For the first time in franchise history, the Cincinnati Bengals are 7-0.
Cincinnati overcame a sloppy performance to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4) at Heinz Field, 16-10. The victory snapped a three-game skid for the Bengals against their divisional-foe.
Cincinnati didn’t have the dominant game plan that has been the norm through the first six games. The Bengals could only muster six points through the game’s first 57 minutes.
Fresh off being crowned AFC offensive player of the month for October, Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton had to battle through many struggles to pull out his third career win over Pittsburgh.
For the first time this season, Dalton threw multiple interceptions as Cincinnati’s offense was full of miscues. He finished 23 of 38 for 231 yards and a season-low 64.7 passer rating.
Trailing 10-6 in the fourth quarter, Dalton connected on six of seven throws for 66 yards to put the Bengals first and goal at the Steelers’ five yard line. After two incompletions, Dalton’s end zone pass to Marvin Jones was jumped and picked by defensive back Antwon Blake and the Bengals came up empty in the red zone.
After a second interception on the next Bengals’ drive, Dalton and company moved the ball 45 yards for the game-winning score. On third-and-two from the Pittsburgh nine yard line, Dalton fired a strike to AJ Green who extended the ball over the goal line for the game-winning score.
This marked the 4th fourth-quarter comeback drive for Dalton this season.
Green once again was able to find success against the Black and Gold—tallying 11 receptions for 118 yards and Cincinnati’s only touchdown of the game.
Green’s touchdown was set up by a diving interception by safety Shawn Williams, also a product of Georgia University, like Green.
Williams’ interception was one of three on the game for the Bengals, spoiling quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s return to the field after missing four games with a knee injury.
Big Ben was able to get off to a quick start, however. Pittsburgh moved the ball at will on the game’s first possession, traveling 80 yards on 12 plays and scoring on a one-yard pitch-and-catch from Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown—who found the end zone for the first time since week two.
After allowing an opening drive touchdown for the third consecutive week, the Cincinnati defense tightened extremely in route to an enormous divisional win on the road.
Pittsburgh’s final 11 drives resulted in six punts, three turnovers, and the final drive of the game that ended when Roethlisberger’s last second heave to Brown was out of the back of the end zone and sealed a Cincinnati 7-0 start.
Roethlisberger returned to action and it seemed the Steelers’ offense was set with a full arsenal of weapons, including their four “killer B’s” (Ben, Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and Martavis Bryant).
Bell, who returned from his two-game suspension in week three (the game Roethlisberger went down in), only had 10 carries before he suffered a knee injury while being tackled by linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Early reports show that he suffered a serious tear in the MCL, thus ending the rest of his season.
Bell’s replacement DeAngelo Williams rushed for 71 yards on nine carries, including a 55-yard scamper in the third quarter.
Reggie Nelson must love facing the Steelers, because he always seems to find the ball. After having late-game interceptions in the Bengals 2012 and ’13 wins over Pittsburgh, Nelson once again had a fantastic outing.
Following Green’s go-ahead touchdown, Nelson intercepted an overthrown pass and added a 38-yard return, although off-setting penalties would move the ball back 24 yards from the Steelers’ two to the 26. After three runs for zero yards, Cincinnati would settle for a third Mike Nugent field goal that gave the Bengals a 16-10 lead, a score that would stand as the final.
Nelson’s first interception was the game’s first turnover. On Pittsburgh’s first drive of the third quarter, Nelson played center field on a poorly thrown deep ball and reeled in his second pick of the season and added a 37-yard return to the Steelers’ 33-yard line.
However, the following Bengals’ drive netted negative 17 yards and led to a Kevin Huber punt, and Cincinnati committed another miscue.
In fact, miscues were the key story line of this Bengals’ victory:
Cincinnati went 0-for-two in the red zone prior to Green’s fourth receiving touchdown of 2015. On top of that, the Bengals punted twice after having possession inside the Steelers’ 35 and had a Nugent 42-yard field goal attempt blocked.
The Bengals’ offense has been able to move at will for most of this season. However, the Bengals offensive line, which was regarded as one of the best in the NFL, had a tough time protecting their quarterback from a defense that blitzes more than any team in the league.
After getting sacked just six times in six contests, Dalton was dropped three times on Sunday, stalling Cincinnati’s offense drive after drive, resulting in just 16 points—the lowest output this season (previously averaged 30 points-per-game).
The Bengals would have liked to have more balance on their offense, especially on the ground. Running back Jeremy Hill ran 15 times for 60 yards, the most he has had since week one against the Oakland Raiders.
While Hill ran well, the team’s leading rusher this season, Giovani Bernard, saw just one carry the entire game—a 12-yard run that gave Cincinnati a first-and-goal opportunity that ultimately came up empty after the Blake interception.
After struggling to pick up the blitz on Sunday, Bernard did have a key 23-yard reception on a shovel pass from Dalton in the fourth quarter to move the chains on third down—which led to Green’s touchdown four plays later.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was a gutsy team win for a Bengals team that was looking to get over a 2-6 record against the Steelers in the last four seasons. Some games are going to be like this, especially inside one of the NFL’s toughest divisions.
The craziest stat of this game is that this was the first Bengals’ victory in the Steel City when scoring an offensive touchdown since their 28-20 win back in 2006. Their previous two wins in Pittsburgh were in ’09 and ’12, each game the Bengals scored just one touchdown—both of which were not courtesy of the offense.
Bernard Scott had a kickoff return touchdown in Cincinnati’s 18-12 win in ’09, and Leon Hall had a pick-six off Roethlisberger in ’12 in the Bengals’ 13-10 victory.
With the win, the AFC North is officially the Bengals to lose. They now own at least a 3.5 game lead on each team in the division with Pittsburgh sitting at 4-4 while Cleveland and Baltimore each sit at 2-6.
The Bengals now will have a short week as they host the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night—and they will hope to get healthy. Rey Maualuga and Carlos Dunlap each suffered injuries on Sunday and did not return.
This may be the first 7-0 start in franchise history; but it is the second time Cincinnati has ever won seven consecutive games in a season.
After starting 1-6 in 1970, Cincinnati rallied off seven consecutive wins to finish the season 8-6 and become the fastest expansion team to ever earn a playoff berth. They would eventually fall in the first round to Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, 17-0.