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Special teams, defense lead Steelers demolition of Bengals, 35-7

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James Harrison terrorized Andy Dalton for three sacks, Antonio Brown scored on a punt return and the Steelers special teams dominated as Pittsburgh capitalized on plenty of Bengals mistakes and trounced Cincinnati 35-7 at Heinz Field on Sunday.

The offense put up points in bunches, the defense hassled and pressured Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, and the Steelers’ special teams came up with big play after big play in a 35-7 victory that featured excellence in all three phases of the game.

It was exactly the type of performance the team needed after a narrow, unimpressive win over a struggling Kansas City squad last week, even if it looked like the more of the same early.

Pittsburgh began the day with the ball and promptly went three-and-out. Cincinnati took over and hit on a 43-yard pass play to move into scoring territory. They nearly did, but a four-yard touchdown catch by Jermaine Gresham was wiped out by a false start.

If the Steelers got lucky on that play, they made their own luck two plays later. Rookie Cameron Heyward broke through Cincinnati’s field goal unit to deny a 33-yard attempt by Mike Nugent, keeping to score tied early.

Pittsburgh would break that tie in the second quarter thanks to a 45-yard catch-and-run by Antonio Brown. Brown’s reception set up some hard running by Isaac Redman which, in turn, led to a three-yard score for fellow-rusher Rashard Mendenhall.

A three-and-out by the Bengals led to another possession for the Steelers, and Mendenhall capitalized for another touchdown, this time from five yards out, and a 14-0 lead

The Steelers’ young special teamers struck again on the ensuing kickoff. Second-year linebacker Steven Sylvester forced the ball out of return-man Brandon Tate’s hands and on to the turf, where it was recovered by Emmanuel Sanders.

Three plays later, Pittsburgh was up 21-0 thanks to a 12-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to receiver Mike Wallace.

Cincinnati would finally break onto the scoreboard with an eleven-yard touchdown connection between the two rookies, QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green. It would be the team’s only points on the afternoon.

Pittsburgh’s final drive of the half stalled at the two-minute warning, allowing Cincinnati to make a final run themselves. The Bengals ended up going three-and-out, and the ensuing punt turned into a third big play for the Steelers’ special teams unit.

Antonio Brown finally got his touchdown, taking the punt back 60 yards for a touchdown and a 28-7 Pittsburgh lead, despite the fact that Pittsburgh was actually being outgained at the half, 169 to 160.

The defense did its job in the third, forcing the Bengals to go three-and-out in two of their three possessions in the quarter.

While the defense held, the offense decided to tack on another score. Mike Wallace’s 19-yard touchdown, his second of the afternoon, capped off a 93-yard scoring drive for Pittsburgh.

With the game well in hand in the fourth, Charlie Batch and Bruce Gradkowski took the reins for Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, respectively. The two local products finished out what turned out to be a 35-7 victory for the Steelers in a key division matchup.

LaMarr Woodley started the game, but felt a tweak in his hamstring early on. He sat for the remainder of the game, as the coaching staff didn’t want to risk an full re-injury with another game looming on Thursday.

Ramon Foster left the game with a left ankle sprain, from which he could not return. His participation in Thursday’s game against the Browns is in question. Trai Essex replaced him in the lineup.

Rashard Mendenhall scored his 27th and 28th touchdowns, moving him past Barry Foster and John Henry Johnson for fifth-place all-time in Steelers history.

Hines Ward broke the 12,000-yard threshold, the 19th player in history and the first Steeler to accomplish the feat. He joins Jerry Rice and Art Monk as the only receivers to rack up 12,000 yards receiving while also winning multiple Super Bowls.

Ben Roethlisberger completed the 2,026th pass of his Steelers career, besting Terry Bradshaw for the team-record in the category.

Through the Air
Ben Roethlisberger had a modest day, completing 15 of his 23 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t play for most of the fourth quarter with the game already in hand. Hines Ward led the team in receptions, with five for 30 yards; Antonio Brown led in yards, with 67 on two grabs; and Mike Wallace notched both touchdowns through the air on his three catches and 38 yards.

On the Ground
Rashard Mendenhall was steady, churning out 60 yards on 16 carries, with two touchdowns coming on a pair of great red-zone runs. Isaac Redman ran strong, and picked up 51 yards on eight carries.

Cincinnati only had 232 yards on the afternoon, including a 135-yard performance by the starter, Dalton. James Harrison did something that the Steelers couldn’t do the first time around: get to Dalton – he ended up with all three of the team’s sacks. Ike Taylor intercepted Bruce Gradkowski in the fourth quarter for Pittsburgh’s only takeaway. Ryan Clark led the team with eight total tackles. Ike Taylor notched seven tackles with three passes defensed.

Special Teams
This unit carried the day for Pittsburgh, and paved the way for a quick lead. Cameron Heyward blocked a Cincinnati field goal attempt in the first, ending a scoring threat. Stevenson Sylvester forced a fumble on a kick return and Curtis Brown had two big tackles on coverage teams.  Antonio Brown broke away with a 60-yard punt return touchdown, his first of the season. Jeremy Kapinos averaged 54.2 yards on four punts. The only blemish was Shaun Suisham, who missed his only field goal attempt from 50-yards out.

Game Ball
Easy, this one goes to the special teams. They changed momentum early with the blocked kick, helped build the lead with a forced fumble on a return, and crushed Cincinnati’s hopes with a punt return touchdown at the end of the first half.

Up Next
Pittsburgh will need to turn around quick for another division matchup at home. With the Ravens and Bengals in the books, the Steelers will play their first game against Cleveland on Thursday night. The game will be broadcast on the NFL Network (or KDKA locally) with kickoff at 8:20 PM. 

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