PITTSBURGH — In a game matching two of the NFL's most respected defensive coordinators, Cincinnati's Mike Zimmer and Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau schemed a classic AFC North slobbernocker that yielded just six first downs on 29 third-down tries, four interceptions, 10 sacks, one touchdown, 109 rushing yards, and 547 total yards in Cincinnati's instant classic of a 13-10 playoff clincher at Heinz Field.
After all those years LeBeau had NFL Defensive MVP types like James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, Zimmer had this year's candidate in the monstrous Geno Atkins. Atkins, the third-year Bengals tackle, delivered a game as big as his résumé with 2.5 sacks that gave him 13 on the season for the most sacks by a Bengal since left end Eddie Edwards had 13 in 1983. He won't catch Coy Bacon's club record of 22, but if A.J Green isn't this team's MVP, then Atkins is.
"It feels good," said the typically low-key Atkins. "It means a lot to come in here and win a game to get to the playoffs."
While LeBeau blitzed virtually every snap and brought the 2007 circa Pro Bowl Polamalu out of mothballs to paralyze the Bengals running game on 14 yards in 16 carries, Zimmer played cat-and-mouse with the blitz with the help of Atkins and his relentless front four.
(It should be noted that only time the Bengals rushed for fewer yards in their history, it was at the hands of Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis in the last game LeBeau coordinated the Bengals defense on Sept. 24, 2000 in Baltimore.)
On Sunday's two biggest snaps—third-and-eight from the Bengals 40 with two minutes left and second-and-five from the Steelers 29 with 24 seconds left—Zimmer was content to rush the Big Four of Atkins and Robert Geathers inside and ends Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap.
On the first one, Johnson spun away from left tackle Max Starks to chase Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out of the pocket for a four-yard scramble where Atkins helped haul him down and force Shaun Suisham's field goal from 52 yards that ended up being short.
"That was big in the game because Ben moves around and holds the ball. It was a huge stop when he took off and scrambled there on third down," said Lewis, now the Bengals head coach who succeeded LeBeau and has now gone to more postseasons than any head coach in franchise history with four. "That was a big play to hold him from getting the first down."
On the second one, the Bengals deep zone forced Roethlisberger to leave the pocket and overthrow wide receiver Mike Wallace for safety Reggie Nelson's interception that won the game.
"Why blitz?" asked Johnson, "when you've got Geno Atkins?"
Why indeed? When it looked like the Steelers were going to possibly take the lead after Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw an interception at the Bengals 32 on the first snap of the second half, Atkins teamed with Dunlap to sack Roethlisberger out of field-goal range.
When the Steelers crept to the Bengals 11 with a first down in the middle of the third quarter, Johnson helped force the tying field goal with his ninth sack of the season on third down as the Bengals finished the day with 47, one shy of the 2001 team record.
In their last 15 red-zone stands, the Bengals have allowed just three touchdowns as part of a stunning December the Bengals have allowed foes just 20 first downs in 57 third-down tries after Sunday's 2-for-14 effort.
"Great pressure, great coverage," Johnson said of the third-down success. "Why blitz?"
Zimmer also didn't have to blitz on the play that netted cornerback Leon Hall's 17-yard pick-six that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 2:15 left in the first quarter. All he had to do was rely on Hall's acumen when his best cover corner found himself on the Steelers go-to receiver, tight end Heath Miller in a formation that surprised the Bengals a bit on third-and-four.
"They went with double tight ends," said Hall, who is the slot corner in three-receiver sets. "It's stuff that we had seen before. I ended up in front of the guy and was able to cut underneath it."
On a day Cincinnati's best players played big, enter Hall with his second game-changing interception in 10 days. It also came three days after his teammates voted him the Ed Block Courage Award for his comeback from a torn Achilles against these Steelers 13 months ago.
Hall now has 22 career interceptions, putting him all alone in fifth place on the Bengals all-time list, three behind fourth-place Lemar Parrish's 25.
"I think anytime you're away as long as he was and you come back from the injury he does, it takes some time," Lewis said. "I would say the doctors and people would say it takes about a year to come back from that. We're a little bit beyond that year's time frame now."
The defense has been torrid in this stretch the Bengals have won six of the last seven. Since beating the Giants, 31-13, on Nov. 11, the Bengals have allowed an average of 12 points and given up 20 just once and that was it, just 20 in the 20-19 loss to the Cowboys. In the last six games they haven't allowed 300 yards and they shut down the Steelers on 280 yards two months after Pittsburgh shredded the Bengals with 431 yards in Cincinnati.
"Coach Zimmer told us last night the best defense was going to win this game and we took that to heart," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "Nobody thought in the beginning of the year after losing four in a row that we would have this opportunity."
Atkins said he flopped sides during the day he chased down both Edwards and Roethlisberger, which means he took turns torturing left guard Ramon Foster and rookie right guard David DeCastro, Pittsburgh's prized first-round pick.
"We were able to get some one-on-one chances," Atkins said. "We had the rotation going and everybody was getting after it."
It was a vintage effort by Zimmer and defensive line coach Jay Hayes as they spread the snaps between the seven linemen with Johnson's 76 percent and right end Wallace Gilberry's 35 percent bookending the effort. Atkins checked with 63 percent as he added six tackles and two quarterback sacks to go with the 2.5 sacks.
"We go as our front guys go; it was a good day today for them," Lewis said. "I thought they were relentless all day long with the pressure starting the first series."