Four games into the season and the Bengals are still seeking that complementary complete game when all three phases show up after the Steelers bobbed and weaved for a 27-3 Monday night victory at Heinz Field.
The Steelers deferred when they won the coin toss and when the Bengals couldn't take a 10-7 lead in the middle of the second quarter on a sack-and-strip from the Pittsburgh 18, the Steelers didn't let up.
They reeled off 17 points with a field goal in the last 58 seconds of the first half and two touchdowns in the first 5:36 of the second half to take a 24-3 lead. In the middle of all that the Bengals offense could do nothing to help with a killing three-and-out to begin the second half.
The Steelers went up 24-3 with 9:24 left in the third quarter with the aid of a mixup in the Bengals secondary that resulted in wide-open wide receiver Diontae Johnson's 43-yard touchdown catch. As they did all night the Steelers ran motion and this time cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Jessie Bates III were standing next to each other in the middle of the field while Johnson was wide open heading to the corner.
That was like giving the Steelers pass rush an engraved invitation to maul quarterback Andy Dalton and they did for a career-high eight sacks. Up by three touchdowns and not fearing the run, they simply bull-rushed the Bengals with a basic four-man rush.
At the end of the third quarter, Dalton had completed just 13 of 23 passes for 120 yards to go along with six sacks as the offensive line attempted to cope with a marauding front.
Meanwhile, the Steelers gave quarterback Mason Rudolph a game plan that seemed to be derived out of a new offense built over night for his second NFL start.
One play typified it all. It came in that killing first possession of the second half when the Steelers expanded their lead from 10-3 to 17-3. There was a big run from running back James Conner, a 21-yarder that was the Steelers' longest run of the season and a 17-yard pass to tight end Nick Vannett working against linebacker Nick Vigil for his first catch of the season.
But they got a 21-yard run on this play that was typical:
Running back Jaylen Samuels went into the quarterback position in the shotgun and flipped it to Conner going in motion. Then they ran pretty much the same misdirection play on the next snap from the two-yard line, except Samuels kept it for the two-yard touchdown less than five minutes into the half.
You could see the strategy in the stats. Rudolph went 24 of 28 for 229 yards with Conner getting eight catches for 83 yards and Samuel eight catches for 57 yards. That's 16 tosses to his backs.
Then the Bengals went on that three-and-out, starting out on first down with Dalton throwing it high and behind wide receiver John Ross.
The Bengals had one last failure in the red zone down, 24-3, giving them just three red-zone touchdowns in 11 trips this season. One in the first half ended on a sack-strip, and this one ended on Dalton's end-zone interception on fourth down from the Pittsburgh 13 by linebacker Mark Barron in front of C.J. Uzomah. Rookie Left guard Michael Jordan flinched after a third-down try to tight end Tyler Eifert in the corner of the end zone in double coverage went awry.
Dalton got hammered in a tough outing he went 21 of 37 for 171 yards and a 57.4 passer rating. He lost Ross with a shoulder injury in the fourth quarter of a game they didn't score a TD against Pittsburgh for the first time since 2000.
📸 Check out some of the best snapshots from the Bengals' Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals defense gave their offense ample opportunity to make inroads against the Steelers during the first half, but red-zone woes that included a devastating sack-strip fumble conspired to give Pittsburgh a 10-3 half-time 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 Dalton's 11-yard out route to 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 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 mis-direction 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 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 Connor. The second-year running back from Pitt 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 Johnson to fumble after a three-yard checkdown and Bates III recovered at the Steelers 15.
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 Eifert made a move on 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 Bush and Dalton was sacked back at midfield to kill the drive.