PITTSBURGH _ Like a classic old movie, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor rounded up the usual suspects after Sunday's 37-30 black-and-white AFC North win over the Steelers in freezing temperatures on a field slick with winter and playoff possibilities.
He fired out his game balls in a raucous, relieved locker room coming out of the bye much like they did last year with an utterly necessary win they blew open late on the road to get to 6-4. Last year it was Vegas. This year it was Pittsburgh and the Steelers' all-bets-are-off pass rush. They were down, 20-17, at the half in a typical division grinder but the defense rolled virtually snake eyes in the second half.
Taylor saluted the dominant 148 yards of wide receiver Tee Higgins after he missed most of the Opening Day loss to these Steelers with a concussion, the fourth-quarter pressure of sack aces Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard and the steel-belted greatness of the 15th career 300-yard day from quarterback Joe Burrow in his 36th game.
But Taylor, the old Nebraska quarterback, had to test his arm to distribute all the game balls because this was a win that belonged to all parts of his roster. He launched one to a practice-squadder scoring his first NFL touchdown in Trenton Irwin and a special teams regular in Stanley Morgan, Jr., who came back from a funeral to do so much more than the one assisted kicking game tackle on the stat sheet.
And Taylor had to go deep to find backup running back Samaje Perine hidden behind his teammates in the back of the locker room, a fitting spot for the star of a game won by the back of the roster. All you had to see was the first of Perine's Bengals-record three touchdown catches by a running back, a 29-yard screen pass detonated by downfield blocks from Morgan and Irwin.
Here the Bengals won their first AFC North game of the year on four touchdowns by guys that had total of six in the decade. All by Perine and four had been on the ground. And special teams captain Mike Thomas didn't mind telling you about it.
"Yeah, that's right. We needed all 48 guys. All hands on deck," Thomas said. "You look all around. Look at those guys on special teams."
Look at them.
In his NFL debut, punter Drue Chrisman, just promoted from the practice squad, kept the Steelers at bay with three kicks while holding for Evan McPherson's huge 54-yard field goal that made it a four-point game on the Bengals' last snap of the third quarter. Then he went out of his way to note his long snapper, rookie Cal Adomitis, got his first NFL tackle. And he got it on the return to his college field.
"It was a day of firsts," Chrisman said.
And there was another backup running back, Trayveon Williams, ripping off an eight-yard run on his first carry of the season, lugging the Bengals into the red zone as the clock ticked under six minutes in a 27-23 game. With running back Chris Evans (knee) inactive, Williams knocked out his first five NFL kick returns, one a Bengals season-long 42 yards that was a nice answer to the Steelers cutting it to 24-23 late in the third quarter.
"And he didn't just return kicks," Thomas said.
Williams pulled off that rare hat trick like Evans did last year in Detroit with three tackles and an assist in the kicking game.
"We've got great players. We've got great players," Taylor said. "And those guys understand what the standard is and they live up to it every single week. They put in the work consistently, which is just great for me to see as a coach. So when their number is called, Burrow's got the faith to find a way to get it to them. And they can step up to the plate and deliver for this team."
Thomas called it their most complete game of the season. Even more than the 42-21 rout of Carolina two weeks ago. The special teams played a bigger, better role, he thought. A real roster win. All you had to do was tour the post-game locker room thawing out with a tiebreaker kind of win that evened their AFC record at 3-3.
It could have been running back Joe Mixon, who missed most of the game with a concussion. But there he was mobbing his backup Perine at his locker room screaming, "Player of the Game. Him. Joey B. The O-line. You got that hat trick."
There was Chrisman talking about Adomitis and how the old pro Kevin Huber, the Bengals all-time punter inactive Sunday after 138 straight games, saved the ball for him from his first NFL punt and how he gave him cold-weather tips throughout the game.
And there was Bengals slot receiver Tyler Boyd, one of the greatest high school football players from Pittsburgh's national hotbed, saving his best for last on his old college field. He didn't get his first catch until less than nine minutes left and got two of them for 42 yards on the 93-yard drive that ended it. It was fitting, of course, the game actually ended with his old college try on the on-side kick as he backed up and played the high hop.
Higgins was out there on the Hands Team, too, as special teams had the fitting last word.
"Me and Tee. They count on us. They believe in us. We've got the best hands and we're reliable," Boyd said. "In those situations we know that we're going to put the game in my hands or his hands and we're going to win it. We practice this every single week and I get a lot of different looks with the ball skipping and a lot of crazy hops. I read the ball right. I knew it was going to be a crazy hop and I just stayed back."
But Boyd motioned like he was at an awards ceremony as he talked some Irwin.
"I was so happy for him," Boyd said. "Like Zac said, he works hard every day on the practice squad to give us a perfect look and he just works hard all the time. It's so rewarding for me to know that he played the way he played."
Boyd, who calls Perine "Macho Man," wasn't surprised what he did. He may have been thinking back to that 41-yard screen in last year's AFC title game that began the comeback from 3-21. This play looked a lot like that one. But this was that kind of game. Huge and one where the Steelers defense did give them a bunch of rotating looks that took away Burrow's scary deep ball and forced him to go unconventional.
If this one was a vintage home movie, one of the reasons was how resourceful of a game Burrow played while backed up for two 90-plus drives in a hostile din that has a better winning percentage than most. He bobbed and weaved and Higgins hinted a lot of it was audibles and checks. Six players each had a catch of at least 21 yards.
"They'd call a play, I have a certain route. It wasn't there, so I tell them what I see and he'd call that next play and it would be there," Higgins said. "Even the looks we weren't expecting, he was prepared and he audibled as much as he needed to and it was the right audible."
Burrow said, no, the screen wasn't the same call as in the AFC championship. Perine's other two scores came on swing passes of 11 and six yards to the right edge and those also seemed to be a product of reaction instead of design
"The first one didn't pan out the way we expected it. But, you know, that's sometimes how it works," Burrow said. "And checkdowns end up being touchdowns sometimes just because you see a defense that maybe you didn't expect on a play that you schemed up. And Samaje went and made plays."
Just like the players who made them, they were unexpected but available. Burrow's favorite pass of the day was the out to Irwin on the last touchdown drive and it turned into Irwin's longest catch of his career, a 32-yarder, because he faked cornerback Levi Wallace on the sideline and kept going.
"I think that shows the kind of confidence that he's playing with," Burrow said. "A lot of guys would take that ball and go out of bounds and be happy with that. But he cut it back and got 25-30 extra. I think that shows his confidence that he's playing with."
It was the kind of locker room where everybody was talking about everybody else and Burrow was talking about tennis balls as he wore a pullover from "The Office." He was talking about Irwin's 9-to-5.
"Everyone sees the work that he puts in. He's in there long after everybody's gone, working on his body, working on his craft, catching tennis balls, he's on the foam roller, he's always in the weight room," Burrow said. "So when you have a guy like that that finds success, you know, everyone's super happy for him."
After their coach got done throwing around the game balls, that's the kind of locker room it was.