The left-for-dead Steelers came back to life Saturday when their offense unloaded its most points of the season and dealt the Bengals a 34-11 loss at Acrisure Stadium.
Steelers wide receiver George Pickens racked up a career-high 195 yards on four catches, including a pair of 60-plus yard touchdowns, to help quarterback Mason Rudolph in his first start in two years.
Bengals quarterback Jake Browning, navigator of this three-game winning streak that shoved Cincinnati into the heart of the playoff race, saw them fall into a tie with the 8-7 Steelers, the team that has now swept them in 27 days.
Browning suffered his first multiple interception game with two of the three coming in a first half they got no points on two red-zone trips. Browning threw his third pick in the fourth quarter to zone-dropping linebacker Alex Highsmith as the interceptions translated to 17 points.
Browning finished 28 of 42 for 335 yards and had the lowest passer rating of his five starts at 69.0. The Bengals came into the game with 12 turnovers, tied for fewest in the league.
Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins responded to the absence of Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase with a season-high 140 yards on five catches and right end Trey Hendrickson extended his sack streak to six straight games with one that moved his career-high to 16 sacks.
The Bengals came out at the half and cut it to 24-8 when Higgins gave Pittsburgh a little bit of the Pickens medicine. Browning hit him on about a 15-yard slant down the middle and Higgins did the rest running away from safety Eric Rowe for an 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown that is the longest play of Higgins' career and the longest for the Bengals since Chase went for 82 yards two years ago in Baltimore.
Browning then floated a shovel pass to running back Joe Mixon for two points.
But Pickens answered right away. On third-and-one, Rudolph stood up as he saw Pickens running past cornerback Chidobe Awuzie on the left sideline and they pitched and caught a 66-yard touchdown pass that made it 31-8 with 5:22 gone into the second half.
In the previous five games the Steelers had scored 18 points or fewer, but by halftime they had taken a 24-0 lead on Chris Boswell's 50-yard field goal as the second quarter expired. Pickens went into the break two yards away from his career-high of 130 on just three catches.
The Bengals' season-long Achilles' heel of defending the big play doomed them. On Rudolph's first pass of the game and second snap for the Steelers, Pickens got inside rookie cornerback DJ Turner for about a 20-yard slant and Turner didn't get him down, neither did safety Dax Hill, linebacker Germaine Pratt got slowed up in the backwash, and Pickens was gone for an 86-yard touchdown, the longest scrimmage play against the Bengals since another Steelers wide receiver, Martavis Bryant, had a 94-yard touchdown catch nine Decembers ago.
On third-and-15 with about a minute left in the half (right after the Bengals couldn't convert a fourth-and-half-a-yard), Rudolph reared back and hit Pickens running past Awuzie down the left sideline for a 44-yarder that set up Boswell's field goal.
After being so good in the three-game winning streak, Browning struggled out of the gate against the team that handed him his only loss as a starter back on Nov. 26. Browning finished the first half 16 of 22 for 146 yards and the two picks, while Rudolph was 12 of 19 for 193 yards.
The Bengals responded after the long Pickens touchdown with a drive to the Steelers 15, helped along by a 23-yard third-down conversion to a wide-open Higgins in the middle of the Steelers' zone.
But on third-and-nine, Browning made the red-zone mistake he has pretty much avoided. As he scrambled to his right, just before he went out of bounds, he tried to throw it away. But ended up throwing it to three Steelers and Patrick Peterson, making the move from cornerback to safety, came up with the interception that set up another touchdown.
It took Rudolph 10 efficient plays to go 80 yards with the signature play coming on third-and-5 when he found running back Jaylen Warren running wide open in the flat for 18 yards.
Rudolph hit his first five passes for 129 yards and a jet sweep to wide receiver Calvin Austin III got the seven-yard touchdown to make it 14-0.
Another Browning interception set up a 21-0 deficit. On a first down from his own 18, Browning dropped in the pocket and unloaded it just as Highsmith was coming from his blind side. He went for wide receiver Tyler Boyd in double coverage, underthrew it, and Rowe, who was elevated from Pittsburgh's practice squad on Friday, picked it off and returned it 25 yards to the Steelers 14.
The Bengals got a drive going midway through the second quarter as Browning began to take advantage of the decimated Steelers secondary missing three of their top four safeties. Boyd wriggled loose for two catches for 43 yards and they had a second-and-1 from the Steelers 5 with 3:47 left in the half. But wide receiver Trenton Irwin couldn't get it on a quick pass to the sticks, Mixon got stacked up on third down, and on fourth down Higgins couldn't get away from cornerback Joey Porter Jr., and the low pass fell incomplete.