The Bengals defense carried the day.
PITTSBURGH- Now you can begin to feel the confidence oozing out of them in orange and black gobs of 1975 and 1981 and 1988 and 2005 and any other special year in Bengaldom.
After shooting to a 6-0 record behind their top three offense, the Bengals on Sunday put the band back together that reached No. 3 in the NFL defensive rankings two years ago with the activation of Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict. So when their offense struggled they went to 7-0 at Heinz Field by shutting down Pittsburgh's big-play display without allowing a touchdown in the game's final 52:46 during a bare-knuckled 16-10 victory.
If Burfict completes this defense, then combined with this offense the Bengals are heading into the stretch as one of the most complete teams in the NFL.
"It's not over,' said safety Reggie Nelson after the Bengals expanded their AFC North lead over the Steelers to 3.5 games with nine to play. "It's just getting started."
So maybe is this Bengals defense now that it has been completed with Burfict's first five tackles in more than a year. He was only supposed to play about 10 plays after practicing just twice last week following his 10-month rehab from micro fracture knee surgery.
But like everything else in what was supposed to be a shootout between the Bengals' Andy Dalton, the NFL's leading passer, and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, returning from his own knee injury, the plans got scrapped.
When middle linebacker Rey Maualuga went out with a calf injury in the first drive, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther had to respond on the fly. Vincent Rey, who iron-manned it in the first six games playing Burfict's WILL backer spot, moved to the middle and Burfict, supposed to play in only the base packages, ended up playing almost half snaps wiith 36 in a mix of base and nickel. He basically ended up rotating with Emmanuel Lamur.
"This shows how we've grown as a unit. We had to dig deep and win a dogfight. It was good for us," said cornerback Adam Jones. "It was great to get Vontaze back. The guy brings a lot energy. It's unbelievable a guy can practice two days and doesn't miss a damn beat I'm a big fan of that."
After the game Jones told him, "I thought you'd give me 85 percent. But you were great, 90 percent." And Burfict said that's what it felt like, but he said he fouled up one check-down pass.
That's why the Bengals love him. Forget the ferocity and the league-leading tackles that put him in the 2013 Pro Bowl. It's how he settles the huddle with his instincts for the game.
"What he brings is something we need for the long haul here," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "It was great to see him back out there flying around and making plays. I'm excited for him. If anybody can (come back so soon) it can be him. He has the instincts, he knows the game. He just knows how to find the ball. He brings intensity. We've been playing well as a defense, but with him we can get even better."
Burfict said he felt pretty good, but his lack of football conditioning caught up to him in the second half. But his will to play overrode it.
"When Rey went down . . . I told Marvin (Lewis) I felt good to possibly play more. Sometimes he threw me in nickel. It was great for the team," Burfict said. "I'm a dog. Whoever gets the ball I'm going to tackle."
That's how the Bengals played in containing the Steelers' long balls and their explosive wide receivers. With Guenther switching from his usual safety-high look to two safeties high in the form of a Cover Two, the longest completion was to tight end Heath Miller for 25 yards.
That's exactly what the Bengals wanted. They didn't mind Miller catching 10 balls for 105 yards over the middle. What they didn't want was wide receivers Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant going nuts down field and they didn't.
Brown caught six balls, but none longer than 17 yards. The speedy Bryant, who has a career 20.9 yards per catch, had just 12.3 Sunday on four balls and his longest was a 21-yarder on the next-to-last play of the game under the Bengals' prevent. The Bengals like to play man-to-man, but on Sunday they mixed it up and gave people help.
"As safeties, the main thing we're worried about is not giving up the big play,' said safety Reggie Nelson after his two interceptions. "I thought George (Iloka) and I did a good job today getting that done."
Nearly a third of Nelson's 18 Bengals interceptions have come off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He's nabbed Big Ben five times and on Sunday he picked off Pro Bowl safety Tommy Casanova on the Bengals' all-time list for seventh place.
"I think Shawn Williams' interception picked us up and gave us a spark," Nelson said. "His interception was more important than anything."
Williams is a few slots down the list, but Bengaldom will always remember his first NFL pick, a diving grab at the Steelers 45 just before he went out of bounds with 5:34 left that revived them.
But Williams was out there in a three-safety look because the Steelers came out in a run formation with just one receiver and max protection with multiple tight ends. The Steelers came out in a similar formation on their first snap of the game, which is why Williams started and not cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick as Guenther matched bulk with bulk.
So when Roethlisberger went play-action and nearly got dumped by defensive tackle Pat Sims, he rolled out and held the ball forever. The Bengals had three sacks Sunday, giving them 20 to match their total of all last year and, as usual, Roethlisberger bulled out of a couple of more.
On this play he ended up throwing to fullback Will Johnson, a tight end on this play. Johnson wasn't even in the first route, but Williams stayed on him.
And guess who was near him? Burfict.
"It was pretty good," said Burfict of his cardio. "It was more in the third and fourth quarter it started to catch up to me. I had to fight through it and make plays when they came to me."
He had no problem making the first two tackles of the day in his first game in 371 days as the Steelers began the day pounding running back Le'Veon Bell.
"I got the monkey off my back," Burfict said.
Burfict met up with Bell early in the second quarter when he tackled him after Bell caught an eight-yard pass on the sideline. As he brought him down to the ground, Bell's knee buckled and he was done for the day with 45 yards on 10 carries.
"It was a clean hit. He's a good friend of mine," Burfict said. "I didn't mean to hurt him. It's football. You get hurt sometimes. I told some of his teammates it wasn't intentional."
Even when Bell was playing the Bengals settled down after giving up a touchdown on the first drive of the game that consumed 7:14.
"We stopped worrying about what they were doing and just started worrying about us," Peko said.
But it still came down to one final play from the Bengals 16 with four seconds left. Antonio Brown ran a route that put him between Adam Jones and Nelson. But with Dunlap roaring on a bull rush past right tackle Marcus Gilbert, Roethlisberger had to step up and throw it before he was set. It sailed out of the end zone, where Brown caught it.
"He threw it up there because of the pressure,' Dunlap said. "He was able to throw it. I was holding my breath. I looked, I saw it was out of bounds, our DBs were in great position and we're 7-0."
While Dunlap held his breath, Burfict caught his, and this defense looks like it has its second wind.
"I'm happy for our fans. People come up to me all the time and say, 'I don't care if you win one game I just hope its Pittsburgh,'" Peko said. "We're showing everyone in the nation we're not fooling around this year."