5 ways the Steelers improved in 27-3 win over Bengals
Five things we learned from Steelers 27, Bengals 3:
1. Second chance for Diontae
When rookie third-rounder Diontae Johnson fumbled at the Steelers 15 on the second offensive snap after catching a 3-yard pass, it could have earned the young wide receiver time on the bench.
But coach Mike Tomlin stood by Johnson, who was making his second career start. Johnson returned to the field at the start of the next series and was the Steelers’ most productive wide receiver.
Johnson finished with six catches for 77 yards and broke the game open with his 43-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter that provided the Steelers with a 24-3 lead. Johnson nearly mistimed the pass from Mason Rudolph, leaping to catch the ball while no Bengals defender was within 10 yards of him. Johnson then scored untouched to cap the longest play of the game for the Steelers.
His contributions came on a night when No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had just three catches for 15 yards and the other starter, James Washington, was held without a catch.
2. Timely improvement
In the three losses that opened the season, the Steelers defense had difficulty getting off the field, which was a main reason they had the NFL’s second-worst time of possession.
The tide turned against the Bengals. Although the Steelers had a slight disadvantage in possession time, they controlled the ball for 29 minutes, 46 seconds. Only two extended drives by the Bengals in the fourth quarter when they trailed by three touchdowns kept the Steelers from gaining the edge in possession time.
The difference was the Steelers buckled down on third down. They forced a trio of three-and-outs in the game, and the Bengals didn’t get a first down on three consecutive possessions in the first half, which helped the Steelers find their offensive footing and take a 10-3 lead into intermission.
The Steelers held the Bengals to 4 of 14 on third down, a marked improvement after the Patriots, Seahawks and 49ers were a combined 18 of 38 on that possession down. The Steelers also limited the Bengals to 16 first downs after allowing an average of 25 in their 0-3 start.
3. Barron bounces back
In the 24-20 loss at San Francisco one week earlier, inside linebacker Mark Barron was called for holding on a third-down incompletion, which extended the drive and allowed the 49ers to score the go-ahead touchdown inside the final two minutes.
Barron also was late providing coverage on the winning touchdown pass, and he finished with one tackle despite playing 79 snaps.
Barron rebounded in a big way against the Bengals. He led the Steelers with 11 tackles, including one for a loss, and he intercepted Andy Dalton’s fourth-down pass in the end zone to keep the Bengals from scoring a touchdown with 11 minutes remaining.
4. What a rush
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler had his unit hounding the Bengals quarterback the entire night, with the Steelers collecting eight sacks. The NFL sacks leader in each of the previous two seasons, the Steelers entered the game with just six quarterback takedowns.
The breakout star was defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, who led the Steelers with 2.5 sacks. Heyward, a former All-Pro, was held without a sack in the first three games.
In the early stages, it looked like Heyward’s drought would extend until next week. He departed in the first quarter with a thigh injury that he admitted caused “a lot of pain.”
Heyward combined with T.J. Watt for sack late in the first quarter. He brought down Dalton for an 11-yard loss in the third quarter and dropped him again for an 8-yard loss in the fourth.
5. Turn for the better
The previous three times the Steelers committed a turnover, their opponent turned it into a touchdown. It happened twice in the loss to the 49ers, including the go-ahead score, and it occurred against the Seattle Seahawks.
That didn’t bode well when Johnson fumbled on the second offensive snap for the Steelers, giving the Bengals possession at the 15. But the defense stiffened, forcing Randy Bullock to kick a 28-yard field goal.
It was a step in the right direction for a defense that was rightfully maligned during the three-game losing streak. And the offense didn’t commit another turnover the rest of the game.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .