The Pittsburgh Steelers got a lot out of their defense today, and they needed all of it to squeeze out a last-second overtime victory over the defending AFC North, and AFC conference, champions. Coming out the victors in the first regular season game inside of Paycor Stadium, Pittsburgh’s defense certainly shares as much of the credit as any of the other phases.
With four interceptions, a fumble recovery, and six sacks, the effort from all three levels of the defense proved critical in slowing down a high-powered Bengals offense enough to keep the game close and allow them to hold off for a win, which head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged in his post-game press conference.
“I said they need to be what we need them to be. And so, we needed five [takeaways] today”, he told reporters, via the team’s YouTube channel. “That’s what great defenses do. You guys asked me to define great defenses—it’s a loose definition. They smile in the face of adversity, and they deliver necessary plays. That’s why I answered it a couple of days ago the way I did, and today is an example of that”.
Although the team is bracing for rather bad news concerning T.J. Watt, who exited the game late with a suspected torn pec after recording an interception and a sack, the defense saw their star players rise to the challenge.
It started with Minkah Fitzpatrick picking off Joe Burrow’s first pass and returning it for a touchdown, his fifth defensive touchdown of his career. Alex Highsmith finished the game with three sacks, or half of his total output from last season. Cameron Heyward, Larry Ogunjobi, and Chris Wormley were all credited with sacks as well.
The five takeaways were the stat of the game, without question, and it allowed the Steelers to take a 17-6 lead into halftime. Were it not for a blocked extra point attempt at the end of regulation, even that lead wouldn’t have been enough.
While Pittsburgh weathered injuries defensively, the Bengals did also lose wide receiver Tee Higgins relatively early in the game after suffering a concussion following a collision with safety Terrell Edmunds. Burrow still threw for 338 yards, but it took him 53 attempts, and he finished the game with a quarterback rating of 61.7.
Tomlin talked during the offseason about how changes over one year to the next alter the makeup of a team’s priorities and what they need to get out of different units. Everybody knew coming into the day that the defense would have to step up in a big way, and they did that, at least for one week.