Surging Steelers tied atop AFC after bouncing Bengals
The Steelers showed Sunday they are adept at playing hide-and-seek. Now, they get to see how proficient they are at playing run-and-hide from the rest of the AFC North.
With a 29-14 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field, the Steelers improved to 5-2 and are unbeaten in the division after completing the first round of games. That 3-0 record in division play — the first for a Mike Tomlin team since 2008 — has boosted the Steelers to a two-game lead in the AFC North over Baltimore (3-4). Cincinnati (2-4) is 21⁄2 games back of the Steelers.
Of more importance is the Steelers' standing in the conference. They are tied for the top record in the AFC and own the tiebreaker with Kansas City (5-2).
"It's great," guard David DeCastro said. "We are (in the driver's seat), and I hope guys understand that. It takes a lot to stay on top. Guys are going to be gunning for us."
The Steelers aren't accustomed to having such a cushion in division play. Last year, they lost four in a row after crafting a 4-1 start and needed a seven-game winning streak to capture the division title. They are off to their best start after seven games since 2011 and close the first half of the season next Sunday night at the Detroit Lions before heading into their bye week.
"Usually we're more of a finish-late team," DeCastro said. "I hope guys understand the urgency that comes with it. This was a big game, so it was great to see that coming after a big game in Kansas City and to be able to come home and give our fans a good game."
The last time the Steelers played at home, they fell apart in the second half in a 30-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. This time, they used five Chris Boswell field goals, including two late in the first half, and some punishing defense to pull away from the Bengals, who tied the score 14-14 midway through the second quarter.
"They understood the significance of a good performance today, and they delivered it," Tomlin said of his team. "Hopefully, we grow from it."
Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix blocks for running back LeVeon Bell in the first quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017 at Heinz Field. For more images from Week 7, visit the Trib's photo gallery .
Photo by Chaz Palla
Le'Veon Bell rushed for 134 yards on 35 carries and had 192 yards from scrimmage. Included was a 42-yard reception that featured a brutal stiff-arm of Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.
Ben Roethlisberger, playing his best game of the season, completed 14 of 24 passes for 224 yards and two first-half touchdowns to Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The latter touchdown was celebrated by a game of hide-and-seek involving the rookie receiver and Bell.
Roethlisberger's 117.4 passer rating was a season high and came two weeks after he publicly wondered whether he "had it anymore."
Not to be outdone, the defense had a near-perfect second half, pitching in with four sacks in the fourth quarter. Cornerbacks Joe Haden and William Gay had interceptions of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton.
The special teams even chipped in with a fake punt. Robert Golden lobbed a pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey that covered 44 yards and set up Boswell's fifth field goal and 15-point lead with 5:14 remaining.
"I'm just happy we are 3-0 in the AFC North," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "There is a lot we can grow on."
The offense piled up 251 yards in the first half against a Bengals defense that was ranked second in the NFL, yielding just 262 per game. The Steelers finished with 420 yards, but because they were 1 of 6 inside the red zone, the outcome was much closer than the statistical imbalance showed.
"We won, and we won definitively," Tomlin said when asked about the red-zone woes. "I'm not combing through it in that way. I'm really not. We did what was necessary to win."
Bell's 42-yard catch-and-run set up Boswell's 22-yard field goal with 1:50 left in the half that pushed the Steelers ahead for good, 17-14. He stiff-armed Kirkpatrick in the facemask at the Bengals 43 and then ran for 25 more yards before the Bengals could bring him down.
"I've been doing a lot of boxing," Bell said, "so maybe that helped me out."
After that, it was the defense's turn to do the pushing. They forced a three-and-out after Boswell's field goal, which gave the ball back to the offense with 1:28 left and led to a 24-yard field goal and 20-14 halftime lead.
The Bengals had one first down and 19 net yards in the second half. T.J. Watt, Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Bud Dupree got sacks in the final quarter.
Dalton had 34 yards passing and a 16.7 rating in the second half after throwing two touchdown passes in the first. He had fewer yards passing on 12 attempts in the second half than the Steelers' Golden did on his fake-punt heave to Heyward-Bey.
"We just tried to step on the gas," Dupree said. "We didn't play as well as we wanted to in the first half, and we wanted to make sure in the second half we came out and shut them out."
With the win, the goal of having home-field advantage in the playoffs is back on track for the Steelers, who were stumbling along at 3-2 just two weeks ago but now control their destiny within the AFC.
"As long as we feel like we come in and play our game plan and don't beat ourselves, we're going to be really tough to beat," Haden said.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.