1. Statement made
Any win against the Steelers is meaningful to the Bengals and their fans, but the organization hadn’t won three straight against the AFC North rivals since 1990. After Pittsburgh had dominated the series for so long early in Ben Roethlisberger’s career, Cincinnati no longer is the underdog.
The win keeps the Bengals in the hunt for the AFC North title, with a 3-1 division record, but also significantly improves their chances of making the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight.com predicted the Bengals had a 47 percent chance of making the playoffs before the game, and those odds increased to 61 percent with a win.
Cincinnati now has scored 41 points against the Steelers and Ravens this season. The only greater margin of victory against the Steelers was a 42-7 win in 1988. The Bengals beat the Steelers 24-10 in Week 3.
“It feels good,” Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins said. “Anybody can tell you that in this Bengals organization. Beating Pittsburgh, our rival, feels good for sure. It’s a great team. Hats off to them. It’s a great team, but 65 points in two games, that’s big. We haven’t been them twice since 2009. Man, it feels good. I’m glad I’m part of this.”
2. Mixon set the tone early
The Bengals established the run on the opening drive when Joe Mixon ran the ball seven times for 49 yards to set up Joe Burrow’s 8-yard scramble and dive into the end zone. The offense went on to get points on all but one drive in the first half, the lone missed opportunity coming when Burrow was intercepted on a deep ball to Tee Higgins in the final minute.
Mixon finished with 28 carries for 165 yards and two touchdowns, including 117 yards on 20 carries in the first half. Both touchdowns were 1-yard runs, one with 2:43 left in the second quarter to extend the lead to 24-3 and the other early in the fourth quarter after Evan McPherson made a 51-yard field goal for the only points of the third quarter.
Mixon now has scored touchdowns in eight straight games, and this was his second straight game with more than 100 yards rushing.
“I feel like I’m probably reaching that point of my prime, starting to get there,” Mixon said. “I know what type of speed the defense is coming with. I know how to slow the game down myself, at the same time, as much as I’m making plays, it has everything to do with my teammates. I mean everybody’s bought into to what we’re doing right now.”
Although Burrow didn’t need a huge game to be successful, he was efficient, completing 20 of 24 passes for 190 yards and one touchdown.
3. Defense shines again
Turnovers were big for the Bengals in the last two games against the Steelers, and that again was a factor this time. Cincinnati’s defense recorded three takeaways.
Cornerback Eli Apple, who had struggled until recently as Trae Waynes’ replacement, continued his redemption tour with an interception on the first drive for Pittsburgh, marking his second straight game with a pick. This one came fairly easily when Roethlisberger under threw a back-shoulder pass intended for Chase Claypool, and Apple stepped in front of it and returned it 50 yards to put the Bengals on the 5-yard line.
After Burrow’s second quarter interception, former Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton intercepted Roethlisberger on the next play and returned it for a 24-yard touchdown return with 30 seconds left in the second quarter to make it a 31-3 lead going into halftime.
Sam Hubbard recovered a fumble with 6:23 left in the third quarter when Trey Hendrickson forced it out on a strip sack of Roethlisberger. It was Hendrickson’s seventh straight game with a sack. All four players that contributed to the turnovers received game balls.
4. Higgins steps up
For all the talk about how teams are taking away Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins showed why the Bengals aren’t concerned about that.
Higgins had the catch of the day, going up for a jump ball in the end zone over James Pierre for a 32-yard touchdown and the longest reception for the Bengals. He led the receivers with 114 yards and one touchdown on six catches with eight targets.
“When the question keeps getting asked to me about what are people doing to take away Ja’Marr, that’s not an issue for us because we got Tee on the other side, we got TB in the middle,” Taylor said. “And so that’s never really been a concern, because we feel like we got so many weapons that we trust to make those types of plays. And in that particular example, make them lean to Ja’Marr, and so Tee had a one-on-one, and he needed to go make the play and he did, and that was just an awesome moment for Tee, and great throw by Joe and we really needed that.”
The second-year player nearly had another touchdown early in the fourth quarter when he caught a short pass and ran it toward the end zone but was ruled down just before the goal line. Cincinnati challenged the call, but it was upheld. Mixon scored on the next play to make it 41-3.
5. Stopping the run
Hendrickson said the defense’s focus was on stopping the run first to make Roethlisberger one-dimensional, and the Bengals were able to impact him that way.
The Steelers finished with just 51 yards rushing, and Najee Harris had 23 yards on eight carries.
Cincinnati sacked Roethlisberger three times. He finished with 263 yards passing, including just 83 yards in the first half.
“Just affecting the quarterback I think is one emphasis,” Hendrickson said of the turnovers. “If they have good coverage, we get sacks. If we have a good rush, they get interceptions. It’s complementary football. We trust our guys in the back end, that we know if we make him throw it, a little lob, that they’ll come up with that pick and they did their job today. And we got a sack too, Sam and I, so it’s complementary football and we trust each other.”
Chargers at Bengals, 1 p.m., CBS, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7