Steelers escape Bengals on Antonio Brown TD in final seconds
CINCINNATI — Joe Mixon plunged into the end zone, Paul Brown Stadium erupted in cheers, and the Bengals were on the verge of ending years of home frustration to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
On the Steelers sideline, with his team trailing by one point, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looked at the clock, turned to his offensive huddle and smiled.
“They gave us too much time,” center Maurkice Pouncey recalled Roethlisberger saying.
Too much time indeed.
Armed with three timeouts and 78 seconds, Roethlisberger coolly directed a drive that might have saved his team’s season, ending it with a 31-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with 10 ticks left to lift the Steelers past the stunned Bengals, 28-21, on Sunday afternoon.
Seasons change. Players, too. But one thing remains the same when the Steelers venture to the Queen City. They always find a way to win.
This comeback from a 21-20 deficit in the final 1:18 was the sixth win in a row, counting postseason, for the Steelers here and lifted their all-time record in the Jungle to 18-3.
It had deeper implications, too, improving the Steelers’ record to 3-2-1 heading into the bye week and cutting the Bengals’ lead over them in the division to one-half game. If not for the last-minute magic, the Steelers would have left under .500 and trailed by Bengals by two-and-a-half games.
“It feels like a must-win for us,” running back James Conner said of the team’s approach to the game.
Conner contributed 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns in his final game before Le’Veon Bell’s reported return to the team after a six-game absence. Roethlisberger completed 32 of 46 passes for 369 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster had seven catches for 111 yards, including a critical 23-yarder on the winning drive. Brown finished with five receptions for 105 yards, and Chris Boswell had his first multi-field goal game of the year, making kicks from 21 and 24 yards.
It was after Boswell’s second field goal, with 3:32 remaining, that Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton led a nine-play, 75-yard drive that ended with Joe Mixon’s 4-yard touchdown run. It gave the Bengals a lead for the first time since early in the second quarter.
But the Bengals scored too quickly against a Steelers defense that allowed only 275 net yards and sacked Dalton three times.
“You give the Pittsburgh Steelers that much time with three timeouts,” Smith-Schuster said, “we’re going to drive down and score.”
Roethlisberger remembered having a different conversation with his teammates.
“I told the guys, ‘This is what legacies are made of for all of us. Let’s go out and take care of business,’ ” he said. “That’s what makes it fun.”
A 10-yard pass to Smith-Schuster on a third-and-2 moved the chains to the Bengals 41. Roethlisberger then faced a third-and-10 with 33 seconds left and threw incomplete to Smith-Schuster down the sideline. But Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was called for holding, giving the Steelers a first down at the 46.
On the next play, Roethlisberger found Smith-Schuster across the middle for a 23-yard gain to the Bengals 31. The Steelers called their first timeout to stop the clock with 15 seconds left.
The ball was on the periphery of Boswell’s range, but he never got the chance to attempt another field goal.
Roethlisberger noticed the Bengals lining up in zero-coverage — man-to-man, with no safeties deep and all other defensive players preparing to blitz. He was ready for it.
So was Brown.
“We had the perfect play call,” Brown said. “I knew it when I came in.”
Roethlisberger took the snap, looked left and zipped a pass to Brown at the 30. Justin Hunter threw a block on the outside, freeing up the middle of the field.
“It was wide open,” Brown said.
Nobody touched Brown on his way to the end zone.
“It was catch the ball, deliver it and let the rest happen,” Roethlisberger said. “In my head, it was, ‘This could be a touchdown. There is a really good chance he’ll score if I do my part.’ ”
Roethlisberger’s 2-point conversion pass to Smith-Schuster pushed the lead to seven points.
The touchdown was reminiscent of other last-minute wins by the Steelers in Cincinnati, from the 2015 wild-card playoff game to the regular-season win after Ryan Shazier’s spina-cord injury in December. Each of the past four wins here for the Steelers were the result of fourth-quarter comebacks.
“I’m not surprised by it,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “Those guys relish the opportunity to rise up in those moments, whenever those moments are.”
The two teams won’t meet again until the regular-season finale at Heinz Field. It would be appropriate if the division title is at stake.
“We know we’ll see them again,” Pouncey said. “It probably will be as hard as this one.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.