With the 3-3 Bengals needing a victory so desperately Sunday night at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium, the Steelers shut down their vaunted Pro Bowl passing combo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green in the second half of Pittsburgh's 24-17 victory.
The Bengals went 1-for-7 on third downs in the second half with Dalton missing the last six straight passes on third down. After Green caught just one ball in the first half for a touchdown, he didn't catch another ball the rest of the night and finished with a career-low eight yards.
With the Steelers sitting on Green with a deep zone usually consisting of cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Ryan Clark, they didn't let Dalton go downfield. His longest throw was to rookie wide receiver Mohamed Sanu for 17 yards and he finished the night just 14-of-28 for 105 yards, his career low for a game he played all four quarters.
Dalton did try to go to Green on the last two third downs. On the first one, Taylor knocked it down at the numbers near the first down with 7:47 left. On the last one, Dalton tried to jack it between and over Clark and Taylor on the sideline about 20 yards downfield and it was too high and Green couldn't make a one-handed grab with 4:08 left.
Meanwhile running back Jonathan Dwyer rushed for 122 yards on 17 carries in his first NFL start that boosted Pittsburgh's last-in-the-NFL run game. And Roethlisberger carved up the Bengals with 27-of-37 passing for 278 yards while converting nine of his first 13 third downs as Dalton struggled to find first downs.
The Bengals lost a timeout in dubious fashion with 24 seconds left in the third quarter when head coach Marvin Lewis threw the challenge flag on Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace's two-yard catch even though he appeared to lose the ball after his knee hit the ground. The review held up setting up a third-and-six for the last play of the third quarter from the Bengals 45 with the game tied at 17.
Roethlisberger and his NFL-leading unit at converting third downs had already ripped off a 16-yard reception to wide receiver Antonio Brown (seven catches for 96 yards) on third-and-six. This time on third-and-six the Steelers sent wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders down the seam in the slot and with Roethlisberger sitting in the pocket with plenty of time he beat cornerback Leon Hall across the middle for a 31-yard gain.
That set up running back Chris Rainey's 11-yard touchdown run with 14:16 left in the game that gave the Steelers the 24-17 lead. He followed tight end Heath Miller's kick-out block up the middle and walked into the end zone, a backup running back behind a backup center and backup right tackle. Pittsburgh churned out 167 yards on 29 carries and two included their first runs longer than 20 yards.
The teams went into the fourth quarter grappling at 17 when they traded field goals in a third quarter the Bengals had been outscored 57-10 in the previous six games. Both teams used kick returns to get on the board. Brandon Tate's 45-yarder to open the second half set up Mike Nugent's longest field goal of the season, a 48-yarder that gave the Bengals the lead for the last time at 17-14. On the ensuing kickoff Rainey went for 36 yards to set up Shaun Suisham's 42-yarder that tied it at 17.
The Bengals looked to be rolling to a 17-6 halftime lead when an ugly interception by Dalton gave the Steelers a gift touchdown and two-point conversion that tied the game at 14 with 24 seconds left in the half and marked the beginning of the meltdown of the offense.
Pittsburgh was tied at the half even though it dropped two touchdown passes and Roethlisberger suffered an end-zone interception as well as a sack and strip at his own 8 that that turned into a Bengals touchdown. Plus, the Steelers had four penalties to the Bengals none.
Dalton was on fire. The Bengals were on their own 45 with 1:30 left and he had hit 10 of his first 13 passes to six different receivers as the Bengals led 14-6. But when Dalton dropped back to throw on the third snap after the two-minute warning, the ball squirted out of his hand when he tried to pull the ball back it and it squirted out of his hand. The pass only got as far as right guard Kevin Zeitler's helmet.
The ball bounced off Zeitler's helmet into the arms of outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley and Roethlisberger was in business at the Bengals 29 with 1:23 left.
On second down from the 9, Roethlisberger drilled a touchdown to tight end Heath Miller into a forest of defenders over the middle with 24 seconds left in the half, and then Roethlisberger floated the two-point conversion over Hall to Miller.
After Bengals strong safety Chris Crocker preserved a 7-3 lead with an end-zone interception of Roethlisberger on the back line, the defense got another huge play. Veteran left end Robert Geathers, who came in with eight sacks of Roethlisberger, split one with rookie defensive tackle Devon Still when they forced Roethlisberger to fumble at his own eight where it was recovered by right end Wallace Gilberry.
On the next snap Dalton smoked an eight-yard touchdown pass to Green slanting between Taylor and Clark with 8:23 left in the first half to give the Bengals a 14-3 lead. It was Green's only catch of the night and it marked the sixth straight game he caught a touchdown pass.
The beleaguered Bengals running game responded right away with a 15-play touchdown drive on Cincinnati's first possession featuring running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis busting for 44 yards on his first eight carries and backup running back Cedric Peerman finished it off with a five-yard run behind Zeitler for his first NFL touchdown that gave the Bengals a 7-3 lead with 2:17 left in the first quarter.
