Bengals-Steelers, Part I Sunday at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium turned out to be as rocking and rolling as advertised before 63,262. The Bengals lost two of their best players to injuries—wide receiver A.J. Green and cornerback Leon Hall—and wrestled the Steelers into the fourth quarter before Steelers cornerback William Gay jumped a route headed to wide receiver Jerome Simpson at the Pittsburgh 19 for the clinching interception with 2:27 left as the Steelers held on for a 24-17 victory.
The Bengals, now 6-3 and tied with the Ravens at a half-game back of the 7-3 Steelers in the AFC North, got a shot to tie it when Brandon Tate returned a punt for 16 yards and running back Cedric Benson ripped off a 17-yard run to put them on the Steelers 26. But quarterback Andy Dalton threw his second pick both of the day and the fourth quarter.
Now the next huge game is in just six and a half days in Baltimore.
The Steelers, with just four turnovers all year, got half that in a 10-minute span of the fourth quarter. Gay had a hand in the first one early in the period when he and wide receiver Andre Caldwell went for a high ball over the middle and it got batted to linebacker Lawrence Timmons at the Steelers 33.
Dalton finshed 15-of-30 passing for 170 yards and a rating of 61.8 while Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went to 7-1 at PBS with 21-of-33 passing for 245 yards and a rating of 83.5.
Hall's teammates fear his season is over with a torn Achilles while Green said he hyperextended his right knee and should be back for next week's game in Baltimore.
The Steelers took a 24-17 lead with 1:55 left in the third quarter as Roethlisberger took advantage of Hall's injury. With Adam Jones inactive with his hamstring injury and Hall out, the Bengals were down to two healthy cornerbacks in Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings and that put safety Chris Crocker in the slot.
The Steelers spread their offense with four and five wides and Roethlisberger had at it with an up-tempo no-huddle as the Steelers tried to fend off a Cincinnati defense that had five sacks in the first three quarters. After a sack at the Bengals 19, Roethlisberger got it right back with a 12-yard throw to wide receiver Mike Wallace working on Jennings and running back Rashard Mendenhall ran through the middle for a nine-yard touchdown run on the next snap.
But the defense responded in the last quarter and cooled off the red-hot Roethlisberger after he had singed them in the first half when he connected on five of his first six third-down tries. The Bengals denied the Steelers on their last five third downs to set up the last Bengals drive that ended with Gay's interception.
With Green riding a bike on the sideline, Dalton went elsewhere on the first drive of the second half. Running behind the right side of the line, Benson (57 yards on 15 carries) pounded out 12 yards on three carries. And then lined up as the third tackle on the right side, rookie tight end Colin Cochart got wide open for a 25-yard catch as he rumbled into the red zone. Dalton then tied the game when Benson picked up Harrison as Dalton was backing away from the pressure on second down from the Steelers 1 and he threw a strike to tight end Jermaine Gresham running into the left corner of the end zone to make it 17-17 with 8:38 left in the third quarter.
The Bengals needed a stand in the first half from their beleaguered fourth-ranked defense and got it when defensive tackle Geno Atkins sacked Roethlisberger on third-and-10 from the Bengals 10 and Pittsburgh had to take Shane Suisham's 39-yard field goal with 58 seconds left for the Steelers 17-10 lead at halftime.
With the Steelers set to receive the second half kickoff, that was a morale booster since Roethlisberger lit up the Bengals defense in the first half for 175 yards (14-for-22), particularly on third down, where he was five-of-six before Atkins dumped him.
That field-goal drive was a killer and a tough one for Cincinnati's best cover cornerback, Hall, who was sidelined for the rest of the game. With 7:36 left in the half, Roethlisberger threw a long duck to wide receiver Antonio Brown down the left sideline and as safety Reggie Nelson prepared to make the interception, Hall knocked it out of his hands as they collided.
Brown then went crazy. On third-and 19 over the middle, Brown was able to tap the ball to himself when Hall didn't hit him for a 21-yard gain. He then converted a third-and 17 when he pivoted in front of Hall for a 19-yard gain after running back Mewelde Moore picked up Nelson's blitz. A few snaps later Hall went to the locker room with his injury.
