PITTSBURGH — So this is what a complete Steelers performance is supposed to look like.
Despite a few flat moments late, the Pittsburgh Steelers looked as crisp as they have all season in a 29-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, ripping off 251 first-half yards on the league’s second-ranked defense and never looking back.
The identity is intact: Give Le’Veon Bell the ball a ton and throw blockers all over the place, and stop the run as a way to create turnovers on defense.
What it means: A team that’s dealt with contention and underwhelming performances through the first six weeks appears to be hitting a midseason stride and brimming with confidence. Sunday had a little bit of everything — a convincing performance from Ben Roethlisberger, another dominant Bell showing, Antonio Brown acrobatics, defensive turnovers, another sack party in the second half and special-teams tricks. With the AFC wide open, the Steelers are strengthening their case for playoff positioning.
This looks like a versatile — and dangerous — team right now.
What I liked: The perfect pass from Robert Golden to Darrius Heyward-Bey on a fake punt basically sealed the game late, and the hide-and-seek touchdown celebration after JuJu Smith-Schuster’s score was money. But the Steelers’ pass coverage shouldn’t go overlooked. Joe Haden and Artie Burns have limited deep downfield gains all year, and Sean Davis was active over the middle for the second straight week. The Bengals managed one first down in the second half, thanks in part to back-to-back interceptions by Haden and Will Gay.
What I didn’t like: Iffy run defense, at least to start. The Steelers have been erratic in this area all year, and they allowed a rookie averaging 2.8 yards per carry coming in (Joe Mixon) to break off 48 yards on his first seven carries (6.9 average). The defense relied on two interceptions and three sacks to force Cincinnati into pass-first mode. By then, it was over. But the Bengals had matched the Steelers’ intensity entering the third quarter. And the Steelers probably could have gotten one more play off at the goal line at the end of the first half, waiting until three seconds left to call the final timeout.
Fantasy fallout: Martavis Bryant might be unplayable right now. The Steelers tried targeting him a few times, but that seemed forced. Bryant (one catch, 3 yards) is too talented not to break out eventually, but the offense looks most comfortable with Bell, Brown, Smith-Schuster, two tight ends and Bryant as a specialist. Bryant had a good week of practice and seemed poised to create splash plays. That process is on hold for now.
Stiff-arm rampage: Bell has looked like his old self the last few weeks, but he punctuated that reality with a fierce 42-yard reception that included a stiff arm so hard that Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick bounced off the turf like a basketball. Bell finished the play by throwing linebacker Vincent Rey to the sideline. Bell’s got it working right now, and the Steelers would be smart to keep riding him.
What’s next: The Steelers match up with the Detroit Lions on the road next Sunday night, then head into a bye, when, worst case, they’d be 5-3. Roethlisberger, whose decision making has been better the last few weeks, typically likes throwing in a dome. He threw for three touchdowns last year at Indianapolis.