Pittsburgh born-and-bred Tyler Boyd, the Bengals' 1,000-yard wide receiver who had just three targets last week, had two covering 62 yards late in the first half Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium to stake the Bengals to a 7-3 halftime lead over the Steelers.
On the last play before the two-minute warning, rookie quarterback Ryan Finley, who had thrown for just 39 yards, uncorked the longest pass of his career, a 47-yarder on which Boyd made a wondrous one-handed, left-handed grab as he outboxed safety Terrell Edmunds with a move straight out of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals.
Then on the next snap at the Steelers 15 Finley went back to him as Boyd ran a double move on cornerback Joe Haden headed to the right corner. Haden tried to get in front of Boyd, but Boyd got inside position and Finley delivered it for a 15-yard touchdown with 1:55 left in the half.
But it was rough sledding for the offense. The Bengals had just 104 yards in the half and while Finley was seven of ten for 108 yards, he took three sacks against a Steelers defense daring him to throw. They stacked the box with nine and ten men, holding Bengals running back Joe Mixon to 15 yards on seven carries and the Bengals as a team to 22 yards on the ground.
Yet the Bengals defense, off a three-point effort in the second half last week in Oakland, pitched another three-hitter in a half. It allowed only Chris Boswell's chip-shot field goal with 3:21 left in a grinding, grueling tractor pull of a first half. That was set up by Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph's only play of the half, a 35-yard fling to his newest wide receiver. Deon Cain, just picked up on waivers from the Colts last week, won a chicken fight on second-and-21 down the right sideline against cornerback B.W. Webb.
The Bengals got a huge red-zone interception from safety Shawn Williams, courtesy of left end Carlos Dunlap's 57th career pass defensed as Rudolph looked befuddled much of the half. He was just eight of 15 for 85 yards and although he wasn't sacked, he wasn't pressured. On the Steelers' last series of the half, Bengals defensive end Carl Lawson drew an intentional grounding flag on Rudolph, as the Bengals claimed their third half-time lead of the season.
Kevin Huber stepped on the field for his 169th game, tying Lee Johnson for the most games by a Bengals punter, and he promptly spunone off the goal and bounced it out bounds at the Steelers 2 for the perfect punt.
The punt was set up when the Bengals' first drive died when extra offensive lineman Michael Jordan was called for a hold on first down. It wiped away a terrific third-down conversion by the courageous Auden Tate. Tate, the Bengals wide receiver stretchered off the field last week in Oakland with a cervical strain, got the start and on third-and-six he made a leaping, twisting 10-yard catch over Haden and Finley made a great throw with outside linebacker T.J. Watt in his face.
But after the Bengals defense followed up Huber's punt with a three-and-out, Finley couldn't escape Watt on the second series. After Mixon probed the middle for just a couple of yards, Watt blew past right tackle Bobby Hart on second down and blew up Finley so quickly for his 11th sack of the season that he also caused a fumble. Bengals running back Giovani Bernard recovered, but it set up a third-and-18 and that meant a check-down pass to Bernard to set up another Huber punt. A third-and-16 and third-18 on the first two series were bad news for Finley against the NFL's fifth best sackers per pass.
Add another strange chapter in this weird saga of a season for the Bengals offensive line. Alex Redmond, set to start at left guard, injured his elbow in pre-game warmups arms and Billy Price ended up making his sixth straight start there after being limited the first two practices last week with a back issue.
Mixon, who didn't make the start because he appeared to have a problem with his helmet and didn't make it on the field for the first snap, found the going tough in that grimy first half and had just seven yards on his first three carries. Two of his carries got two yards each after Williams' interception to set up a relatively manageable third-and-six. And they got the first down when Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton was called for interfering with Tate.
But Finley fell right back into another third-and-longer-than 10. Defensive tackle Cam Heyward blew up the inside on first down to throw Mixon for a two-yard loss. Watt, who was apparently unblockable, got a hand on a screen pass Finley had to sidearm around him for an incompletion and on third-and-12 Heyward backed up center Trey Hopkins into Finley for the Steelers' second sack of the game.
But the Bengals defense matched it and forced a Steelers punt when slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard blitzed and hit Rudolph as he was throwing and the check-down pass wasn't enough to get the first down.
Yet the Bengals' inability to do anything at all on offense shifted field position. Finley took the first-down shot-gun snap near enough his goal line that he avoided a safety by an eyelash when linebacker Mark Baron blitzed untouched for their third sack. At that point they just had to hand it off.