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Bengals toll Big Ben, go to 7-0

PITTSBURGH - The Bengals high-octane offense, held to two field goals all day, broke open late to take a 13-10 lead over the Steelers with 2:57 left when quarterback Andy Dalton hit wide receiver A.J. Green on a nine-yard touchdown pass on the way to a 16-10 victory Sunday at Heinz Field.

And the defense picked off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on consecutive passes late in the game to move even closer to the AFC North title and make the Bengals 7-0 for the first time in history, leaving the 4-4 Steelers four games back in the loss column. It was Dalton's 12th fourth-quarter comeback of his career.

After Green caught his 11th pass for 118 yards (slanting inside cornerback Russ Cockrell, on the next snap safety Reggie Nelson continued his three-year torture of Roethlisberger and stepped in front of wide receiver Antonio Brown for his second interception of the day and fifth off Big Ben since 2012 at the Steelers 26.

That led to Mike Nugent's 41-yard field goal with 1:47 left for the 16-10 lead and the Bengals sealed it with four seconds left from the Bengals 16 when left end Carlos Dunlap hung on Roethlisberger and he threw it of bounds going for Brown.

Roethlisberger returned the favor of two Dalton interceptions when safety Shawn Williams made his first NFL interception, a diving grab as he went out of bounds at the Steelers 45 with six minutes left to set up the winning TD.

Dalton showed tremendous resiliency because it wasn't very good until he flipped a 23-yard pass on third-and-five to set up the winning TD as running back Giovani Bernard raced away with a check-down pass.

He gutted through his toughest day of the year with two picks, finishing 23 of 38 for 231 yards and a 63.7 rating. It was a bruising game with the Bengals losing right tackle Andre Smith to a hit in the head in the fourth quarter.

With the Bengals starting at first down  from the Steelers 5 early in the fourth Bernard's 12-yard run, Dalton threw two incompletions and then threw his third end-zone interception of the season on third down, extending the Bengals' third-down misery to 2-for-11.

Dalton tried to hit wide receiver Marvin Jones, but he floated a ball inside to Jones and cornerback Antwon Blake had the angle.

Then with 7:24 left in the game from his own 24 on first down, Dalton inexplicably had a shot-gun snap slide through his hands for a 15-yard loss. On third-and-25, Dalton unleashed what amounted to a 66-yard punt when he threw a bomb that went off wide receiver A.J Green's shoulder pad.

 With his fourth interception of Roethlisberger since 2012, Nelson's 37-yard return put the Bengals at the Pittsburgh 33 in a game they trailed, 7-6, early in the third quarter.

But they backed up 24 yards. Tight end Tyler Eifert gave up a sack in space on a bootleg by quarterback Andy Dalton and right tackle Andre Smith lost 15 more when he was called for an illegal peel-back block as the Bengals proceeded to miss their first seven third-down tries and racked up nine penalties for 87 yards with 2:26 left in the third quarter.  The Steelers' blitz had Dalton running all day and put him under the most pressure he's seen all season.

The most devastating flag may have been their fourth false start of the day at that 2:36 mark of the third quarter. Mike Nugent looked to kick a 37-yard field goal to cut it to 10-9, but right tackle Eric Winston flinched and when they backed it up defensive end Cam Heyward appeared to come from the right side and block it.

The big-plays then continued to haunt the Bengals defense. They came into the game with five plays of at least 40 yards allowed and No. 6 came from unlikely source. With Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell shelved by a knee injury since the first quarterback, backup DeAngelo Williams ripped off a run for 55 yards when cornerback Adam Jones tried to come in and make a flying tackle, missed, and Williams outran the backers to the sidelines.

The Bengals came into the game leading the NFL in red-zone attempts and second in third-down efficiency. But they didn't get into the red zone until early in the third quarter after their first third-down conversion of the day in eight tries on third-and-two with 5:03 left in the third quarter. Dalton hit wide receiver A.J. Green against a Cover Two running past cornerback Antwon Blake for a 38-yard hit.

But on third-and-one from the Steelers 18, Pittsburgh jammed the middle to running back Jeremy Hill and when he tried to go outside he lost a yard and that set up the blocked field goal,

And it was a blown snap on third-and-one that prevented the Bengals from taking a half-time lead and the Steelers' opening-game touchdown drive held up in first 30 minutes for a 7-6 halftime lead.

The Bengals came into the game second in the NFL converting third down and whiffed on all five of their shots in the first half, largely because they couldn't keep the Steelers blitz off of Dalton. The Bengals tried to spread out the Steelers banged-up secondary with 16 passes compared to three runs by running back Jeremy Hill.

Dalton, the NFL's leading passer, was limited to 75 yards on 11 completions for a 78.9 passer rating. Wide receiver A.J. Green, with seven catches for 61 yards, was his only receiver with more than one catch for six yards.

