PITTSBURGH - The Steelers took Game One Sunday at Heinz Field in a 24-16 victory by throttling a stagnant Bengals offense that never got a foothold at rainy and slippery Heinz Field until the final desperate minutes.
Hampered all day by a Steelers defense that basically took away the deep ball with a two deep safety zone and a four-man rush most of the day, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, en route to a career-high 54 passes, hurried up underneath the zone trailing, 24-9, with a seven-for-seven drive capped off by running back Giovani Bernard's 25-yard catch-and-run for a TD that cut it to 24-16 with 3:23 left.
And with the Bengals driving for a chance to tie it from the Steelers 39 on the first play after the two-minute warning, Bengals rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd suffered a nightmare for one of the greatest high school and college players ever from Pittsburgh. After having a solid six-catch game for 78 yards, Boyd fumbled the last one, a six-yarder over the middle with 1:50 left, on a play the Bengals thought Boyd's knee was down at the Steelers 33 as James Harrison hit him before the ball came out.
Dalton went 31-for-54 for 366 yards, working out to only 6.7 yards per throw. He had no picks and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had two, but when Big Ben finished with 19 of 37 for just 259 yards, three of those completionns were TD passes from 20 yards and in while the Bengals had no TDs on three red-zone tries.
Roethlisberger put the finishing touches on a drive that consumed 6:54 and tackling and mental lapses by a defense that had been so good for much of the day to put the Steelers up, 24-9, midway through the fourth quarter.
Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams deked out linebacker Karlos Dansby for a 20-yard catch, left end Carlos Dunlap missed a clear shot on Roethlisberger and he slid untouched for 14 yards, and it looked like safety Shawn Williams got caught looking when DeAngelo Williams was wide open for a four-yard TD catch that made it 24-9 with 6:48 left.
The Bengals did a great job shutting down perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown, holding him to two catches heading into the fourth quarter and four for the game for 39 yards on 11 targets. And cornerback Adam Jones was all over him on third-and-six to force the punt with 3:08 left.
With Brown unavailable, Roethlisberger had TD passes to two tight ends as well as Williams.
The Bengals offense, with no semblance of a running game came up empty for the third time, in the red zone Sunday in a critical situation. The Steelers had just gone up, 17-6, when they had a first down at the Steelers 1 after wide receiver Brandon LaFell was mauled in the end zone by rookie cornerback Artie Burns.
But on first down no one blocked blitzing linebacker Ryan Shazier and running back Jeremy Hill lost two yards, par for the course on a day they rushed for just 34 yards on their first 16 carries. (Hill had a mere 22 on 11 carries and Bernard could manage just 17 on five.)
Then on second down Dalton tried to go to tight end C.J. Uzomah on the back line and he got pushed out. On third down, where they could just convert four of 16, Dalton got pressure from old friend Stephon Tuitt inside and he had to hurry a throw Uzomah and it found the turf before anything else.
Mike Nugent kicked a 21-yard field goal to make it 17-9 with 2:10 left in the third quarter, but one got the sense the Bengals had their lost their last, best chance.
With the offense sputtering so badly, the Bengals defense could only respond so long in a game the Steelers led, 10-6, as they swung into the middle of the third. So good against the run in the first half, the Bengals allowed DeAngelo Williams a pair of seven-yard run as the Steelers began a drive from the Pittsburgh 8.
Then Roethlisberger burned cornerback Darqueze Dennard for a long one the second time Sunday. Dennard, playing in his first game since blowing out his shoulder in Arizona on Nov. 22, couldn't keep up with wide receiver Sammie Coates and gave up a 53-yard bomb on the outside .
Then on the next snap, Roethlisberger whistled a nine-yard touchdown pass just high enough over a Bengals zone that 6-7 tight end Jesse James hauled in for a nine-yard touchdown catch that upped the Steelers' lead to 17-6 with 6:23 left in the quarter.
Thanks to the second interception of Roethlisberger in the first half, the Bengals finished the first half like they did in New York last week with Nugent's 33-yard field goal as time ran out on a 53-yard drive in the last 48 seconds cut Pittsburgh's lead to 10-6 at halftime. It was the defense, fueled by interceptions from cornerbacks Adam Jones and Dre Kirkpatrick, along with their blanket job on the great Antonio Brown, that kept the Bengals from getting blown back to Columbus.
With the Steelers double-teaming NFL leading receiver A.J. Green and holding him to two catches for 38 yards in the half and none in the second half, the running game accounting for just 25 yards on 11 carries and the Bengals converting just two of their 12 third downs in the half, it was not a day at the beach. With the aid of a slew of special teams penalties, the Steelers hammered the Bengals in field position.
But Kirkpatrick gave them life at the end of the half when he got inside wide receiver Sammie Coates on a bomb at the Bengals 32, their best drive start of the half. Dalton, forced to jack it up 27 times, had to complete a fourth-and-three to tight end C.J. Uzomah (after he dropped two earlier in the half)to keep the drive going after they eschewed Nugent's 55-yard field goal try. Dalton's 17-yard zip out to Green despite the double coverage set up the kick.
