In the previous weeks, the Steelers always seemed to underwhelm on offense, defense or special teams, but this Sunday, they were able to put together a signature win in a division that has suddenly found itself up for grabs.
On offense, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went 27-of-37, for 278 yards, one touchdown, one interception and one lost fumble. Behind an offensive line rife with injury replacements—Doug Legursky at center for Maurkice Pouncey and rookie Mike Adams at right tackle for Marcus Gilbert—he was sacked just three times, a feat considering the fierceness of the Bengals defensive front.
Most importantly, the Steelers offense was able to execute in both the running and passing games. Roethlisberger targeted nine players, including seven catches and 96 yards for Antonio Brown and six for 53 and a touchdown for tight end Heath Miller.
In the run game, Jonathan Dwyer shined as the starter. Replacing the injured Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, he had 122 yards on 17 carries—a 7.2 yards-per-carry average—representing the best running performance of any Steelers back thus far this season.
Though Roethlisberger had those two turnovers and receiver Mike Wallace had more drops than anyone should find comforting, their dominant, run-heavy offensive approach paid off serious dividends.
The Steelers are the best third-down offense in the league, and they put that skill on display on Sunday, converting 10-of-16. They held the ball for 37:20 compared to 22:30 for Cincinnati, enabling them to run 70 plays to the Bengals' 49. When a team controls the clock to that extent, there is little question they'll win.
The Bengals did have moments in which they looked good, particularly in the first quarter when Cincinnati running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis seemed to run all over Pittsburgh's offense. Things stiffened as the game went on, however—Cincinnati had a mere 185 yards of total offense, with 80 from the run and 105 from the pass.
Impressively, the Steelers effectively cut off the Bengals' passing outlets. Star receiver A.J. Green, who has appeared uncoverable in weeks past, had just one catch on six targets, for only eight yards. He was double-covered all night, with cornerback Ike Taylor looking more like his 2011self, thanks to also having help over the top.
With Green shut down, the Bengals' top receiver was Ryan Whalen, who saw his first action of the season with Armon Binns out with injury and Marvin Jones hurt on the opening kickoff. He had just 31 yards, however, on four catches.
It wasn't perfect—Roethlisberger turned the ball over twice, and penalties continued to pile up, this time five of them for 50 yards, most of which fell to the special teams unit, which also gave up long kickoff returns. No Steelers defender notched a sack, though LaMarr Woodley did grab an interception, but the pressure on Dalton managed to come from frustrating him with good coverage.
No football game is flawless, though. The Steelers made a major statement on Sunday night—they're still very much in the mix when it comes to winning it all in the AFC North.
True, Pittsburgh's had much better luck against the Bengals in Cincinnati—they are 18-4 since 1991—but they had yet to pick up a win on the road. Getting over that very real hurdle should only help the Steelers' mental game as the tough, second-half stretch looms ever larger.
This was a must-win game for the Steelers, and they showed up to get that victory. That they did so convincingly makes this the most important victory of their first seven weeks. Most importantly, the Steelers proved that the problems they were having were fixable.
It might be a relatively old, banged-up squad, but it's an experienced one, and they were able to use that considerable experience to be prepared, composed and focused. It's not over yet for the Steelers—not by a long shot.