Utter relief. That was the general feeling watching the clock tick to zero in the Cincinnati Bengals 37 - 30 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday afternoon. The stressful nature of the game belied the touchdown deficit. The Bengals won the game, yes - and secured their first division win - but their title defense continues to test their mettle.
What is it about the Steelers that just gives the Bengals headaches? T.J. Watt, in his second game back from his Week 1 injury, was a menace yet again. He tipped a Joe Burrow pass to himself for an interception in the third quarter deep in Bengals territory. In two games versus the Bengals in 2022, he has two interceptions. As a defensive lineman. He’s absurd.
And on the subject of interceptions, the Steelers forced two more against Burrow, bringing their season total to six. Their hands were in passing lanes all day, and it’s reasonable to wonder if the book on Burrow is to try and bat balls in the air - well, when they aren’t getting two sacks on Burrow, that is.
But the Bengals fought through it all. They withstood a ferocious Steelers pass rush and dismantled their middling secondary. Running back Joe Mixon was knocked out of the game with a head injury, but the Bengals withstood that too, and backup Semaje Perine scored three touchdowns.
The defense was on its heels early. Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, making his fifth career start, was finding fellow rookie receiver George Pickens and second-year tight end Pat Freiermuth, and their offensive line was stymying the Bengals pass rush. It was a recipe for disaster.
Notably, the disaster never came. The Bengals went into halftime down three, but by the end of the third quarter, they had the lead back. The defense was back to having secondhalftouchdown-phobia (a term I’m coining to describe the Bengals defense’s reluctance to allow touchdowns in the second half), though they did allow a late score in garbage time.
If there was one theme to describe the Bengals victory, it was unlikely heroes. Numerous unheralded players made huge impacts. Perine was the obvious contributor, but linebacker Germaine Pratt was a constant force against the run, little-utilized receiver Trenton Irwin caught his first career touchdown, third-string running back Treyveon Williams had a great kickoff return, and punter Drue Crisman, making his first career start, pinned the Steelers back deep with some booming punts and was flawless in the kicking game.
And speaking of the kicking game, Evan McPherson is earning back the “Money” moniker. The sophomore campaign hasn’t been a smooth one for young Evan, but his 54-yarder against the Steelers in frigid conditions indicated he might have recalibrated over the bye week. He may be nearing the end of his probation.
Was it a perfect game? No, far from it. The Bengals offensive line played immeasurably better in Round Two versus the Steelers, but Watt and his fellow defenders still caused problems in all phases. The defense put the clamps on Pickett and the Steelers offense in the second half, but the Steelers receivers made numerous plays, especially the rookie Pickens. The offense moved the ball with ease, and receiver Tee Higgins was incredible with 148 receiving yards, but turnovers continue to be a problem in the most inopportune moments.
The Bengals took the Steelers best shot - for the second time - but on Sunday, they didn’t buckle. The offense picked up the defense in the first half, and then the defense took over. With the win, the Bengals kept ground in the division and in the conference. With expectations so high, this Bengals season hasn’t had the same magical feel as 2021, but this was a significant step.
The remainder of the schedule is brutal. In the Bengals next three games, they face a revenge-minded Tennessee Titans squad, Patrick Mahomes and the ever-threatening Kansas City Chiefs, and a Cleveland Browns team that must have a man on the inside with the way they’ve beat the doors off the Bengals in some recent matchups. It’s a challenge, but a challenge befitting the defending AFC champions. In Pittsburgh on Sunday, the Bengals stumbled at times, but displayed their trademark resiliency. Survive and advance season has officially arrived.