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Steelers' maligned defense helps keep season alive

| Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, 12:42 a.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier hits Bengals running back Giovani Bernard during the fourth quarter of their AFC wild-card game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016, in Cincinnati.

CINCINNATI — The Steelers defense had been ridiculed and scrutinized for not getting it done over the past few seasons and for failing to make splash plays and being undisciplined when it mattered most.

On a rainy Saturday night, the defense silenced its critics as it helped stake the Steelers to a big lead before forcing a turnover that set the stage for injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to engineer an improbable winning drive in a bizarre 18-16 victory in an AFC wild-card game at Paul Brown Stadium.

Trailing 16-15, the Steelers were facing inevitable defeat when linebacker Vontaze Burfict intercepted backup Landry Jones. But linebacker Ryan Shazier ripped the ball out of Bengals running back Jeremy Hill's hands with 1:23 to play to give the Steelers a final shot of handing the Bengals more postseason misery.

“It was just a critical time in the game; we knew we just had to get the offense the ball as fast as possible,” Shazier said. “We were all just saying that we were going to emphasize stripping the ball out, and I saw an opportunity and the guys were holding him up and when I started tackling him and the ball was a little loose, I had to try to yank it out.”

While Roethlisberger was heroic, Shazier's effort and the defense keyed the victory before a stunned crowd of 63,257.

“We are not a perfect group,” coach Mike Tomlin said, “but we did enough to move on.”

Shazier, slowed by injuries this season, led the defense with 13 tackles, including two tackles for loss. Also, he had two forced fumbles and recovered a fumble after the jarring the ball loose from running back Giovani Bernard to turn back the Bengals in the red zone.

The Steelers held quarterback AJ McCarron, who was making his first career postseason start with Andy Dalton still recovering from a fractured thumb on his throwing hand, to 23 of 41 for 212 yards. The Bengals managed 279 total yards.

Yet, with 3:28 to play, a beaten but resilient McCarron had a chance to right all of Cincinnati's playoff failures.

McCarron faced a fourth-and-2, and rifled a completion to wide receiver Marvin Jones to the Steelers 28. Now, an oft-maligned defense was sweating it.

Then, the Steelers' familiar nemesis, wide receiver A.J. Green, beat safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback William Gay on a 25-yard touchdown catch to give the Bengals a 16-15 lead with 1:56 to play.

When Burfict intercepted Jones 20 seconds later, the Steelers seemed destined to their fourth straight playoff loss.

“Once we gathered ourselves again, we realized, ‘OK, even though it's under two minutes, we still have three timeouts,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “We said, ‘OK, if they run any plays, we've got to strip it.' When they ran, Shazier made a heck of a play.”

The Steelers defense put up impressive numbers: three sacks, six tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. And the defense didn't blink until early in the fourth quarter when safety Will Allen committed a costly pass interference penalty on Green at the Steelers 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Hill powered off right tackle to trim the Steelers lead to 15-7.

Again, the defense was pressured after Jones was sacked to surrender to the ball back to Cincinnati. The Bengals reached the red zone, but the Steelers allowed only a field goal to leave Cincinnati with a 15-10 deficit.

The defense twice had overcome penalties that kept alive Cincinnati drives. The Steelers committed a holding and face-mask penalties on a third-quarter drive but escaped only because McCarron couldn't make the easy throws.

Ralph N. Paulk is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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