CINCINNATI -- A week after watching their AFC North rival celebrate a statement game at their expense, the Steelers delivered a rebuttal for those who doubted their defense could close out opponents.
William Gay's fourth-quarter interception in Steelers territory did more than put Pittsburgh (7-3) back atop the AFC North (a half-game ahead of the Ravens and Bengals). This was about redemption. This was about vindication. This was about carrying the team to victory instead of relying on Ben Roethlisberger's arm to save them.
The Steelers' defense has been very good all season, based on statistics and how players run to the ball. This group elevated itself by shutting out the Bengals in the fourth quarter for a 24-17 victory, proving a steel will in the final minutes of a game.
The Bengals have thrived in these spots throughout their surprising season, coming back in the fourth quarter four times. This time, however, Cincinnati ran into a more motivated team. Maybe the Steelers' defense needed last week's kick in the gut from the Ravens to get that fighter's mentality back.
The Steelers, who were on a historic pace for takeaway futility, forced two interceptions on the final three drives. They limited rookie quarterback Andy Dalton to 22 yards passing in the final quarter. It was a performance worthy of a "curtain" call.
“We told ourselves going into the game that we’re playing pretty good defense, but we can’t continue to win games without getting turnovers,” Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “We just haven’t been finishing. It feels good to finally be able to finish somebody.”
The weakness of one of the best defenses of the past decade has been just that. After Joe Flacco led a 92-yard drive to beat the Steelers in the final seconds just seven days ago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a list of "fourth-quarter failures" during the week. According to the website Cold, Hard Football Facts, the Steelers have allowed eight game-winning drives that ended in the final two minutes of games since 2007 -- the most in the NFL over that span.
That's why not wavering on these fourth-quarter stands at a blustery Paul Brown Stadium was so important. Pittsburgh's pride was at stake.
"We always want the opportunity to be on the field," safety Ryan Clark said. "We feel like those are the moments that we can rise up and allow our team to win a game."
Dalton, a rookie who is looking poised beyond his years, didn't make it easy on the Steelers. He never forced the ball in the first three quarters, throwing it away rather than risk a turnover. There were times when he displayed a knack for fading back in the face of pressure to make some outstanding throws.
It was a performance that will go down as a loss for the Bengals, but they certainly earned some respect in going drive-for-drive with the defending AFC champions.
"I don’t think this team has to worry about being able to play with the so-called elite in the AFC -- we can and we will," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
When Dalton and the Bengals were marching to tie the score in the fourth quarter, the Steelers' players said they weren't thinking of the Ravens game or any previous ones. Not buying it. The flashbacks were coming fast and furiously.
Last week, the Ravens were at the Steelers' 26-yard line before scoring the winning touchdown. This game, with Pittsburgh ahead by a touchdown, the Bengals were on the Steelers' 25 with 2:33 left. It was time to check the DVR to see if it was a repeat.
That was until Gay, who allowed the game-winning touchdown last Sunday, jumped the route and made his first interception of the season. Gay also caused the other interception in the fourth quarter, batting the ball to linebacker Lawrence Timmons in Steelers territory.
If you believe Gay is the defense's weak link, then the Steelers were as strong as it today.
"That’s what the game is about: Forget about what happened last week and come out and make plays," Clark said. "To me, he won the game."
Gay was certainly a playmaker in a Steelers' season that has had few of them. He had a hand in two interceptions in a span of 10 minutes, doubling Pittsburgh's total from the first nine games.
The Steelers were tied for the fewest takeaways in the NFL with four, which was on pace for the fewest in NFL history. In a season when their defense has been described as old and slow, the more accurate criticism has been the inability to make game-changing plays.
It's been a strange reversal of fortune for the Steelers, who finished third in the NFL with 35 forced turnovers a season ago. Rather than explain the lack of them this year, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin seemed happy that they're finally coming now.
"That’s what you got to do particularly moving forward," Tomlin said of the turnovers. "As we get into the thick of this thing, people play better execution-oriented football. It makes those type of splash plays even more important because there will be less room for error."
The Steelers were helped by the fact that the Bengals' top playmaker on offense, wide receiver A.J. Green, didn't play in the second half because he injured his knee on the spectacular 36-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter. But the Steelers' defense wasn't helped by its offense, which went three-and-out on its first three drives of the fourth quarter.
Needless to say, don't try to dampen this victory for the Steelers, who notched their first win over a team leading a division this season. You'll get shut down just like Dalton and the Bengals.
"We feel like we’ve been through hell and back," cornerback Ike Taylor said of the past week. "We have a lot of veteran guys who know what they need to do when it comes down to the end of the game. This Steelers defense has been holding this down for a long time. Check the track record."