Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Steelers ride direct snaps, sacks to beat Bengals
Mason Rudolph’s stat line in his first start for the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field was pretty impressive.
The second-year quarterback completed 24 of 28 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns against the Cincinnati Bengals, faring better than Ben Roethlisberger did by going 17 of 25 for 174 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals in his home-field debut in 2004.
But the numbers don’t begin to tell the story.
The Steelers unveiled a new wrinkle to their offense, one that took pressure off Rudolph and reignited their run game. It was a delicious twist that helped them roll to a 27-3 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, their first win of the season.
1. Slow start: When Diontae Johnson was stripped by Bengals linebacker Nick Vigil and the fumble was recovered by safety Jessie Bates III at the 15, it looked like a bad sign for the Steelers. But the Bengals went nowhere and settled for a 28-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Then the Steelers unveiled a new wrinkle to their offense.
When Jaylen Samuels started taking direct snaps, either keeping the ball for runs or flipping it forward for a pass to James Conner, it appeared to be a desperation move by the Steelers to jump-start their run game.
When Conner was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Cincinnati 42 — safety Brandon Wilson came untouched from the backside for the tackle — the woes continued.
Worse, the Steelers were showing no confidence in Rudolph.
2. Seeing red: As Rudolph threw a steady diet of shovel passes and screens, the Steelers weren’t taking any risks.
Until they did.
Late in the first quarter, they took a shot downfield with a pass deep along the home sideline to speedy receiver Johnny Holton. It fell incomplete, but the crowd celebrated when it saw a flag for pass interference.
Problem is, it was thrown on Holton.
Holton touched the back of cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, which a replay showed to be more incidental contact than a push. So Mike Tomlin threw the red challenge flag, contesting the call in an attempt to end his winless streak.
Upon review, the ruling stood. So does Tomlin’s streak, which stands at 11 consecutive failed challenges. He hasn’t won since the AFC playoffs in January 2017.
It cost Tomlin a timeout, but the Bengals soon one-upped the Steelers.
3. Bungled: The Steelers used a five-play, 46-yard drive that saw Conner and Samuels take turns touching the ball before Rudolph rolled right and found Conner for a 21-yard touchdown pass and a 7-3 lead with 10 minutes, 32 seconds left in the half.
The Bengals answered with Andy Dalton converting a third-and-1 with a sneak. Then they took advantage of Steelers substitutions that had backups Ola Adeniyi and Jayrone Elliott playing outside linebacker by throwing a 13-yard pass to Clairton and Pitt product Tyler Boyd and an 11-yarder to John Ross to the Steelers 18.
Then Zac Taylor called a timeout.
Outside linebacker Bud Dupree wasn’t on the field for that last play but had time to return for the next one. Dupree beat left tackle Andre Smith off the edge to strip Dalton, and T.J. Watt recovered at the 29.
4. Double trouble: The Steelers got a Chris Boswell 29-yard field goal to stretch their lead to 10-3 at halftime, knowing they would get the ball to start the second half.
That’s when the offense really got rolling.
Conner broke a 21-yard run on the first play, and Samuels caught a 9-yard pass on third-and-5 at the Cincinnati 49.
New tight end Nick Vannett — acquired a week earlier in a trade from Seattle for a fifth-round pick — came back to the ball for a 17-yard catch, setting up another big play.
The ball was snapped to Samuels, who flipped it to Conner. After running from the 23 to the 10, he churned his legs and broke tackles to fight for extra yards to the 2.
On the next play, Samuels took another direct snap and faked to Conner, this time cutting inside and following the blocks of jumbo tight end Zach Banner and rookie tight end Zach Gentry for a 2-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, the Steelers had a two-touchdown lead.
5. Sack party: The Bengals came into the game with a prolific passing attack that was averaging 326.3 yards a game, even without top receiver A.J. Green.
But Cincinnati couldn’t stop the Steelers pass rush, which was dominant in sacking Dalton eight times for minus-69 yards. That’s two more sacks than the Steelers had in their first three games combined and for 27 more yards in losses.
Cameron Heyward was credited with 2 1/2 sacks and T.J. Watt 1 1/2 , while Dupree, Tyson Alualu, Devin Bush and Javon Hargrave registered one apiece.
That doesn’t even tell the whole story. The Steelers had 12 quarterback hits, as Heyward and Watt had three each and Stephon Tuitt two on Dalton.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .