The Bengals defense gave their offense ample opportunity to make inroads against the Steelers during Monday's first half, but red-zone woes that included a devastating sack-strip fumble conspired to give Pittsburgh a 10-3 halftime lead.
Down 7-3 with 5:54 left in the half the Bengals had a shot to take the lead when they nosed into the red zone on quarterback Andy Dalton's 11-yard out route to wide receiver John Ross at the Steelers 18. Ross got the Bengals' best drive of the half going with a magnificent one-handed grab on a ball thrown behind him and wide receiver Tyler Boyd also had a 13-yarder to the sideline in the drive.
And running back Joe Mixon had as rare big run on first down (a nine-yarder was his longest of the night, but disaster beckoned on first down from the 18.
Linebacker Bud Dupree got the edge on left tackle Andre Smith, drilled Dalton, the ball came out and linebacker T.J. Watt recovered.
As they always seem to do, the Steelers made the mistake hurt. They went 60 yards in quarterback Mason Rudolph's kill-them softly offense and got Chris Boswell's 28-yard field goal with 58 seconds left in the half for the 10-3 lead.
Rudolph, in his second NFL start, hit 17 of 18 passes for 132 yards, many on sweeps tossed behind the line. The Bengals didn't let the Steelers run it (13 rushes for 41 yards), but they attacked the middle of the field in non-Steeler ways.
The Bengals offense just couldn't get it going again. Still relying on the pass, they turned to Dalton and completed just 10 of 17 passes for 99 yards while Mixon went for 26 yards on seven carries.
With both running games coming into the game scrounging for yards, the Steelers went away from their traditional power looks and resorted to some Wild Cat and those under-handed jet sweeps with the emphasis on the misdirection that has hurt the Bengals defense at times this season and the benefactor was Rudolph.
Rudolph hit his first seven passes, but some were of the flip variety to receivers going in motion and he had just 52 yards on those passes. He threw his first incompletion when he and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster weren't on the same page on a double move on third-and-four on the first snap of the second quarter.
Still the Bengals were throwing a shutout early in the second quarter and the offense just couldn't take advantage. After the defense forced a red-zone turnover, they could manage just four yards on their next three possessions.
After Rudolph's first incompletion, hey got the ball at their own eight and Mixon couldn't get past the line on a first-down run and on second down rookie linebacker Devin Bush, who was immense, fought off tight end Tyler Eifert for a pass defensed over the middle and that set up a third-down incompletion. After linebacker LaRoy Reynolds moved in the neutral zone on the punt, punter Kevin Huber had to knock it out of the end zone and the Steelers didn't let this opportunity slide by when they got the ball at the Bengals 46.
Rudolph continued to kill the Bengals defense softly with flips over the middle and it didn't take long. Rudolph rolled out to the right and with receivers flooding the middle he picked out running back James Connor and Connor beat everyone to the end zone for a 21-yard run-and-catch touchdown that gave Pittsburgh the lead at 7-3 with 10:32 left in the half.
The Bengals went up 3-0 exactly the way their defensive wanted to start the game. On the Steelers' second snap linebacker Nick Vigil forced wide receiver Diontae Johnson to fumble after a three-yard checkdown and safety Jessie Bates III recovered at the Steelers 15.
📸 Check out some of the best snapshots from the Bengals' Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But the Bengals' red zone offense continued its struggles. Three straight passes got them only Randy Bullock's 28-yard field goal with 8:22 left in the first quarter, giving three touchdowns in seven red-zone trips this season.
On first down Dalton went deep to wide receiver Auden Tate down the right sideline and couldn't connect. On third-and-five out of the spread, Dalton went to Eifert in the end zone after he made a move on linebacker Mark Barron and was in front of him but the ball went off his fingertips.
Then the defense gave them the great field position again when they came up with a fourth-and-one stop at the Bengals 41. Safety Brandon Wilson lined up late for a blitz and came roaring off the right edge to stop Conner trying to go up the middle.
But the offense again answered with three passes for a total of minus one-yard. It appeared Dalton audibled to a blitz on first down and Bush was able to get around right guard John Miller to drop Mixon for the one-yard loss. Boyd then got a pass defended on the sideline and on third-and-11 defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt cut through the middle to hit Dalton as he threw it to force an incompletion.
The Bengals had something going on their first drive. Mixon carried it three times for 10 carries and Dalton dropped a third-down conversion over the linebacker on Eifert's back shoulder. Boyd came back home with a 15-yard slant and the Bengals were rolling on second-and-five from the Pittsburgh 40.
But when the Bengals motioned, the Steelers blitzed away from it with the ubiquitous Devin Bush and Dalton was sacked back at midfield to kill the drive.