Ike Taylor got the stiff arm all day from A.J. Green.
This is exactly what the Bengals needed in a December game against the Steelers at home. Mega games from the two guys they need huge down the stretch of this psych job of an AFC North race.
Three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green took over a game like he's never taken over a game with a career-high 224 yards. Quarterback Andy Dalton rung up a 128.8 passer against arch-nemesis Dick LeBeau, the Steelers defensive coordinator, slicing them for 10.5 yards per throw (302 yards) on 72-percent passing and no picks against the lethal zone blitz.
If you had shown those lines on Sunday's stat sheet to them and nothing else before the game at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium, they would have been shocked they lost by three touchdowns, 42-21.
Except maybe Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis because the first thing he would have looked for would have been turnovers. And he would have seen the only one by both teams before garbage time: Dalton's fumble on the zone read exchange with rookie running back Jeremy Hill with 12:45 left on the Bengals 24 and Cincinnati clinging to a 21-20 lead.
"The turnover hurt us, and they started rolling," Dalton said. "You can't have that at that point in the game. We were still leading in the fourth quarter, and so we just needed to put a drive together. We were close, we didn't, and then they scored pretty quick."
Instead of talking about his big day, Dalton was left to do what NFL quarterbacks do and that's answer to the losses no matter the stats. That usually means turnovers. Earlier, Dalton had executed the zone read perfectly for a 20-yarder, the longest TD run by a Bengals quarterback.
If that had come in the fourth quarter and the fumble in the second?
"You can't have a play like that at that point in the game," said Dalton, who also could have kept the one that got fumbled or pitched it to running back Giovani Bernard.
"You just have to be good with the ball-handling of it, I think. It's one of those things where you just have to work on the ball-handling," Dalton said. "But there's a chance that obviously something like that can happen because he thinks he's getting it, and I tried to take it. But we've just got to be sharp on the looks and everything, and the feel of everything so that won't happen again."
Green, who has grown leaps and bounds this season in and out of the locker room as a leader, was down as he battled the sniffles. But he said all the things leaders say.
"We're the type of team if we have a turnover, we can't get down on ourselves," Green said. "We have to be able to respond to that and come back and have another big drive. We didn't convert on third down. I didn't do a good job on third down. We have to get better at that."
But he deserved a better fate on this day, the second greatest ever by a Bengals wide receiver. Only Chad Johnson had more in 2006 with 260 against San Diego in, ironically, another fourth-quarter meltdown that erased a 28-7 half-time lead.
Green came into the game averaging 63.5 yards in six games against the Steelers in a series that has been feast or famine for him. In his first game against them he hurt his knee catching his only ball on a 36-yard touchdown.
Then in 2012, cornerback Ike Taylor shadowed him and held him to one catch for eight yards in a home loss. But two months later with the playoffs on the line and Taylor out, Green torched them for 116 yards and that included the 21-yarder in the last 10 seconds to set up the winning field goal.
On Sunday the 34-year-old Taylor wanted to cover Green even though for the last year or so the Steelers have stopped shadowing receivers and have been playing it straight. It wasn't a good idea. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin pulled Taylor after the last play of the third quarter, claiming his knee was hurting. Green made it ache, sprinting wide open past Taylor on a post and gathering in an 81-yard bomb off play-action from Dalton on first down.
After the game, Taylor talked about having to be 100 percent healthy on the corner. Green can do that to you.
"For the past couple of years, he was killing me. He had my answer," Green said of Taylor. "I was trying to do different things.
"It was a big game and I was trying to be aggressive," he said. "Emotionally, I was just trying to make plays when my number was called."
The Steelers have been leaky all year against the big plays, coming into the game with 12 passes of at least 40 yards against them after the Saints' Drew Brees had singed them for three last week in Pittsburgh. The only time Taylor didn't cover him was when Green went in the slot and that's when he caught a 56-yarder on another post against safeties Mike Mitchell and Troy Polamalu to set up their first touchdown in the second quarter.
It was Green's first 40-plus catch since he came back from missing three games with a big toe injury on Nov. 2 and he said Sunday was the best he's felt since training camp.
"We had a lot of really good looks today, and we hit big plays," Dalton said. "Down this stretch we've got to rely on (Green). He's such a big play waiting to happen, and it showed today.
"We knew that Ike was following him, but he moves around quite a bit, so wherever we get good matchups."
Earlier in the week, Green had talked about being dominant in December, when he had only two of his 19 100-yard games. Coming into this game, he had averaged 74 yards per game in 15 December games and 88 in all the rest.. Now he's got 20 100-yard games, tying Isaac Curtis for second place on the Bengals' all-time list in just 57 games, 11 behind Chad Johnson's record.
And it's the Bengals' first 200-yard game in December. Just what they needed from their best player.
But Green wasn't up for numbers.
"I didn't take over enough. We didn't win," Green said. "The stats don't really matter much to me."