can deliver the football. The breakdown in protection at times threw him off and he had to move and adjust."
After running the ball nine times for 49 yards on their first series, the Bengals ran it 12 times for 31 yards the rest of the way. With 5:29 left in the game and the Bengals down, 24-17, on their own 11 they rolled out their jumbo package to blast it out of there. Except Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton beat Robinson to drop running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis for a two-yard loss after he scratched for two yards the play before.
The Bengals used their "Big" package a lot. Dennis Roland, usually the tackle eligible, played 32 percent of the snaps.
"We had a lot of good runs out of that grouping and the first run we got (two), and then we came back and Casey jumped around the center and made a play in the backfield," Lewis said. "Right now it doesn't seem like the right thing to do, but at the time obviously we did it because it's the play we called."
Lewis might have been able to say that about a bunch of plays, and not just the odd interception that turned this game when Dalton tried to stop his throw in mid-fling when he saw a route jumped. It slipped out of his hand like a bar of soap into the back of right guard Kevin Zeitler's helmet and then into the arms of Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley with 1:23 left in the first half.
It was fitting that on a night the Steelers messed up their notorious one-gadget-play-snap-a-game against the Bengals when running back Baron Batch dropped a wide-open TD pass off a throwback pass from wide receiver Antonio Brown, it was still a whacky play that defined the game.
"There are always chances in a game," Green said. "If Andy doesn't see it, he's not going to force the ball in there. They clouded to my side the whole game, they did a heck of a job with it."
The Bengals went downfield hardly at all. "I guess we were trying to get other guys involved," Green said. "We had some other guys step up little bit, but we have to be more consistent."
No one caught a ball longer than Sanu's 17-yarder on the first series of the third quarter. LeBeau strikes again.
"It's a good time for a bye week so we can clear our heads and everybody can get back to football when we come back," Green said. "We're inches away, a play away, it's the little stuff away from becoming a great offense. It's going to pick up sooner or later."
It was a night of contradictions. The banged-up Steelers offense churned out its best rushing day of the season. If there was ever a night to beat the Steelers, wasn't this it? No Troy Polamalu, third-string running backs and a backup center and right tackle.
"I wouldn't say that; we had a chance right at the end of the half there," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "We were driving, then a pick and a score. We're in the game the whole way. We have to examine ourselves and try to fix the problem because we've got a tough schedule. Coach (Lewis) was talking about the bye week, where we examine ourselves and make some changes for whatever we're going to do to win."
"We're what are setting us back," said veteran safety Chris Crocker. "Our wounds are self-inflicted. It's pretty obvious. We're a young team. Talented but young. We're up 14-3 and … we've got to learn to play with the lead."
Green-Ellis, coming off a Super Bowl appearance, knows this style of game already.
"It's a heavyweight fight when you're up against a contending team," he said "When they throw punches and we throw them back and it's a heavyweight fight. Back and forth, that's the way it happened tonight. They got the last punch in."
Now the Bengals will find out if they can take a punch.