Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Eli Rogers (17) scores the go-ahead touchdown as Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Josh Shaw (26) and free safety George Iloka (43) defend in the fourth quarter during the Week 15 NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. (Kareem Elgazzar/Cincinnati Enquirer)
CINCINNATI -- Pure survival.
That the Pittsburgh Steelers could look this sloppy at times Sunday and still beat the Cincinnati Bengals24-20 in Paul Brown Stadium displayed serious resolve, which is the only way to combat 104 penalty yards, missed opportunities and the Bengals' fierce tackling.
"We have played that team five times in 12 months -- it's not a lot of secrets," coach Mike Tomlin said. "It's just technical expertise and a lot of butt-kicking, and smiling in the face of adversity."
Pittsburgh will enter its Christmas Day clash against the Baltimore Ravens fortunate that its big three -- QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le'Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown -- remained healthy and intact in Cincinnati. This game was that physical, and it will be felt all week: December football turned cage match, with Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict taking center stage.
Now Pittsburgh has key injuries to tight end Ladarius Green(concussion) and defensive end Stephon Tuitt (knee), two pieces they'll need against the Ravens at Heinz Field.
But the Steelers' offense came alive, and that was the difference. In the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh figured out the Bengals' Cover 2 defense -- striking over the middle instead of trying deep shots. Green and Eli Rogers were huge late, with Rogers -- the owner of the Steelers' only receiving touchdown over the past two weeks, a 24-yarder -- finally being utilized after a slow month of production.
Scoring range was kryptonite for much of the game, with Roethlisberger completing five of his first 14 passes inside the Bengals' 40-yard line. Steelers place-kicker Chris Boswell's six field goals were the only hope for a large part of the game.
"We wanted to try to take advantage of the middle of the field," said Roethlisberger, who finished with 286 passing yards and the touchdown strike to Rogers with 7:29 left. "We just had to stay patient."
Pittsburgh was clutch enough to overcome those problems, and the defense adjusted with disciplined play in the second half. After Bengals running back Jeremy Hill pretended to rip a towel after a 4-yard touchdown to go up 17-3, the Steelers outscored Cincinnati 21-3.
The Steelers found a way to run the ball 16 times in the second half with Bell despite playing from behind for most of it.
"We understood we couldn't blink," said Bell, who finished with 131 total yards. "Stay with our gameplan. They were up 20-6, they didn't score the rest of the game."
The Steelers' attitude toward Cincinnati borders on arrogant. They are the storied franchise that piles up wins in Paul Brown Stadium and considers the Ravens a more worthy rival.
What's funny is that for much of Sunday afternoon, the Steelers were the undisciplined ones. Most penalties came at crucial times that decided points. Pittsburgh seemed rattled by Burfict's antics once again. Hang around long enough, though, and the Bengals will give up the game. This time, QB Andy Dalton threw a costly interception (to Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons) and Cincinnati's defense committed four penalties on one fourth-quarter drive.
And the Steelers' defense deserves credit for adjusting in the second half after the Bengals scored on their first four drives of the game. In the second half, Pittsburgh found a way to create pressure, and the previously sloppy cornerback play tightened up. Early in the game, the Bengals' running backs often had rushing lanes as big as a James Harrison weight room.
"We came out (the second half) and guys understood that we need to keep (Dalton) in the pocket and force throws into coverage," linebacker Ryan Shazier said.
This Steelers team has shown the mettle to adjust late in games.
They'll need to do that at least one more time to secure a playoff spot.
Hopefully, the Steelers say, with less penalties.
"A really good team will take advantage of that," guard Ramon Foster said.