PITTSBURGH - After needing the last two minutes to beat the Bengals for a third straight time, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger observed head coach Marvin Lewis fingerprints were all over the Bengals' stingy effort that held Pittsburgh to one touchdown during Sunday's see-saw 16-13 game in Cincinnati's best defensive stand of the season.
They played quick, hard, and tight man coverage while Lewis gave the Steelers different looks on third down that ranged from deploying seven defensive backs to conventional sets, but always simple enough for his guys to play fast in holding the Steelers to 3.3 yards per carry and five of 15 on third down.
But Roethlisberger's handiwork still defines the rivalry. Big Ben, the Steelers quarterback for all but one of Lewis' 16 seasons in Cincinnati, raised his record to 26-8 against them with his eighth straight victory in a series the Bengals haven't taken a game since the 16-10 win at Heinz Field in 2015 made them 7-0 for the first time in history.
The Bengals are 24-23-1 since that game on Nov. 1, 2015 and there were fewer clues to Lewis' status next season after the Bengals finished 6-10. After last year's fiasco the pundits have stayed away from handicapping his chances to return for a 17th season and Lewis ripped the speculation in his post-game newser, saying only, "We'll handle it tomorrow."
The players said they had no clue, either, and, besides, they all agreed they "have no control,"
But they certainly had control over keeping the Steelers from getting into the playoffs. The Ravens held off the Browns to win the AFC North, and it was all very weird. Last year it was the Bengals knocking the Ravens out of the playoffs on fourth-and-12 in the final minute. This year after beating the Bengals in the final two minutes with a 35-yard field goal, the Steelers stayed on the field to watch Cleveland's last drive as the Bengals walked to the locker room and former Browns head coach Hue Jackson, now a Bengals assistant, came out in the hallway to look at a monitor.
What isn't weird is that Bengals veteran safety Shawn Williams, one of their heart-and-soul leaders, is ready to play next week and plans to watch the tape of Sunday's game as a reminder what can be for next year. No speculation there.
"We've been short-handed all year, but today I feel like this is one of the better games that we've played professionally all year," Williams said. "So like I've said, the standard has been set. We see how good we could be, and we're missing a lot of key guys, and guys are going to come, guys are going to go, but how we played today, we have to build upon that and play better next year. The same energy, the same positivity, and just that swagger, like that you can't be beat. If you beat me one time, let's turn around and do it again, and that's what we did today. They made plays, we made plays. That's what the NFL is all about."
No matter what happens Monday in the Paul Brown Stadium conference rooms, the anchors of the 2019 roster were set defensively and offensively Sunday:
Photos from the final regular season game of 2018 as the Bengals travel to Heinz Field to face the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite a passing game that netted just 71 yards (their fewest since a 1994 David Klingler game in the Astrodome), running back Joe Mixon racked up his fourth 100-yard game of the year with 105 on just 13 carries.
Sure, most of his runs weren't much against Pittsburgh's 10-man front. But maybe the most valuable lesson the Bengals learned without A.J. Green and Andy Dalton is keep pounding the run and the dam will break. Mixon's 51-yarder, the longest play of their season, didn't come until the fourth quarter on his last carry and put them in position for the winning touchdown. It also gave him 4.9 yards per carry for the season, the best since Jeremy Hill's 5.1 in 2014, and the team at 4.7, the best since Corey Dillon led a 4.7 in 2000.
(The hits, by the way, just kept coming for a team with 18 players on injured reserve when they lost two more starters on offense during the finale when wide receiver Cody Core dislocated his elbow and left tackle Cordy Glenn suffered an ankle injury.)
_Linebacker Nick Vigil, finally looking like he did before he went down with a knee injury against the Steelers on Oct. 14, went off with 17 tackles, one for a loss to go with a third-down hit on Ben.
_The Bengals starting cornerbacks, William Jackson and Darqueze Dennard, prevented JuJu Smith-Schuster (five catches for 37 yards) from having a day without partner-in-crime Antonio Brown. Williams got the first pick-six of his life with his fifth interception of the season and teaming with rookie Jessie Bates' three that gave the starting safeties eight in a season for the first time since Reggie Nelson had eight by himself in 2015.
_The pass rush still needs to get fixed with just one sack of Roethlisberger, which means in four games against the Steelers and Browns they had one sack. But for one of the few times all year the coverage held up with what looked to be solid man-to-man and the pressure was enough that he wasn't patting the ball back there most times. Good enough that Big Ben looked confused at times, although Williams didn't buy that.
"We mixed it up," Williams said. "We played quarters (zone). We played man.
"I think we played really tight coverage and a lot of his first and second reads weren't there because of the coverage," Williams said. "So he had to kind of put it down and make time, and the stand plays that he always does. You can't confuse him, he knows, he's done this forever. He's a good quarterback. He knows when the safety is trying to bluff him; he knows what to look for."
There's no bluffing what the Bengals need next season. While Williams was talking about getting swagger back, Mixon was using his AFC rushing title to make a swaggering stand when he guaranteed a play-off berth in 2019.
"Definitely," Mixon said. "I know one thing. Nobody is going to be close to us. Everybody can look at the negative about everybody getting hurt. You can't hide from it. But at the same time I'm sure proud of my teammates, the people who come to war for 60 minutes whether they were filling in or playing hurt. That meant something to me because in Week Five, Six and Seven I was battling my knee surgery. Next year is definitely going to be a different story."
Those were Mixon's first three games back from a knee scope and that's what tight end C.J. Uzomah was talking about after the game. Here Mixon had just finished a season rushing for 1,168 yards and he missed two games.
"That shows you something," Uzomah said.
Uzomah is one of these committed guys who'll play the game for anybody and everybody. On Sunday he was playing for Lewis and he'll play for him again. Williams hopes whoever the coach is, they'll play like he did on his pick-sick, when he went for the interception underneath the zone and made a leaping grab on a ball headed for Smith-Schuster.
If there was a roster template set Sunday, so was the style of play.
"This game, there was nothing to lose," Williams said. "That's the way to play. All the time. Next year we've got to play loose, play free, play fast."