After a back and forth first half in which the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals traded touchdowns, the Steelers defense locked in and delivered a signature performance in the second half. After taking a six-point lead into halftime, the Steelers defense tightened, forcing Andy Dalton into two interceptions and constantly pushing into the backfield to either sack Dalton or force him into uncomfortable decisions. Despite not having starter Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers still finished four sacks and held the Bengals defense below 200 total yards for the game. Tuitt’s replacement, Tyson Alualu, and Cameron Heyward were particularly active on the defensive line, both recording sacks, while rookie T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier also delivered standout performances. The Steelers secondary, which had an inflated rank against the pass because of the poor offenses it had faced prior to last week, delivered a performance worthy of their rank as the top pass defense in the league. Joe Haden recorded his first interception with the team and Bengals star A.J. Green was held in check. Outside of the first drive of the game, where Green totaled two receptions for 25 yards, the Steelers held the Pro Bowl receiver to one reception and limited his influence on proceedings. The Steelers typically play well against Dalton, and the Bengals quarterback has still failed to put up more than 20 points on the Steelers defense in his seven years as the Bengals starter. On Sunday, Dalton was held to 140 yards passing and Bengals rookie running back Joe Mixon was silenced after a big first quarter.
While the Steelers offense has still yet to put together a comprehensive, explosive performance, the defense placed its stamp on the game Sunday. Even when the Bengals scored two touchdowns on its first three drives, the Bengals never looked comfortable in the game and the offensive line struggled against the Steelers’ blitz packages. Once the Steelers built a lead and forced the Bengals into predominantly passing situations, the Steelers exploited the Bengals poor pass protection and nullified any attempts at a comeback. The Steelers defense backed up its performance against the Chiefs with an even more impressive performance against Cincinnati. After facing subpar opponents in the opening weeks of the season, the Steelers defensive unit is solidifying its standing as one of the best units in the league. It feels odd to say that it is Pittsburgh’s strongest unit given the name power on the offense, but, the defense has put together solid performance after solid performance to pick up the slack from the misfiring offense. With the high-powered Detroit Lions as the next opponents, the Steelers defense will have another test against one of the league’s top quarterbacks. How the defense performs will be a big indicator towards whether the Steelers are contenders or pretenders in the AFC. Based on the evidence through seven weeks, it appears that Pittsburgh is the former.