The Steelers have in front of them a golden opportunity today. With the Ravens having already fallen to 3-4, they face the 2-3 Bengals at home with a chance to go 5-2, tying for the best record in the AFC (and the second-best record in the NFL), which would vault them into the top seed in the playoffs.
In order to win today, they will have to do so without a couple of key starters, as Stephon Tuitt and Marcus Gilbert are both out. But the Bengals will also be without Adam Jones, a big loss at cornerback, and wide receivers John Ross and Tyler Boyd are also sidelined.
The Steelers won the opening coin toss and chose to receive, beginning with a touchback. Reports before the game said that Martavis Bryant would be involved more today. The first play from scrimmage was an end-around for him, gaining just a couple yards. On second and eight, it was Le’Veon Bell trailing Roosevelt Nix off right end for four. On third and four, Ben Roethlisberger threw to Bell, who was wide open for a first down and more, finding space down the field thanks to a block from JuJu Smith-Schuster down the field.
Following the 23-yard gain, Bell flanked out wide across midfield, Roethlisberger faking the screen right and instead finding Antonio Brown on a slant for 16. Following an eight-yarder from Bell, the offense stayed on the ground for three more and a first down to the 20. Still on the ground, some excellent blocking off right end on the pull picked up another 11 or 12, setting up first and goal.
Marked at the nine, it was yet another run, this time up the middle, but stopped after two yards. On second and goal, Roethlisberger found Brown for his third touchdown of the season, and second in as many games, beating Darqueze Dennard off a stacked formation to the left, the Steelers getting I think their first touchdown on their opening drive of the season.
Following good coverage on the kickoff, stopped at the 17, Jeremy Hill picked up five yards on first down on the ground. On second and five for Andy Dalton and the Bengals, the quarterback found A.J. Green off play action at the 37. This time Hill was stopped for a loss, tackled by T.J. Watt. On second down, Dalton just barely got the ball to an elevated Green right at the first-down marker, Artie Burns just under the ball.
From the 47 now, Hill was stopped for a yard or two up the middle. Mike Hilton absolutely smoked Giovani Bernard trying to catch a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage, forcing an incompletion. A check-down pass to Tyler Kroft was stopped well short of the first down by Hilton and Ryan Shazier. The punt was downed at about the 10-yard line, taking a forward bounce from about the five.
After a pair of short runs from Bell, Roethlisberger in traffic couldn’t find Eli Rogers coming clean between two defenders coming cross the middle to the left, resulting in a three-and-out. Jordan Berry was able to induce a fair catch on the other side of the field. Not a great distance, but no return is a plus.
From the Bengals’ 47, Dalton was forced to throw the ball away on first down with Watt getting pressure on an inside move. On second down, Joe Mixon was able to cut back for a big gain down to the 27.
Sean Davis tackled him after a one-yard gain on the following play. Joe Haden knocked Brandon FaFell out of bounds after a four-yarder, setting up third and five. On the play, Dalton was able to connect with Green for 16 yards between Hilton and Davis, with the Bengals picking up the blitz well, setting up first and goal.
From the seven, Dalton ran the bootleg but couldn’t find his tight end, Anthony Chickillo getting a tip on the ball, making a nice play. On second down, Havon Hargrave held on to Mixon after a short gain up the middle. Dalton found LaFell for the touchdown with Mike Mitchell in coverage, completing a 53-yard drive on a well-thrown football.
Following a touchback, Bell could only find space for a yard as the first quarter ends tied at 7 apiece. Out of a five-wide look, Roethlisberger found Rogers for the first time since week two for a 10-yard gain and a new set of downs. James Conner checked in on the following play and fought up the middle for five yards. Vance McDonald came up with the big catch down the field vertically on the post for a big gain down to the 31.
Right off the next play, Roethlisberger found rookie Smith-Schuster open down the field for the touchdown. He and Bell played hide and seek afterward as the Steelers grabbed the lead back, 14-7.
