Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver James Wright (86) is wrapped up and brought down by Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Cortez Allen (28) on a reception in the fourth quarter of the NFL Week 2 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016. The Bengals fell to 1-1 with a 24-16 loss to the Steelers. (Sam Greene/Cincinnati Enquirer)
PITTSBURGH -- So this is what the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive rebuild is supposed to look like.
One soggy, throwback day of football in Heinz Field validated all those defensive draft picks and free-agency signings over the past four years. Pittsburgh slowly "de-striped" the Bengals' offense in a 24-16 victory and is at least entertaining the question of whether vintage Steelers defensive football is finally back.
Well, maybe not Polamalu-and-Harrison-in-their-prime back. But two touchdowns allowed in eight quarters? That's a heckuva start heading into Sunday's matchup with Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I think you'll continue to see us get better," safety Mike Mitchell said.
The Steelers sealed the game with the recovery of a Tyler Boyd fumble with 2:00 left. The ball came loose on a James Harrison tackle at the Steelers’ 33-yard line, and safety Robert Golden recovered.
The Steelers used to struggle to overcome the rare sluggish day from the offense. But with the passing game's inconsistency in the rain, there was the defense, holding the Bengals to 34 rushing yards on their first 16 carries and Andy Dalton to less than 50 percent passing for much of the day.
If the Steelers can win games this way, especially without having to force a bunch of turnovers, they'll really have something, because the offense’s timing won’t be this off very often.
The defining moment came late in the third quarter, with the Bengals driving 74 yards to the Steelers' 1. On first-and-goal, the Steelers got a tackle for a loss from linebacker Ryan Shazier and forced two incompletions. Shazier said the Steelers spent significant time during the week diagnosing the Bengals' goal-line offensive tendencies. They held Cincinnati to a field goal, and even that wasn't satisfying. "We were trying to hold them to nothing," Harrison said.
Make no mistake, Dalton's play was disjointed for the first three quarters, and so was the Bengals' offense. The only favorable matchup for Cincinnati’s offense was Gio Bernardin the passing game. Bernard had 100 receiving yards, including a 25-yarder where he blew by rookie corner Artie Burns.
And the rain affected both offenses. Bengals-Steelers isn’t built to be high-scoring in even good weather.
But the Steelers didn’t rely on splash plays like last year. They simply got stops, holding A.J. Green to two catches for 38 yards with Ross Cockrell following him in coverage much of the day. Two length-of-field Bengals drives resulted in field goals. This is a good red zone defense.
Dalton finished with 366 yards, but much of that came in come-from-behind fashion against softer coverage, and he needed 54 passing attempts to get there.
"I believe in the group," said coach Mike Tomlin of his secondary.
The Steelers have one sack through two games and are still getting wins. That's a good sign for the pass coverage. The secondary isn't perfect, but it's definitely better. Third-down dime coverage worked well for much of the game, with rookies Sean Davis and Burns on the field together. Save both missing tackles on Bernard's touchdown, they acquitted themselves well in an extended look.
Safety Mike Mitchell and corner William Gay were hitting with aggression all day. And Shazier looks like the Steelers' next great linebacker.
The Steelers will face better quarterbacks than Kirk Cousins and Dalton. But they won't face an elite one until Tom Brady in Week 7. And after spending seven first- or second-rounders on defensive players since 2013, that investment is starting to pay off.
Mitchell points to a cohesive defensive backfield settling in after a few years of personnel changes.
"I think we've found our core group of guys," Mitchell said. "Today we had to cover. And we were able to get ourselves off the field."