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Five things we learned from Steelers win over Bengals

December 6, 2017 GMT

Five things we learned from Steelers 23, Bengals 20.

1. The hits kept coming, and fines are sure to follow.

JuJu Smith-Schuster should expect to be lighter in the wallet, and Bengals safety George Iloka likely will lose part of his paycheck as a result of the jarring hits they delivered in a rough-and-tumble game that renewed the competitive juices that has defined this series.

The Week 7 matchup, in which Vontaze Burfict kicked Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix in the helmet, was tame by comparison. The rematch featured 20 penalties for 239 yards. Six prominent players, four from the Bengals, left the game because of injury.

The game will be remembered for Ryan Shazier’s scary back injury in the first quarter that led to him spending the night in a Cincinnati hospital. The Steelers also lost Shazier’s backup, feisty inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich, to a shoulder injury in the second half.

For the Bengals, cornerback Adam Jones injured his groin and didn’t return after intercepting a Ben Roethlisberger pass on the first drive of the game. Coincidentally, Le’Veon Bell and Burfict exchanged shoves after the play, which led to the Steelers running back being flagged for unnecessary roughness.

Another Bengals cornerback, Darqueze Dennard, exited with a knee injury. Rookie running back Joe Mixon suffered a concussion, and Smith-Schuster’s illegal hit on Burfict sent the Bengals most notorious player to the locker room with a head injury.

Antonio Brown remained in the game after Iloka left his feet and cracked the wide receiver in the head during Brown’s 6-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.

While Smith-Schuster was being interviewed in the locker room – he apologized for standing over Burfict, which drew a taunting penalty – Brown walked behind reporters and repeatedly shouted “Karma, it’s called KARMA.” That was in apparent reference to Burfict’s hit in the 2015 wild-card playoff game that concussed Brown and forced him to sit out the Steelers’ divisional playoff loss in Denver.

The penalty trend began on the first play when Roosevelt Nix jumped offside. It carried through to the end when the Bengals were offside when Chris Boswell was preparing to kick a game-winning 43-yard field goal. With the ball moved five yards closer, Boswell was good from 38 yards as time expired.

In between, 18 other plays resulted in flags being thrown, with many coming on special teams. J.J. Wilcox was penalized twice for holding, one of which negated a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Martavis Bryant. Rookie cornerback Brian Allen also got into the act with a roughness penalty.

Not to be outdone, Bengals defensive lineman Geno Atkins was called for roughing the passer on a late shove to Ben Roethlisberger.

When the NFL’s disciplinary folks watch film of the game, there will be no shortage of plays to review and fines to be dished out for players on both sides. Fines usually are announced on Friday, and it might take the NFL that long to figure out how many players to punish and at what cost.

2. Boswell comes through again.

The Steelers don’t negotiate contracts during the season, but perhaps it’s time to break from protocol and give Boswell a long-term deal. For the third time in four games, Boswell made a buzzer-beating field goal to give the Steelers a three-point win.

Boswell made three field goals against the Bengals. And for those counting – hint: it requires all of your fingers and toes – Boswell is 20 for 20 in field-goals attempts against the Bengals in his career. And that’s just the regular season. Counting playoffs, he’s 24 for 24.

3. Welcome, Cam Sutton, to the starting lineup.

Coty Sensabaugh’s games as Joe Haden’s replacement at left cornerback maybe has ended at three. After A.J. Green beat him twice for touchdowns in the first half, Sensabaugh began the second half on the bench.

Sutton, the Steelers’ first pick of the third round this season, made his NFL debut and acquitted himself nicely. Sutton didn’t do anything spectacular (he had one pass defensed), but his arrival coincided with the defense settling down and controlling the Bengals’ passing game.

After catching seven passes for 77 yards in the first half, Green was held without an official catch in the second. Unofficially, Green had a 61-yard touchdown reception, in which he beat Artie Burns and got past Sutton en route to the end zone, but it was negated by a holding call.

The Bengals had 253 yards of offense in the first half, and just 100 in the second.

Sutton’s play should warrant him more playing time on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. It might even include his first NFL start.

4. Vince Williams stepped up after Shazier’s injury.

When his good friend left on a stretcher four minutes into the game, Williams became the steady influence in the middle of the Steelers defense.

Williams finished with a team-high nine tackles and he brought down Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton for his seventh sack of the season. It was a performance that surely made Shazier proud.

The Steelers might need to rely on Williams more heavily in the upcoming weeks. Shazier’s replacement, Tyler Matakevich, was helped off the field in the second half with a shoulder injury. L.J. Fort finished the game at inside linebacker.

5. The run defense needs some work.

For the first time since the Jacksonville Jaguars gouged them for 231 yards on Oct. 8, the Steelers allowed an opponent to crack 100 rushing yards.

Heck, the Bengals had 80 in the first half when the built a 17-3 lead. Cincinnati would finish with 130 yards and a 5.9 average per carry. What was curious was the Bengals going away from the run in the second half. Joe Mixon’s exit with a concussion was a factor, yet even armed with a two-touchdown lead, the Bengals had just eight rushing attempts in the second half.

Giovani Bernard finished with 77 yards on the ground, so it wasn’t like he wasn’t getting the job done. With Shazier out of the game and the Steelers on their third-string left inside linebacker in the third quarter, it was surprising the Bengals didn’t try to run more often.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.