The power in the AFC North looked like it had finally shifted, as Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals ran out to a fast start over Ben Roethlisberger and the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh missed ample opportunities early, and it came back to haunt them, while Dalton and Cincinnati took advantage of Pittsburgh’s miscues.
The first quarter saw both teams scoring on their opening drives. Pittsburgh received the opening kickoff and started fast, as kick returner, running back Chris Rainey, returned it to the Pittsburgh 40 yard line.
Roethlisberger marched the Steelers down the field, only to have wide receiver Mike Wallace experience a case of butter fingers. Pittsburgh had to settle for a field goal from Shaun Suisham to open the scoring and take the early 3-0 lead.
Dalton, who boasts one of the NFL’s best nicknames, Red Rifle, due to his pinpoint accuracy and bright red hair, led Cincinnati down the field with running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis carrying the brunt of the load. The 15 play, 80 yard drive ended with Bengals’ running back Cedric Peerman barreling into the end zone for a five yard touchdown
During the Steelers’ second drive, it seemed like things were about to unravel. After two offensive holding penalties against Pittsburgh, they also had two key dropped passes. The first was a fantastic trick play in which Big Ben pitched the ball to wide out Antonio Brown, who lofted a beautiful pass to backup running back Baron Batch that would have easily went for six. The second was just as costly, as tight end Heath Miller dropped a pass in the end zone that was intercepted by Bengal safety Chris Crocker.
On their second drive, Cincinnati went three and out and had to punt the ball. Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown returned the punt 33 yards but it was all for nothing as the Steelers were penalized for another holding call.
The very next play, on 1st and 10, Roethlisberger was sacked and fumbled the ball with Cincinnati recovering the loose ball. After an official review confirmed the call on the field, Dalton and the Bengals went to work with a short field.
Wasting no time, Dalton connected with wide receiver A.J. Green for an eight yard touchdown, putting Cincinnati up 14-3 mid-way through the second quarter.
After another Pittsburgh field goal, with less than two minutes left in the first half, it looked like the Bengals were going to drive down the field for another score. Things didn’t materialize as Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis envisioned when Dalton’s 1st and 10 pass was intercepted by Pittsburgh linebacker Lamarr Woodley and he rumbled down the field for an 11 yard return.
Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh started with great field position, at the Cincinnati 29 yard line, and capitalized on the mistake. Big Ben tossed a nine yard touchdown over the middle to Miller with 24 seconds in the first half. After they converted the 2-point conversion, a fade pass to Miller in the corner of the end zone, the score was knotted at halftime, 14-14.
The 3rd quarter was a chess match as both teams exchanged field goals on their opening second half drives and battled for field position. As the quarter came to a close, Pittsburgh faced a 3rd and 6 from the Cincinnati 45 yard line. Roethlisberger completed a short pass over the middle that wide out Emmanuel Sanders took 31 yards, down to the 14 yard line.
Two plays into the fourth quarter, Rainey took the hand off to the right side and jaunted 11 yards for the touchdown, putting Pittsburgh up 24-17.
Things wouldn’t turn around in the final quarter for the young team from Cincinnati as they went three and out on their last two drives of the game, and Pittsburgh was able to hold on to the victory.
The win was huge for Pittsburgh, which evened out their record at 3-3, second in the AFC North, and pulled them closer to the division leading Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, Cincinnati goes into their bye week losers of three straight desperately trying to right their course.
In perhaps the best divisional game of the week, the Steelers proved to the Bengals that their growing pains are far from over, and that the road to the AFC North will still go through Pittsburgh.
Here’s Five Things We Learned:
1) Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, both Pro-Bowlers in their rookie season, couldn’t connect on their deep patterns, as Pittsburgh rolled a safety over top and took away the deep ball. Although they didn’t come away with the victory, Bengals’ fans should still be happy to see that this team has the look of a future playoff contender as long as they are leading this team.
2) Pittsburgh’s running attack is back. Filling in for injured starter Rashard Mendenhall and backup Issac Redman, running back Jonathan Dwyer carried the ball 17 times for 122 yards. If the Steelers can reestablish their running game, many teams will find themselves in trouble.
3) Many will question Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis’s late game decision making as he called two running plays for Green-Ellis on Cincinnati’s final drive that netted zero yards and challenged a catch on Pittsburgh’s final drive that didn’t merit it. After losing the challenge, Cincinnati lost their second timeout and shortly thereafter, the game.
4) Roethlisberger showed his moxie as one of the game’s great quarterbacks. Midway through the 4th quarter, after failing to convert a 3rd and 11 at the Cincinnati 37, Roethlisberger kept the offense on the field for what appeared to be a fourth down play. Lining up in the shotgun, Big Ben received the snap and pooch kicked it, pinning the Bengals at their 11 yard line.
5) Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace didn’t help his cause for a new contract. Throughout the night he looked disconnected and it showed on numerous plays as he had four drops. Wallace wants to be paid Larry Fitzgerald money, but this is laughable as Fitzgerald only had one dropped passed in all of 2011. Wallace needs to focus on his production first, and if he can cut down on his drops, maybe the money will start to roll in.