Alex Erickson this time got out to the 25-yard line, taking the ball out from five yards deep. Watt made the tackle in Mixon for two yards on first down. Cameron Heyward pounded Dalton up the middle on a deep incompletion on second down. Now third and long, Dalton was able to find Erickson running free for a big gain near midfield, finding the open window in the coverage.
At the 49, Dalton hit the flea-flicker down the field, but far incomplete. Burns and Mitchell collided down the field, and Dalton took a shot from Watt as well. Following a short gain for Mixon to the left, the Steelers were penalized for a hold on L.T. Walton, an automatic first down.
Now across midfield, the pass was dumped off to Mixon up the left side for a solid gain of eight. Dalton found LaFell for 10 in front of Shazier. From the 27, Mixon picked up 17 on the draw as the Steelers continue to allow teams long runs on the ground.
Inside the red zone now, at the 10, Mixon was thrown down for no gain. After a throwaway on second down that barely got out of bounds, Dalton found LaFell down to the one-yard line, Hilton forcing him out. On fourth and one, showing run, Dalton went play-action and hit Kroft for the easy touchdown, the backup linebackers biting on the run, resulting in a tie game in the one game in which the offense looks to be in sync, the defense unable to take advantage.
The Bengals forced a return, fielded by Terrell Watson out to the 21. Bell was good for seven on first down on the draw to begin the intended response drive. Roethlisberger had his arm hit on second down by Carlos Dunlap. Roethlisberger was able to get the Bengals to jump offside on third down, about the second and third time he’s gotten that this year.
From the 33, Bell got to the left edge and turned upfield, smacking the safety and still going for more, getting about eight on the play. Looking long, Roethlisberger eventually checked down and picked up the first down and far more, avoiding a number of tacklers for a long, long gain, stiff-arming Dre Kirkpatrick in the process, down to the 17.
After the 42-yard reception, Bell got the carry for three yards. The second-down play was blown dead on a neutral zone infraction on Vontaze Burfict, making it second and two from the nine. On the play, Bell fell forward for three, setting up first and goal from the six.
Bell wasn’t able to get anything on first down, thrown down at the line of scrimmage out to the edge. On second down, Roethlisberger found Martavis Bryant down to the three. On the other side of the two-minute warning, with four wide, Roethlisberger couldn’t find anybody open, just tossing the ball toward the back of the end zone where no defender would be able to reach it, settling for a field goal. Chris Boswell regained the lead for the Steelers, 17-14, with 1:50 remaining in the first half.
Following a touchback, Dalton threw to Bernard, smashed by Davis on an incompletion. On the draw, Bernard was smothered for no gain, the Steelers calling a timeout with 1:42 to play in advance of a third and 11. Dalton just scrambled on third down, having nothing open, just to make sure the Steelers would have to use another timeout. But they will still have another with 1:35 left on the clock ahead of the punt.
With a fair catch at the 22 from Brown off a 52-yard punt, Bell bobbled a check-down for a huge loss of seven yards. On second and 17, Roethlisberger found Brown for 23 yards in between two defenders on a great throw. With 48 seconds left, out to the 39, Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster slipped out of a tackle for a nine-yard gain and got out of bounds. On second and one, it was McDonald over the middle, making a tackler miss down to the 44, clocking the ball with 22 seconds left. A 12 men on the field penalty was called on the Bengals.
Now at the 39, close to field goal range, a deep shot to Brown drew a pass interference penalty on Kirkpatrick that set up first and goal at the five. Now 16 seconds to go, Roethlisberger looked for McDonald on a back-shoulder in the back of the end zone, but the tight end couldn’t come up with it. Would have been a nice catch, but should have been one. On second down, they ran the ball with Bell unable to advance. The officials screwed the Steelers by not granting their timeout for four seconds, finally calling it at three rather than seven. Boswell did connect on the field goal to extend the lead to 20-14.