The Pittsburgh defense showed why the Steelers have generated the second most turnovers in the NFL this season when they forced two in the fourth quarter to blunt a Bengals comeback and secure a 16-10 victory over the Bengals Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals began their last drive on their own 21 with 3:10 left, but it lasted just two plays. Linebacker Bud Dupree beat left tackle Cordy Glenn for a sack and rookie quarterback Ryan Finley fumbled it away to end a very tough day In his third start. He was under 50 percent passing for the third straight time on 12 of 26 for 192 yards with eight three-and-outs in a game the Bengals failed to score 20 points for the fifth straight tim.
Down 13-10 , Finley hooked up with wide receiver Alex Erickson for a wide-open 30-yard play up the sidelines, running back Joe Mixon (79 yards on 18 carries) kept them breathing with two runs for 20 yards after right tackle Bobby Hart false started on first down once they got past midfield. Mixon was ridiculous. He racked up an amazing 11-yarder on a pitch that Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt sniffed out. But Mixon ran through his tackle with a great dance move.
But how many times have we seen this? The Bengals were about to take the lead early in the fourth quarter when the Steelers defense pilfered them. Finley went play-action and got the matchup he wanted with wide receiver Tyler Boyd, in the midst of a 100-yard day, beating rookie linebacker Devin Bush as Boyd grabbed the ball over his shoulder inside the 10. But Bush kept coming and punched the ball out from behind for a crushing red-zone turnover that safety Minkah Fitzpatrick returned 34 yards.
This game-turning play was ripe with irony. Bush, recording his NFL-leading fifth forced fumble for the defense generating the league's second most turnovers, had been the apple of the Steelers' eye during the draft process and even though the Bengals were set on Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams, the Steelers traded up a dozen spots to get ahead of the Bengals for Bush.
Finley and the offense had very few answers. Their next possession lasted 12 seconds with three incomplete passes and featured the Steelers dropping two interceptions during the Bengals' eighth three-and-out.
The Bengals defense was brilliant much of the day, except for some critical moments and many of them were on the drive the Steelers took a 13-10 lead with 11:59 left in the game. The Bengals basically gave it to them with three penalties, two for 34 yards called on cornerback B.W. Webb. And on third-and-10, defensive end Carl Lawson got drawn into the neutral zone and allowed kicker Chris Boswell to move five yards closer for a 47-yard field goal.
The real killing penalty was the first one because it was on third down and the Steelers would have been punting. But the Bengals weren't happy because they thought the ball was uncatchable since the receiver fell down. Yet when Webb tried to make a play on the ball, the flag flew.
The defense was right there starting the second half with a three-and-out, capped off by nose tackle Andrew Billings' first sack of the season, the Bengals' first of the game and the last straw for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. For the next series he benched quarterback Mason Rudolph in favor of Hodges.
But the Bengals could counter only with a three-and-out of their own when Finley short-armed passes on second and third down for incompletions despite having time to throw. On second down he threw a ball on a few hops behind Boyd on a square-in.
Then it took the Steelers rookie quarterback just three snaps to stun the Bengals. Hodges had plenty of time to bounce in the pocket while wide receiver James Washington took some time to run a deep post. Not only was Washington wide open, but it appeared that cornerback William Jackson fell down crossing the middle, leaving Webb trying to chase him. Washington took care of that when he knocked Webb to the turf with a stiff-arm and then completed the longest pass against the Bengals in five years when he ran in the 79-yard pass to give the Steelers a 10-7 lead four minutes into the second half.
The Bengals responded on the next drive by tying the game on Randy Bullock's 27-yard field goal with 5:07 left in the third quarter on a series where Boyd drew cornerback Joe Haden's second pass interference pass in as many weeks for 14 yards and a first down at the Steelers 20. Boyd also had a nice 11-yard catch-and-run in the drive that got blown up by a holding call on right guard John Miller.
It was a big series because Mixon got the running game going with some terrific effort. On the drive's first snap he reversed field from right to left for nine and they went right back to him up the middle for a 14-yarder, his longest of the day.
The defense finally got a handle on Hodges and chased him to a three-and-out on third down on the next series when left end Carlos Dunlap ran him out of the pocket and it set up a great chance for the Bengals offense with a first down at their 40.
But Finley could only come up with his fifth three-and-out and the Bengals couldn't keep the ball on the field. After Mixon scrounged for a yard on first down, wide receiver Auden Tate caught a ball near the sticks, he was out of bounds. Then on third-and-nine Haden bit on Erickson's double move up the right sideline and Erickson was wide open. But Finley threw it into the sidelines.