Dalton was supposed to be in a shootout with the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, but the NFL's third-ranked offense didn't score a touchdown in the first half in an effort marred by penalties, a dropped third-down pass, and the bad snap from the Steelers 29 with 3:06 left in the half. It appeared Dalton moved for the quarterback sneak before center Russell Bodine snapped the ball and as he was moving the ball shot past him into the backfield where it was covered by Hill and put the Bengals out of field-goal range.

The Bengals did get a Grade a defensive effort with Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict making his starter in more than a year after micro fracture knee surgery. The Bengals were looking to play him somewhere between 10-20 snaps in primarily the base package. But he played a lot more than that when middle linebacker Rey Maualuga left in the first drive with a calf injury that knocked him out of the game and Burfict looked to be approaching 30 snaps late in the game.

Roethlisberger (just 98 yards on 13 of 21 passing for 89.0) wasted no time in continuing his harassment of the Bengals and threw a third-down one-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown to complete an opening game drive that consumed 7:14.

Brown got away from cornerback Leon Hall on the goal line, but it was cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick that he exploited right away. Brown got in front of him on the first third down of the game, a third-and-two.  And after the Steelers were called for holding to set up a second-and-15, Kirkpatrick was called for a 22-yard pass interference penalty on Brown running down the right sideline.

Plus, running back Le'Veon Bell got off the dime quickly picking up 25 yards on the first drive.

The Bengals came back to cut it to 7-3 with 2:50 left in the first quarter on Mike Nugent's 44-yard field goal after tight end Tyler Eifert dropped a third-and-five pass at the first-down stick. They got down there on Hill's longest run of the year, a 12-yarder behind pulling guard Kevin Zeitler, and Green's stretching-and-jumping 20-yard catch on a slant.

The Bengals then got a three-and-out when on third-and-six safety George Iloka dislodged a long ball from Steelers wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and Adam Jones responded with an 18-yard return on a short punt down the middle to put the Bengals on the Steelers 39 and Hill promptly added to his best run with a 15-yarder up the middle behind fullback Ryan Hewitt.

But on third-and-eight, left tackle Andrew Whitworth was called for a false start moments after right tackle Andre Smith also moved. On the next snap Dalton was sacked for one of the two times in the half when he tried to escape a blitz and outside linebacker Bud Dupree got him before he had gone very far.

The next play was the first play of the second quarter and Nugent connecting on a 45-yard field goal to the unfriendly open end of Heinz to cut it to 7-6.

The Bengals then disintegrated after Michael Johnson sacked Roethlisberger and Adam Jones had the Bengals at the 50 on a punt return. But he threw a punch after the play for a 15-yard penalty and on the next snap, tackle eligible Jake Fisher false started, the third such penalty on a third different tackle.

And the Bengals couldn't protect Dalton for the first time all year. They had trouble with what looked to be the zone blitz and on third-and-15 inside backer Ryan Shazier shot up the middle and shared a sack with outside backer Jarvis Jones.,

Then it really looked bad with Kevin Huber trying to keep it away from his arch nemesis, Antonio Brown, and he shanked it out of bounds at midfield for a 24-yard punt.

But what followed was a big a three-and-out defensive stand, starting when Burfict and safety Reggie Nelson tackled Bell on the sideline after an eight-yard catch. Bell's knee buckled in sickening fashion as he went down and had to be carted off the field and was out for the rest of the game.

Defensive tackle Geno Atkins then dumped running back Deangelo Williams for a one-yard loss and on third-and-short Hall dumped Brown on a pass short of the first down to force a punt.

The Bengals did a nice job holding down the Steelers' high-octane offense buy holding them to just 131 yards in the half and they didn't allow Pittsburgh's long-ball offense a pass longer than 15 yards.   

PRE-GAME NOTES: Burfict started Sunday's game at Heinz Field against the Steelers in his first game in more than a year and made the tackle on running back Le'Veon Bell for a short gain.

The convention wisdom going into the game was that Burfict wouldn't play much more than 10-15 snaps since he had only full practice after getting cleared from January's micro fracture knee surgery. Early on it looked Burfict was playing only in the base defense.

Rookie linebacker P.J. Dawson sat for the first time this year to make room for Burfict, which likely meant Vincent Rey, the starter in Burfict's spot, would be asked to take the bulk of Dawson's special teams snaps.

Other than that the inactive list pretty much looked like it has the rest of the year: cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris, wide receiver Mario Alford, tight end C.J. Uzomah, and defensive tackles Marcus Hardison and Brandon Thompson.

Run stuffer Pat Sims got the nod in place of Thompson for the first time since the Oct. 4 win over the Chiefs. Slot corner Leon Hall (back), who missed the Buffalo game two weeks ago was back in the lineup.

Cincinnati Bengals travel to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in week 8 of the regular season

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