Roethlisberger then had his touchown pass to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery waved off when tight end Heath Miller was called for a pick, and Atkins came up with this big sack, the Bengals' third of the half.
The Bengals got a costly touchdown when Green climbed the ladder, not to mention triple coverage, when he got hurt pulling in an incredible 36-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left in the first quarter that cut Pittsburgh's lead to 14-7.
Dalton threw it up for grabs in the back of the end zone as he scrambled to his left and Green leaped between safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. He limped off with a right knee injury but he returned for the next series. Yet in the second half the Bengals turned to backup wide receivers Brandon Tate and Andrew Hawkins as Green's status was downgraded to questionable.
The difference in the game in the first half was on third down, where the Bengals were two-of-seven. Dalton was just 4-of-12 passing for 69 yards with a drop from wide receiver Jerome Simpson. But he did get big plays from Hawkins for those two first downs. One was on a diving 25-yard catch, and one was a four-yard run on a reverse.
Hall's alert interception set up Mike Nugent's 43-yard field goal with 12:02 left in the second quarter. Hall swiped the ball from Miller as he bobbled it at the Steelers 41.
The Steelers ran through gaping holes to a 14-0 lead with touchdowns on their first two possessions with the help of conversions on third-and-10s.
Leading 7-0, Roethlisberger exploited Cincinnati's low intensity with a host of big plays. He rolled to his right and when he couldn't find anybody, he threw across the field to the wide-open Mendenhall for 26 yards, and then handed off to wide receiver Mike Wallace on a reverse for 16 more yards aided by Hall's missed tackle. Wide receiver Hines Ward got 10 more on a bubble screen and then Roethlisberger hit wide-open tight end Heath Miller down the middle on third-and-10 for an 18-yard gain and he held on despite taking a big shot from Nelson at the Bengals 2.
Mendenhall converted from there on a two-yard run that made it 14-0 with 3:37 left in the first quarter.
The Steelers deferred the kickoff and it couldn't have worked out better for them because they forced a three-and-out and the Bengals could only get a 38-yard punt from Kevin Huber. Polamalu blew up that first series on second-and-seven from the Bengals 23 when he beat Cochart at the line of scrimmage and dropped Benson for a one-yard loss.
The Steelers only had to go 54 yards for the touchdown to take a 7-0 lead less than six minutes into the game and they did it briskly with short passes. Pittsburgh came into the game just 23rd in the NFL in red-zone scoring touchdowns, but the Bengals gave up tough one on third-and-10 from the Bengals 17 when Jon Fanene lined up at left end and had a free shot at Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger sidestepped like a power forward making a pump fake under the hoop and he found a wide open Cotchery for a 16-yard touchdown catch.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals already faced adversity even before Sunday's AFC North showdown started when their best pass rusher, left end Carlos Dunlap, was put on the inactive list with the hamsting injury he suffered making the clinching sack in Tennessee last week with seven seconds left.
As expected, cornerback Adam Jones (hamstring) and tight end Donald Lee (foot) were also out, along with safety Robert Sands, linebacker Dontay Moch, guard Clint Boling, and wide receiver Ryan Whalen.
A hamstring injury also iced one of the Pittsburgh's top pass rushers in right outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. Also on the inactive list were the top Steelers special teams player, wide receiver Arnaz Battle, as well as one of their speediest wide receivers in Emmanuel Sanders.
The Bengals have prided themselves on having a deep defensive lne rototation, where none of the eight have taken fewer than 15 snaps in a game. With Dunlap out of their pass-rush package, base left end Robert Geathers is looking at taking more snaps on pass-rush downs, as well as Frostee Rucker. Rucker is an end that has done well playing tackle on third down and probably gets some more snaps at left end on passing downs. Jon Fanene is another end that has played well inside on passing downs, and could get a few snaps at left end, too.
Head coach Marvin Lewis introduced the defense first and sent out for his game captain left eft tackle Andrew Whitworth, cornerbacks Leon Hall and Nate Clements, guard Nate Livings and linebacker Manny Lawson. The Steelers won the toss and deferred, giving the ball to the Bengals.