Green-Ellis, who came into the game averaging 3.4 yards per carry, converted a third-and-three behind Zeitler and right tackle Andre Smith for 14 yards, and then converted a fourth-and-1 behind the right interior for a yard before bursting for six on third-and-one at the Steelers 11 behind Smith.
Dalton was 5-of-6 in the drive and the only incompletion was a drop by Green over the middle.
But after that 80-yard drive, the Bengals got just 105 yards the rest of the night. They ran it 12 more times Sunday for just 31 yards.
The night started shaky when Rainey broke the opening kickoff for 41 yards and Roethlisberger, leading the NFL in third-down conversions, used an absolute zero pass rush to complete his first third-down pass on third-and-nine for 23 yards to Antonio Brown sitting easily in a zone. And Roethlisberger should have had another third-and-nine conversion, but wide receiver Mike Wallace dropped it at the 12 and the Steelers had to settle for Suisham's 42-yard field goal that gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead.
Wallace looked like he had a touchdown with three minutes left in the half on a third-and-five from the Bengals 29. The leaping Hall seemed to graze Roethlisberger's pass with his fingertip and it banged off Wallace's chest. Suisham hit from 37 to make it 14-6 heading into Dalton's misfortune.
Roethlisberger finished the half 15-of-21 for 138 yards while Dalton was 10-of-14 for 65 yards. The dormant Steelers running game also rustled. Dwyer had 65 yards on his first eight carries, including Pittsburgh's first run of 20 yards this season, a 21-yarder.
Green-Ellis went into the half with 46 yards on 10 carries and finished with 69 on 18 carries. Bengals center Jeff Faine reaggravated a hamstring injury early in the second half and rookie Trevor Robinson came in for the rest of the game.
PREGAME NOTES: The way Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has been talking heading into Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Steelers, quarterback Andy Dalton is going to get to show off his arm with a new mix of wide receivers and both rookies wideouts were active.
Gruden indicated last week that rookie speedster Marvin Jones is going to get more snaps, which could let a national TV audience see some long balls. Dalton's arm strength was a topic for NBC's Bob Costas when he sat down with Dalton for an exclusive interview that is part of Sunday night's Football in America pregame show airing on Cincinnati's Channel 5 at 7 p.m.
"Everything that's been questioned about me has been in my arm strength," Dalton told Costas. "I don't think it's holding me back. I don't think it's holding this team back … ."
Gruden is talking about getting some fresh legs in the receiver rotation, so that means Jones a fifth-rounder, and Mohamed Sanu, a third-rounder, could be on display. It's the third time they've been active together and while Jones figures to get more snaps on the outside with Armon Binns (ankle) inactive, Sanu is looking at gettng his most playing time of the season in the slot. Gruden is looking to take some of the load off No. 1 slot receiver Andrew Hawkins after a back issue limited him one day in practice last week.
Also active for the first time this season at receiver is second-year man Ryan Whalen, a guy that plays both outside and the slot.
While the third-rounder Sanu and the fifth-rounder Jones are up, first-rounder Dre Kirpatrick is still looking to make his NFL debut. Along with fellow cornerback Jason Allen, Kirkpatrick was inactive Sunday night so he'll probably dress for the first time after next week's bye; the Nov. 4 PBS game against the Broncos.
With third-down back Brian Leonard (rib) out, look for Gruden to protect Dalton from the Steelers blitzes with some of his six active receivers and tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Orson Charles.
Also inactive was defensive end/SAM backer Dontay Moch, as were defensive tackle Brandon Thompson and tight end Richard Quinn.
In a bit of a surprise the Steelers deactivated center Maurkice Pouncey, the fourth starter shelved when he joined strong safety Troy Polamalu, right tackle Marcus Gilbert, and running back Rashard Mendenhall on the inactive list. With Mendenhall and his backup Isaac Redman also iced, third-year man Jonathan Dwyer gets his first NFL start.
SPECIAL DISCIPLINE: Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons has had an animated week of practice reminding his guys to regain the discipline they didn't show last week against Browns Pro Bowl returner Josh Cribbs.
It was easy since next up is Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, the man that ripped off the last punt return TD against the Bengals on a 60-yarder back on Dec. 4 in Pittsburgh.
Cribbs's own 60-yarder last week became complicated when everybody, especially gunner Jeromy Miles, thought Cribbs had signaled for a fair catch. Miles did what he was supposed to do on a fair catch and ran by him. The bigger problem was that Cribbs ran through the tackles of linebackers Manny Lawson and Roddrick Muckelroy even though they were in the perfect spot about five yards ahead of Cribbs.
Even Simmons thought it was a fair catch.
"That's what I thought. I ran back the tape and it wasn't what it looked like. I got confused a little bit, too, I guess," said Simmons, who said it was clearly not a fair catch.
"But still it was just one guy (Miles). There were a couple of guys in position to make the play. We've got to be disciplined and we weren't in a couple of spots and a guy like that, he'll make you pay, no different than Antonio Brown."