Defense leads way as Steelers get comfortable atop AFC North
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Joe Haden spent his first few weeks in Pittsburgh trying to fit into a new locker room after spending seven seasons in Cleveland.
The two-time Pro Bowl cornerback had little trouble adjusting. Still, he couldn’t help but think something was missing.
“I haven’t felt like I’ve made too many splash plays,” Haden said. “I felt like I’ve been doing my job, staying on top, not really getting beat. But you always, as a corner, you always want to get your hand on the ball.”
Haden kick started Pittsburgh’s second-half domination of Cincinnati with an acrobatic pick on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to set up a field goal and the Steelers overran Cincinnati in a lopsided 29-14 victory. Pittsburgh (5-2) intercepted Dalton twice and sacked him four times over the final 30 minutes to provide some breathing room in the decidedly ‘meh’ AFC North.
“We still got a ways to go,” Haden cautioned after the Steelers beat Cincinnati (2-4) for the eighth time in their last nine meetings.
Maybe, but perhaps not as far as it appeared after getting run over by Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette earlier this month. Pittsburgh responded by going to Kansas City to knock off the previously unbeaten Chiefs last week and spent the second half of Sunday showcasing the widening gap between themselves and the rest of the division.
Though the offense again largely had to settle for field goals — a Heinz Field record five by Chris Boswell — the way the defense played, Pittsburgh’s six-point halftime lead was never in danger. The Bengals managed just 19 yards after the break as their mini-surge following an 0-3 start came to an ugly halt.
“We didn’t play up to where we needed to today,” Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green said after catching just three passes for 41 yards. “They did a great job taking me away.”
And putting the Bengals in a serious hole. The Steelers have a full two-game lead over the entire AFC North and after a two-game swing through Detroit and Indianapolis will leave Western Pennsylvania just twice over the final seven weeks.
For a team that looked like a bit of a mess after getting lit up late by the Jaguars, the Steelers certainly appear to have their swagger back. How else to explain rookie linebacker T.J. Watt’s “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” inspired sack dance? Watt, the younger brother of Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, broke it out after chasing Dalton down in the fourth quarter.
“We can be great,” Watt said.
For now, Pittsburgh will have to settle for pretty good.
“We’re going to be very dangerous,” middle linebacker Ryan Shazier said.
READY OR NOT
Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back Le’Veon Bell took the NFL’s relaxed celebration rules to another level with an inspired game of “Hide and Seek” after Smith-Schuster hauled in a 31-yard score in the second quarter.
Bell approached the 20-year-old Smith-Schuster with the idea a few minutes before the kickoff, and their impromptu re-enactment of a children’s game quickly went viral.
“That was us just being dramatic, creative on what we were going to do,” Bell said. “I know JuJu and he loves doing celebrations. I know he was going to be the guy to do it.”
HERE I COME
A week after getting 35 touches against the Chiefs, Bell had 38 against the Bengals. He ran it 35 times for 134 yards and added three receptions for 58 yards, including a 42-yard catch-and-run that featured Bell shoving Cincinnati’s Dre Kirkpatrick to the ground.
“That was one of my better stiff-arms of my life,” Bell said. “I don’t know what happened or what came over me that play.”
The Steelers are 12-0 all-time when Bell has at least 25 carries, including 3-0 this season. He’s ready for more.
“How many more games do we have?” Bell said. “No, for real how many more games do we have? Nine? At least nine.”
YOU CAN’T HIDE
The Bengals appeared to have figured out their running game during their short winning streak, featuring rookie Joe Mixon more prominently. Mixon had 48 yards on seven carries in the first half on Sunday, including a 25-yard sprint that set up a touchdown.
Mixon did not carry the ball in the second half. Not once. Cincinnati had just five carries for 17 yards in the second half, relying on the pass as it fell further behind. Head coach Marvin Lewis couldn’t seem to explain the decision by offensive coordinator Bill Lazor to keep the ball out of Mixon’s hands.
“He was in there in the third quarter,” Lewis said of Mixon. “Whatever plays are called are called.”
GONNA FIND YOU?
Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant downplayed reports that he asked for a trade earlier in the season because of his diminished role in the offense. He carried the ball for a two-yard gain on Pittsburgh’s first snap and later caught one pass for three yards. He also appeared to not see a heave down the sideline by Roethlisberger in the third quarter that could have been a big play.
Bryant appeared to vent his frustrations in a postgame exchange on Instagram , saying Smith-Schuster is a “great talent” but added “I just wants mine period point blank.”