Steelers Rub (Route) Out Bengals Comeback

Running back Joe Mixon scores a touchdown to put the Bengals ahead late against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Joe Mixon's four-yard run gave the Bengals the lead for 68 seconds.

For the fourth straight home game the Bengals lost a fourth-quarter lead to the Steelers, but Sunday's 28-21 loss when they gave up Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown's 31-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 10 seconds left had them climbing the walls with the majority of the 60,594 exiting Paul Brown Stadium.

"Insanity," said Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap. "Insanity is an act when you do something repeatedly over and over and expect different results. You figure it out. We'll figure it out and fix it hopefully."

Stop if you've heard this one before in a rivalry that now tips to 21-3 at PBS in favor of the Steelers. This one was more like the infamous 2015 Wild Card Game without the bloodletting, but there was that controversial and call and a non-call that went against the Bengals in the final 22 seconds. The only thing missing was AJ McCarron. It was even in a foggy drizzle.

Brown's touchdown came off what some tweeted as an illegal pick play. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger let the play unfold with 15 seconds left when he saw the Bengals crowd the line with a blitz in man-to-man coverage, selling out for the run at the 31 now that the Steelers were in kicker Chris Boswell's range.

"We needed a pick, a fumble recovery, something," said safety Clayton Fejedelem.

Roethlisberger also saw a depleted Bengals defense. Out were starting linebacker Nick Vigil, starting safety Shawn Williams and starting slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard. With little-used Tony McRae in the slot for Dennard, wide receiver Justin Hunter appeared to push back McRae more than the legal one yard off the line and kept pushing him back, not giving up on the contact. Cornerback William Jackson was screened off by the play as he moved inside to cover Brown.

ProFootballTalk.com reported Sunday night that NFL director of officiating Al Riveron said it wasn't an illegal pick. The league said, according to PFT, that McRae initiated contact with Hunter within a yard of the line of scrimmage, allowing Hunter to run into and through the contact. But on the TV copy it is unclear who initiates contact and one could make the argument that it is Hunter being the aggressor.

"It was a stack play. It was like they already knew what we were in," said rookie safety Jessie Bates of a coverage that is called zero because it is man-to-man with no safety help. "They picked the point guy. The point guy is the nickel (McRae) and Willow (Jackson) can't get to the ball. It was a nice play. It was pretty much like a screen. No middle of the field player. They ran a good play against stack."

Fejedelem, playing for Williams, said it was clearly a rub route but that's not always clearly a penalty.

"It depends who's reffing," Fejedelem said. "It's a crap shoot."

But a play just as big drew a whistle. With 22 seconds left, Roethlisberger overthrew wide receiver JuJu Schuster on third down, setting up fourth-and-10 from the Steelers 41. But cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was called for holding Brown, giving them a first down at the Steelers 46. After a day of tight coverage and throws, some on the Bengals thought it was a curious call with the game on the line.

"Trash," said Kirkpatrick, who maintained Brown pushed off on him. "I don't care if they fine me. It was trash. Come on man. It was a critical situation."

One man's trash is another man's 44th career game-winning drive. In Pittsburgh, Hunter is a hero because of his "block." In Bengaldom, it's an illegal pick.

"I saw them starting to roll down into a zero, I knew what they were doing," Roethlisberger said. "If they weren't, they were disguising it. It was 'catch the ball, deliver it, and let the rest happen.' It was one of those ones that you're playing it out in your mind, and I knew they were going zero, and it was in my head that this could be a touchdown. Worst-case scenario, we're moving the chains and getting some yards, but there's a real good chance he's going to score on this play, as long as I do my part and get him the ball. Everyone did awesome. Justin Hunter was a guy there that... it was a huge play on his part, by running up through there and clearing it out."

Images from week six as the Bengals host the Steelers in an AFC North showdown.

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