Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown reaches the end zone on his 60-yard punt return that broke open the game.
PITTSBURGH — Just once in the previous 11 games had the Bengals had lost the field position battle. They came in with the NFL's fourth-best punt cover team, their kicker, had missed just one field goal, and their returner had yet to put it on the deck.
The Bengals special teams were a big reason their club showed up at Heinz Field in the playoff hunt Sunday and they were a big reason why the Bengals left with a 35-7 loss.
The Bengals had a field goal taken off the board because of a delay of game penalty and then eliminated entirely on the next snap with a block. Nine minutes after kick returner Brandon Tate gave the Steelers a touchdown with a fumble at his 23, wide receiver Antonio Brown ended the first-half carnage with the first Steelers punt return TD in 76 games and the first against the Bengals in 53 games on a 60-yarder.
It was, as safety Chris Crocker said, "one of those days." The Bengals were incensed that wide receiver Andrew Hawkins was blocked in the back by cornerback Curtis Brown just as he was about to wrap up Antonio Brown as he caught the ball before he cut up the right side and it wasn't called.
"I don't know," Hawkins said. "I'm so focused on tackling the ball. I'm sure it was a close one. It felt like it was on the backside instead of the side."
Brown saluted cornerback Bryant McFadden's block on cornerback Kelly Jennings as he got around that corner on the right, but linebacker Vincent Rey said he didn't get off his block either on the first return against the Bengals since the Texans' Jacoby Jones went for 73 yards against them on Oct. 26, 2008.
"I just know that was my play to make," Rey said. "Credit that guy. He's a very good returner. That's my play to make. I just didn't make it."
Brown came into the game ninth in the league in punt returns and he beat a very good coverage unit. The Bengals came in allowing barely six yards per return.
"We didn't play as well as we wanted to on special teams, myself included," Hawkins said. "There were a lot of plays out there that we should have made. It's disappointing in a big game like this, but we'll bounce back."
If they were wondering about the non-call, the Bengals were also wondering about the delay-of-game call that wiped out Mike Nugent's 28-yard field goal at the end of their first drive. Players or coaches were both stunned that the play clock had expired.
"I'm really confused about it," Nugent said. "I do everything exactly the same. There's no reason to slow it up or go quicker. I had no idea (the play clock was an issue). Once they bring out the (kicking) ball and spot it, I'm taking my steps back because I know where it is. I was surprised after I kicked it to hear the whistle for a delay of game. I'd like to see a TV copy to see what happened. I can't say anything was different. It was like it was normally planned. The coaches said, 'field goal' right away."
But the Steelers did change their field goal block rush when Nugent backed it up five yards to the 15-yard line, where rookie defensive end Cameron Heyward came up the middle to block it.
"They changed it up. The first time they piled up on Bobbie's side and they shot one guy to me," left guard Nate Livings said of right guard Bobbie Williams. "The second time instead of shooting it to me they shot it (up the middle)."
Rey knew what to expect this week even before he left the visitors locker room.
"It's tough," he said. "I can only look at myself first and that's what we're going to do because we're all leaders. I've got to find a way I can help my team."