Dalton completed 14 for 160 yards for a 70 passer rating and that was almost twice as much as Roethlisberger's 39.5. The defense, absolutely superb (nose tackle Domata Peko had a big hand in holding the Steelers to 3.4 yards per rush in the half.) held Brown to one catch for 16 yards on four targets in the half.
Vintage Roethlisberger put the Steelers on top late in the first quarter when fired a classic 44-yard bomb on third-and-nine as he improvised out of the pocket to set up the game's first touchdown.
Roethlisberger spun to the left away from Bengals defensive lineman Margus Hunt and then squared up to hit Coates running away from Dennard with a floater to the Bengals 20.
Then on the next snap tight end Xavier Grimble made his first NFL catch quite memorable when he slanted in front of safety George Iloka at the 5 and then dove into the end zone for the touchdown that gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead with 3:53 left in the first quarter.
The Bengals responded with a field goal when Dalton spread the field out, hitting Green for 21 yards over the middle and LaFell for 13 on the sideline with Green's first catch of the day not coming until 2:29 left in the first quarter. Then Dalton found tight end Tyler Kroft down the seam for his first catch of the season, a 21-yarder that put the ball on the Steelers 15.
But the Steelers defense gave the Bengals a taste of their own medicine of red-zone defense. On second down it looked like Dalton had LaFell wide open over the middle at the 5 for a first down, but he threw it too low for an incompletion. On third-and-six the Steelers dropped seven and when Dalton hit running back Giovani Bernard on the check-down pass the Steelers wrapped him up to force Nugent's 25-yard field goal with 23 seconds left in the first quarter that made it 7-3.
At that point the Bengals defense kept alive a struggling offense. Adam Jones, helped off the field with a hamstring injury, came back on the next snap and with a shuddering shot broke up a third-and-three to wide receiver Darius Heyward-Bey to force a punt.
Then Bengals backup right end Will Clarke, a Pittsburgh native, blew up the next drive when he sacked Roethlisberger on second down.
But after that Nugent field goal, the Bengals offense offered nothing and only succeeded in letting the Steelers get the upper hand in the field position battle. From their own 10, they couldn't get a first down when Dalton's pass protection from the right edge collapsed and Hill was on the way to just 13 yards on his first six carries.
Then they started from their own 9 thanks to three penalties on one punt, holding by wide receiver James Wright and illegal blocks by rookie safety Clayton Fejedelem and linebacker Marquis Flowers. Dalton's third-and-one bootleg, blown up by Shaziier, could only get a pass thrown out of bounds.
Then after Fejedelem foiled another punt return with a personal foul that put the ball on the Bengals 2, they again didn't get the first down. Green, double covered by cornerback Russ Cockrell and safety Mike Mitchell, couldn't haul in Dalton's first pass over the middle. Then Dalton threw low to Green on an out and punter Kevin Huber found his heels on the back line.
His 32-yard punt put the Steelers in field goal-range and even though the defense had another great stand of six yards it turned into Chris Boswell's 49-yard field goal that made it 10-3 with 4:10 left in the half.
Adam Jones came up with the first turnover of the day and it was huge because it came in the red zone at the Bengals 19 midway through the first quarter. Roethlisberger threw behind a slipping Antonio Brown on a slant and Jones went to the turf to grab it.
But Dalton couldn't connect with Green on a quick hitter over the middle on a low ball and on another third-and-long Dalton had Uzomah wide open coming out of the backfield, but Uzomah couldn't haul in a very catchable high pass.
The Bengals defense began the game with a third-and-one stuff of DeAngelo Williams as linebacker Vincent Rey came downhill after Williams opened with an eight-yard slash.
With a pretty consistent rain beating down, the Bengals countered on their first series with two runs by Hill for five yards when Dalton hit the first pass of the day for a first down, a 10-yarder to Boyd.
But the drive stalled when Dalton overthrew a double-covered Green down the left sideline after Hill could manage just three yards on two carries.
PPRE-GAME NOTES: With his team the healthiest it has been since the first week of training camp, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis opted for nine defensive backs and three defensive tackles against the Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field.
As they gathered for the coin toss, a steady rain pelted the field. Quarterback Andy Dalton called tails to win the flip for the Bengals and they deferred.
Slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard, hampered by an ankle problem since early in camp, suited up for his first game of the year, and that put veteran cornerback Chykie Brown on the bench. And as they did in New York last week, the Bengals went with three tackles and sat DeShawn Williams in favor of Pat Sims. Sims (ankle) had sat Wednesday and Thursday in practice but was listed as full Friday.
Williams joined the others that were on the inactive last week: tight end Tyler Eifert, wide receiver Cody Core, guard Christian Westerman, and quarterback Jeff Driskel. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell, picked up off waivers Thursday from the Chiefs, was also inactive.
It is the first appearance for Dennard since he blew out his shoulder Nov. 22 in Arizona.
In a semi surprise, Steelers starting wide receiver Markus Wheaton (shoulder) was inactive.