The Cincinnati Bengals used the youngest player on their roster to dismantle the oldest nemesis on their schedule for a victory with historic significance Monday night at Paul Brown Stadium.
Rookie running back Giovani Bernard ran for his first NFL touchdown in the first half and caught the game-winning score in the second half to lift the Bengals to a 20-10, nationally televised victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Once you get your opportunity, you have to shine,” Bernard said. “After the loss last week, we really wanted to get this win, and we got it. We knew we needed it, especially against a rival like the Steelers.”
Bernard carried eight times for 38 yards, including a 7-yard touchdown in the first quarter to give the Bengals a 7-3 lead. And he turned his lone reception of the game, a short dump off from quarterback Andy Dalton, into a 27-yard touchdown that broke a 10-10 tie and gave Cincinnati the lead for good.
“We drafted him to be a guy that’s versatile, a guy that can move around and catch the ball out of the backfield and make big plays,” Dalton said. “That’s exactly what we got out of him. It’s exciting to see him come out and play big in a game like this.”
Sparked by the 21-year-old Bernard and bolstered by the return of eight-year veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth from a knee injury, the Cincinnati offense put together its best performance against the Steelers that any current Bengals player, regardless of age, had ever experienced.
Consider this list of superlatives from the Steelers series:
- The 407 yards of total offense was the most since rolling up 544 on Dec. 30, 2001.
- It was the first time the Bengals had even topped 300 yards against since the Wild Card playoff game in the 2005 season.
- The 127 rushing yards were the most since putting up 137 on Oct. 3, 2004.
- The 44 rushing yards allowed were the fewest since holding the Steelers to 26 on Sept. 19, 1982.
- It was just the third time since 1990 the Bengals have won back-to-back games in the series.
- The double-digit margin of victory was the first since a 34-24 triumph No. 10, 1996
“I don’t even know how many plays they really made to stop us,” Whitworth said. “On some of the incomplete passes we had some miscommunication a little bit, and we left some runs out there that should have been bigger plays. The truth is, we consider it a little bit of a sloppy effort.”
The Bengals began to emerge from the slop late in the first quarter after a replay review ruled that Pittsburgh tight end David Paulson fumbled at the end of a 34-yard reception that would have given the Steelers, who were already leading 3-0, a first down at the Cincinnati 16.
Adam Jones got beat on the play, but he chased Paulson down and stripped the ball from behind and recovered it. Then Dalton took the Bengals 87 yards in five plays with a 61-yard pass to rookie tight end Tyler Eifert setting up Bernard’s first score.
“That was huge,” Dalton said. “After that we really got things going.”
A Mike Nugent 44-yard field goal made it 10-3 early in the second quarter, but the Steelers got even on a five-play, 65-yard drive that Ben Roethlisberger capped with a 1-yard TD pass to Derek Moye on the first play after the two-minute warning.
Dalton, who finished 25 of 45 for 280 yards, attempted 32 of his 45 passes in the first half, 10 more than he had in any first half of his career. The Bengals only ran the ball 10 times in the first two quarters despite averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
But in the second half Cincinnati ran the ball 24 times and threw just 13 passes, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis finishing with 22 carries for 75 yards.
“There were some positive plays we had in the first half, so we took a step back and re-looked at some things,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “We did a nice job coming out (in the second half).”
Cincinnati ran it four times and passed it four times on the drive that ended with Bernard’s touchdown catch for a 17-10 lead. And the Bengals opened the fourth quarter with another balanced drive of seven rushes and seven passes that covered 57 yards and ended with a Nugent 25-yard field goal for the final margin.
At that point, with just 7:46 left in the game, the Pittsburgh offense had produced minus-2 yards of total offense in the second half. But Roethlisberger got the Steelers moving and drove them to the Bengals 27 before Reggie Nelson picked off a third-down pass to end the drive.
Green-Ellis and the offense then ate up another three-plus minutes before giving the ball back to the Steelers with 1:43 to go, and time ultimately ran out with them at the Cincinnati 16.
Roethlisberger, who was 9-1 in games played at PBS, was 20 of 37 for 251 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but the running game was non-existent with just 44 yards on 16 carries (2.8 per rush) as the Steelers dropped to 0-2 for the first time since 2002.
“Obviously we are a frustrated group right now,” Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said. “Being frustrated in a natural response. However, we have to accept and acknowledge that we weren’t good enough tonight.”