The Steelers came into a misty Cincinnati to try and get their first division win of the season against the AFC North-leading Bengals.
Joe Mixon scored a four-yard touchdown with one minute and 21 seconds remaining to give the Bengals their first lead since the first quarter, but it wouldn’t be enough as the Bengals’ banged-up defense (more on that later) couldn’t hold off the Steelers who scored a touchdown with 10 seconds remaining to win the game 28-21.
Even though Andy Dalton’s accuracy was potentially better in this game than it had been all season, his receivers were plagued by dropped balls. Stepping in for an injured John Ross, Cody Core had a potential third-down conversion dropped, and even A.J. Green had trouble holding onto the ball at more than one point in the game.
Despite spreading the news that William Jackson would not start, the Bengals left Jackson in for most of the game and used him to keep Antonio Brown under control. Brown only had two catches on three targets for 26 yards before he ripped a 49-yard catch late in the fourth quarter. That was largely due to a decimated Bengals defense that was hit with injuries All. Game. Long.
A large reason for Jackson staying in the game was a nearly insurmountable number of injuries on defense. Nick Vigil, Darqueze Dennard and Shawn Williams all left the game, while Jessie Bates, Vontaze Burfict, and Carlos Dunlap all sought treatment on the sidelines at one point or another. Clayton Fejedelem, Vincent Rey, and Tony McRae all got a lion’s share of snaps during the game. Even rookie cornerback Darius Phillips came in and made a couple big tackles.
Running back James Conner would pick up the slack on offense for the Steelers, as he compiled more than 110 yards and two touchdowns.
Both defenses started out strong, as two of the first three possessions resulted in three-and-outs and both quarterbacks combined for five completions on their first 13 attempts. But after two drops, A.J. Green leapt up to grab a 19-yard pass from Dalton and get the Bengals inside the 10-yard line. Two plays later, Dalton threw the ball right at the pylon, where Tyler Boyd dove to catch the ball just inside the end zone. With 4:36 left in the first quarter, Randy Bullock knocked the extra point through to give the Bengals an early 7-0 lead.
Great pass and catch from Andy > Tyler pic.twitter.com/fU8HL5km7S— Cincy Jungle (@CincyJungle) October 14, 2018
After struggling on the ground for the first two drives, James Conner finally found his feet and broke out a 26-yard run to get the Steelers offense going. Roethlisberger found tight end Xavier Grimble for 13 yards, followed up by a 22-yard catch by JuJu Smith-Schuster to get into the red zone. The Steelers gave the ball to Conner again, and Conner got the ball to the one-yard-line before finishing off the drive and pounding the ball in himself. Chris Boswell converted the extra point after Conner’s rushing touchdown with 14:33 to go in the second quarter to tie the score at 7-7.
The Bengals’ defense did well to keep the Steelers from running wild in the first half and had some crucial stops, like this third down play from Darqueze Dennard to force a punt.
The Bengals get a BIG 3rd down stop by inches. Pittsburgh is challenging the spot. pic.twitter.com/33KlIWZX5Z— James Rapien (@JamesRapien) October 14, 2018
Both offenses would go quiet again until late in the second quarter. With more than five minutes to go, Vance McDonald slipped through several tackles on a 26-yard reception to get the Steelers into Bengals territory. McDonald would be the Steelers’ leading receiver in the first half, and the Steelers would go to him again to set up a third down on the Bengals’ 34-yard line. Immediately following the two-minute warning, Roethlisberger took to the air on third down and tossed a jump ball tp Smith-Schuster. Initially, it looked like Dennard would intercept it, but Smith-Schuster made a spectacular catch to pin the ball against Dennard’s helmet and to secure possession. He was called down at the one, and Conner did the rest of the . work, putting up the Steelers 14-7 after the extra point with 1:07 left in the half.
On the ensuing kickoff, a Steelers penalty added an extra five yards to Alex Erickson’s 47-yard return (his first great return of the afternoon) to give the Bengals excellent starting position on the Steelers’ 44-yard line with one minute to play in the half. Dalton was on fire, going a perfect five for five for 44 yards, ending on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Boyd. The Bengals quickly leveled the score at 14 with only 19 seconds to go in the half.
Erickson started the second half with another huge kick return, getting the Bengals to midfield before even taking an offensive snap. But the Bengals couldn’t take advantage of the good field position and ended up punting on fourth-and-one. Questionable... but moving on.
The Steelers finally got Antonio Brown going on the next drive and looked nearly unstoppable. Brown only caught one ball on two targets for nine yards in the first half, but caught both of his targets on the next drive for 17 yards. Conner broke out a 25-yard run to get the Steelers to the one-yard line but stuffed him twice on the next play. After an incomplete pass, Sam Hubbard and Vontaze Burfict combined to take Conner down behind the line of scrimmage on third down, so even though the Steelers had an amazing drive, they only walked away with three points after Boswell’s 21-yard field goal with 6:53 left in the third quarter, now up 17-14.
Dalton struggled to produce anything in the third quarter, and the Bengals ended all of their third quarter drives with a punt. But in the fourth quarter, Dalton completed his first four passes for 35 yards, with three of those passes and 21 yards going to Boyd. But a sack ended up killing the Bengals’ momentum, so they ended up punting on their first possession of the final quarter.
Antonio Brown finally made some headway against the Bengals defense, as he broke out for a 49-yard catch and nearly tripled his production on the day. Even though the Bengals were playing without almost half of their starters on defense by this point in the game, the Steelers couldn’t get anything going on the drive. Darius Phillips forced a fumble that kept the Steelers from moving the chains and, even though the Steelers recovered it, the Steelers were forced to kick a field goal and remain within one score. With 3:32 left in the game and two timeouts, the Bengals were set to erase their 20-14 deficit to secure a third straight fourth quarter comeback.
Dalton, who has been at his best this season when trailing in the fourth quarter, ended up passing Boomer Esiason as the Bengal’s second all-time leader in passing yards. The Red Rifle was firing on all cylinders, hitting Green, Boyd, Erickson, and C.J. Uzomah on the drive, totaling 57 yards. Mixon finished off the drive with a four-yard run up the middle, and Bullock’s extra point gave the Bengals a 21-20 lead. After only gaining 49 yards in the second half before the scoring drive, the Bengals gained 75 yards on that possession. But the Steelers would get the ball back with 1:18 seconds and three timeouts.
It didn’t take long for the Steelers to threaten to score. Only needing a field goal, they took less than a minute to get down the field. Smith-Schuster found the soft spot in the defense to get the ball to the 31-yard line with all three timeouts. Roethlisberger found Brown for a 31-yard catch-and-run on the next play, as Brown outran McRae for the touchdown with only 10 seconds left in the game. The two-point try was good for Smith-Schuster, and the Steelers had dealt the Bengals a crushing blow, and would go on to win the game 28-21.
The Bengals would drop to 4-2, but still lead the AFC North, for now. Hopefully, the Bengals will be able to recover from their injuries before facing the AFC-leading Chiefs next week on Sunday Night Football.