PITTSBURGH – A win can do wonders for a team’s confidence. A win in Pittsburgh can do much more for the Bengals.
It was clear from the smiles on every Bengal face that stepped to the podium following a dominant 24-10 win over the Steelers, that this team has a newfound sense of purpose.
This isn’t a team that is just talking in platitudes about its potential. They actually – finally – have a statement win in the Zac Taylor era. Yes, it’s something that’s been over two years in the making but it was unmistakable in the wake of Sunday’s performance at Heinz Field.
“I think coach Taylor said it best in the locker room after the game. He said ‘This is exciting. We’re happy it’s a win. But more importantly, this is our standard,’” said left tackle Jonah Williams, who helped end the Steelers streak of at least one sack at 75 games. “It’s not a surprise that we can go in there and win.”
Sure, the Steelers were without T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, two of their best edge rushers. But that doesn’t discount what the Bengals offensive line, with rookie Jackson Carman making his first NFL start at right guard, were able to do on the road Sunday against a team that prides itself on getting to the quarterback.
“It’s something that we have to know we’re capable of and work to continue to execute and continued to do as the season goes on. I like to think it’s a big win. It’s exciting, but I don’t think for any of us in the building it’s a surprise.”
Asked Jonah Williams if this feels more than just another win. "Yeah, it does… this is the standard." pic.twitter.com/FSDmLtbwEN
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) September 26, 2021
The Bengals had a chance to limp to the locker room when Ben Roethlisberger found tight end Pat Freiermuth from four yards out with 64 seconds left in the second quarter. The Bengals defense had just spent 8 minutes, 32 seconds on the field, defending 15 plays over 86 yards.
The Bengals had struck first when Tyler Boyd played human pinball off Melvin Ingram and scored to give Cincinnati a 7-0 lead. But the crowd could sense Bengal fear in the air of Heinz as it has so often.
But instead of retreating, the Bengals struck lightning fast and with cat-like precision. The Bengals were about to prove to themselves, and the Steelers, this year’s group is different. Thanks to a questionable roughing the passer call on Ingram on the drive before the half that started at the Cincinnati 25, Joe Burrow marched the Bengals to the Steeler 32. With 43 seconds remaining, Chase told Burrow to just throw it up and he’ll do the rest.
Did he ever.
The ball landed just in his outstretched hands and Chase held on for the go-ahead touchdown.
“It was a lot of fun. Ja’Marr came to me before that play and he was like ‘Just throw it up to me, just throw it.’ So, I was like OK, I’ll just throw it up and he went and got it. That’s what happened on that one,” Burrow said. “I thought the corner (James) Pierre had pretty good coverage but Ja’Marr just out-physicaled him and got to the ball. That’s why you draft a guy like that to make those plays.”
Chase became just the 10th player in NFL history with at least one touchdown in each of his first three career games. But to Chase, that means nothing. Winning means everything. After all, this is a guy with a national championship ring along with his quarterback.
“Not until I get my goals, not really,” Chase said of the significance of NFL history. “Until I achieve everything I want to achieve, it’s just a step closer to my goals.”
After that bit of Chase magic in the end zone, the game felt changed and the Steelers and the 58,076 inside Heinz were stunned. These were apparently not the lame old Bengals. The Steelers converted a first down but that’s all. They punted and it was 14-7 at the half.
The Bengals added a field goal to open the second half on their opening drive. Not a touchdown but still a solid 10-play, 55-yard drive consuming 6:13 and producing a field goal to open the third quarter on the road. That drive put the Bengals up, 17-7.
Then, following Logan Wilson’s second pick of the day, the Bengals needed to go only 19 yards before Burrow hit Chase again in the back of the end zone. 24-7 and the rest was a mere formality.
It was a mere formality because of the way the Bengals defense played.
“I don’t even know if I can put it into words,” said Wilson of the Bengals wrecking crew known as their defensive line. “Seriously. Our d-line, they come together. It’s like night and day compared to last year. They’re just so much better up front. They trust each other. They trust what they’re doing. They trust the coaches. We all do. And that’s why you’re seeing the results we’re doing. Obviously, we gotta continue to do that. But so far, so good.”
Wilson, for his two sacks and 14 combined tackles, was awarded the game ball.
“I mean, it means a lot. But the biggest thing is we got the win,” Wilson said. “So, that’s what means the most. Any time we can come into here in Pittsburgh and come away with a win to start off our divisional matchups is huge for us.”
The Steelers orchestrated an 18-play, 88-yard drive consuming over nine minutes. It produced exactly three points. The Bengals had broken the will of the Steeler offense, and the crowd let them know it with a chorus of boos throughout the second half.
“Great job. We’re up three possessions there in the second half and they’re tired, they’re out there, they’re facing good players,” Taylor told me. “Najee Harris is a physical back, he wears people out. Whether he’s running or catching, he had an amazing amount of catches today so you’ve still gotta tackle him whether he’s getting rushes or not. But it was bend don’t break.
“You’re up three scores. Let the clock keep bleeding. We’re not giving up huge chunk plays for the most part, kept them out of the end zone with touchdowns, limited them to field goals or limited them to stops on fourth down. That’s just what we needed from those guys today in the second half when we got that lead coming out of the first possession in the third quarter.”
The “Who-Dey” song rang out loud and proud through the walls of the Bengals locker room and into the media room where reporters waited to ask the Bengals about their newfound spirit.
This goodwill is great and no doubt significant to a team learning now to play with confidence. But now comes another test: playing when you are EXPECTED to win. That will the case when Lou Anarumo’s defense – with or without Chidobe Awuzie – takes on a rookie quarterback on Thursday night.
🗣 "It feels good to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers"
Watch today's locker room celebration ⤵ pic.twitter.com/s6Zz6c6K4l
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) September 26, 2021
“We need to have more success in our division. And (Sunday was) just the first opportunity we had to do that,” Taylor said. “I’m thankful it came on the road. I’m glad our first divisional game was on the road. Because it’s just a great part of our early season momentum that we needed to build. You could have drawn up the schedule I would have wanted a Week 3 divisional opponent on the road, I would have wanted that. Again, we’ve just gotta finish strong this week on Thursday night.”
The Bengals gained legit confidence Sunday over a division rival on the road. The next step is to learn to play and win with it. Tune in Thursday night to see if they know how.