The Bengals' sixth third-and-out came on the next series. On first down, Finley threw an off-balanced incompletion as he tried to get away from the rush and after a five-yard by Mixon, Finley threw slightly behind Boyd on a crosser and Boyd should have had it but it ticked off his hands.
Boyd, the Bengals' 1,000-yard wide receiver who had just three targets last week, had two covering 62 yards late in the first half Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium to stake the Bengals to a 7-3 halftime lead over the Steelers.
On the last play before the two-minute warning, Finley, who had thrown for just 39 yards, uncorked the longest pass of his career, a 47-yarder on which Boyd made a wondrous one-handed, left-handed grab as he outboxed safety Terrell Edmunds with a move straight out of the NBA's Eastern Conference finals.
Then on the next snap at the Steelers 15 Finley went back to him as Boyd ran a double move on Haden headed to the right corner. Haden tried to get in front of Boyd, but Boyd got inside position and Finley delivered it for a 15-yard touchdown with 1:55 left in the half.
But it was rough sledding for the offense. The Bengals had just 104 yards in the half and while Finley was seven of ten for 108 yards, he took three sacks against a Steelers defense daring him to throw. They stacked the box with nine and ten men, holding Mixon to 15 yards on seven carries and the Bengals as a team to 22 yards on the ground.
Yet the Bengals defense, off a three-point effort in the second half last week in Oakland, pitched another three-hitter in a half. It allowed only Boswell's chip-shot field goal with 3:21 left in a grinding, grueling tractor pull of a first half. That was set up by Rudolph's only play of the half, a 35-yard fling to his newest wide receiver. Deon Cain, just picked up on waivers from the Colts last week, won a chicken fight on second-and-21 down the right sideline against Webb.
The Bengals got a huge red-zone interception from safety Shawn Williams, courtesy of Dunlap's 57th career pass defensed as Rudolph looked befuddled much of the half. He was just eight of 15 for 85 yards and although he wasn't sacked, he wasn't pressured. On the Steelers' last series of the half, Lawson drew an intentional grounding flag on Rudolph, as the Bengals claimed their third half-time lead of the season.
Kevin Huber stepped on the field for his 169th game, tying Lee Johnson for the most games by a Bengals punter, and he promptly spun one off the goal and bounced it out bounds at the Steelers two for the perfect punt.
The punt was set up when the Bengals' first drive died when extra offensive lineman Michael Jordan was called for a hold on first down. It wiped away a terrific third-down conversion by the courageous Auden Tate. Tate, the Bengals wide receiver stretchered off the field last week in Oakland with a cervical strain, got the start and on third-and-six he made a leaping, twisting 10-yard catch over Haden and Finley made a great throw with outside linebacker T.J. Watt in his face.
But after the Bengals defense followed up Huber's punt with a three-and-out, Finley couldn't escape Watt on the second series. After Mixon probed the middle for just a couple of yards, Watt blew past right tackle Bobby Hart on second down and blew up Finley so quickly for his 11th sack of the season that he also caused a fumble. Bengals running back Giovani Bernard recovered, but it set up a third-and-18 and that meant a check-down pass to Bernard to set up another Huber punt. A third-and-16 and third-18 on the first two series were bad news for Finley against the NFL's fifth best sackers per pass.
Add another strange chapter in this weird saga of a season for the Bengals offensive line. Alex Redmond, set to start at left guard, injured his elbow in pre-game warmups arms and Billy Price ended up making his sixth straight start there after being limited the first two practices last week with a back issue.
Mixon, who didn't make the start because he appeared to have a problem with his helmet and didn't make it on the field for the first snap, found the going tough in that grimy first half and had just seven yards on his first three carries. Two of his carries got two yards each after Williams' interception to set up a relatively manageable third-and-six. And they got the first down when Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton was called for interfering with Tate.
But Finley fell right back into another third-and-longer-than 10. Defensive tackle Cam Heyward blew up the inside on first down to throw Mixon for a two-yard loss. Watt, who was apparently unblockable, got a hand on a screen pass Finley had to sidearm around him for an incompletion and on third-and-12 Heyward backed up center Trey Hopkins into Finley for the Steelers' second sack of the game.
But the Bengals defense matched it and forced a Steelers punt when slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard blitzed and hit Rudolph as he was throwing and the check-down pass wasn't enough to get the first down.
Yet the Bengals' inability to do anything at all on offense shifted field position. Finley took the first-down shot-gun snap near enough his goal line that he avoided a safety by an eyelash when linebacker Mark Baron blitzed untouched for their third sack. At that point they just had to hand it off.