Five things we learned from Steelers 28, Bengals 21:
1. The defense is starting to find its way
Had the game ended with 3 minutes, 32 seconds remaining and the Pittsburgh Steelers leading by 20-14, much of the postgame talk would have centered around the performance of the defense. To that point, the Cincinnati Bengals had 187 net yards, including 35 in the second half.
Then, Andy Dalton led the Bengals on a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that put the Steelers in a 21-20 hole with 1:18 remaining. This, of course, set the stage for Ben Roethlisberger’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with 10 seconds remaining.
The Bengals would finish with 275 total yards, which easily was the fewest allowed by the Steelers this season. And, for the second game in a row, the Steelers held an opponent to 62 yards rushing.
Another encouraging sign was that Stephon Tuitt got his first sack of the season. Javon Hargrave and Vince Williams got the others. The secondary yielded one pass longer than 20 yards – and it went for only 23.
All in all, it was an encouraging sign for a defense that struggled mightily in September.
2. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s best grab wasn’t on a pass
The second-year wide receiver overcame two early drops to lead the Steelers with 111 receiving yards on seven catches. He had an acrobatic catch at the Bengals 1, and his 23-yard catch set up the game winner, but it was his fumble recovery in the fourth quarter that helped establish a six-point lead.
With the Steelers leading 17-14 and facing a third-and-2 at the Cincinnati 6, Roethlisberger flicked a pass at the line of scrimmage to tight end Vance McDonald. The ball became dislodged, but Smith-Schuster pounced on it at the 6. Chris Boswell’s second field goal of the game hiked the lead to 20-14.
Had the Bengals recovered the fumble with 3:35 left, the strategy in the waning moments might have changed drastically. Perhaps the Bengals don’t drive down the field with such urgency since the deficit is now three points, not six. And maybe the Bengals, after scoring their touchdown, play it safer on defense in the final minute, knowing the Steelers – now trailing by four points instead of one – need to go the length of the field to win it. Maybe there is no zero-coverage defense for Roethlisberger to exploit on his toss to Brown that went for a 31-yard score.
Smith-Schuster’s fumble recovery rendered all of the hypotheticals moot.
3. Roethlisberger kept his uniform clean
For the second game in a row, the offensive line kept Roethlisberger off his back side. The Bengals, like the Atlanta Falcons a week prior, didn’t record a sack on the Steelers quarterback.
Roethlisberger was hit just one time in the 46 times he dropped back to pass as the offensive line contained the Bengals’ pass-rushing duo of Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.
The line also paved the way for James Conner to rush for 111 yards on 19 carries, a 5.8 average that represented a season high for the second-year running back.
4. Holding calls were worth snapping about
The long snapper is the most anonymous player on a team – at least until a snap goes awry and costs his team valuable points.
It wasn’t that bad for second-year long snapper Kam Canaday. Boswell made all four of his kicks (two field goals, two extra points). Still, Canaday was called twice for holding after Jordan Berry punts pinned the Bengals deep in their end.
The first infraction came after the opening series of the game. Berry’s 32-yard punt resulted in a fair catch at the 12. Canaday’s hold, however, gave the Bengals possession at the 22.
The second holding call against Canaday came late in the third quarter after a 35-yard punt and gave Bengals the ball at their 20 instead of the 10. Thankfully for the Steelers, neither of the penalties led to points for Cincinnati.
5. Dirty play was kept to a minimum
Smith-Schuster called the game the most physical one he has ever played, yet this one didn’t have a typical Steelers-Bengals feel to it.
Save for Vontaze Burfict’s shoulder shot to the back of Brown’s neck in the third quarter, the game was free of controversial hits that have defined the series in recent seasons. Not one personal foul was called on either team.
The most egregious foul called against the Bengals was a block above the waist on special teams. For the Steelers, Artie Burns was flagged for 14 yards on pass interference.
Some pushing and shoving took place near the Bengals sideline after the final gun. Maybe that will set the stage for a more heated rematch when the Bengals visit Heinz Field on Dec. 30.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.