By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, November 14, 2011
Lawrence Timmons(notes) #94 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates with Brett Keisel(notes) #99 and Ziggy Hood(notes) #96 after intercepting a pass in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on November 13, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Steelers won 24-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI — Think of the Steelers as your shoe raised in the air, ready to squash one of those annoying stink bugs. You want to squash it. You know you can squash it. But the foot never comes down.
In the case of the insect, there's an obvious reason for that: Its demise will smell up the whole house.
In the case of the Steelers, it's safe to say their many shows of mercy this season have been just as malodorous but much harder to explain.
Remember running up 17 points on the first three drives against Jacksonville, only to hang on, 17-13?
Or allowing an equally awful Arizona team to pull within a field goal in the third quarter?
Or Tom Brady's touchdown pass with 2:35 left to get New England within six?
Or Joe Flacco finding guts even he didn't know he had to drive 92 yards?
At some stage of legitimate contention, a team has to slam the door. It has to show some semblance of a killer instinct.
And that's exactly what the Steelers showed Sunday in shutting down Cincinnati, 24-17, at Paul Brown Stadium: Some semblance of it. They whizzed toward unanswered touchdowns on the first two drives, allowed the Bengals to tie the game by the third quarter, then bent, bent, bent ... before ultimately getting it done.
Hey, any finish is a start with this group.
"It feels good," safety Troy Polamalu said. "Feels great, actually. It's nice to get over that hump, especially after last week."
That's when Flacco went the length of the field to lift Baltimore, 23-20. The Steelers had a chance to hold their lead on offense but bumbled their way to a punt. They had a chance on defense, too, but gave up Flacco's 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith over cornerback William Gay.
Sunday had a similar feel.
These were the two possessions right after the Steelers took that 14-0 lead: First, Polamalu and Ryan Clark inexplicably flanked Cincinnati receiver A.J. Green like the guards at Buckingham Palace, while Green leaped for a 36-yard touchdown catch. Then, Steelers tight end Heath Miller tipped a Ben Roethlisberger pass upward into the hands of Bengals cornerback Leon Hall.
And yet the Steelers later took a 24-17 lead and finally planted a flag in one of those things.
With the Bengals crossing midfield early in the fourth quarter, Gay swatted away an Andy Dalton pass into the hands of linebacker Lawrence Timmons for a ... um ... hang on, I have to look this up.
Oh, right. An INTERCEPTION.
Small wonder defensive end Brett Keisel danced off the field.
"It just felt good to get one, man," Keisel said, grinning through the beard. "It's been crazy how those just haven't come our way."
There would be another, doubling the team's season total to four. The Bengals bullied down to the Steelers' 25 with less than three minutes left, but Gay boldly darted in front of receiver Jerome Simpson for a sweetly timed interception that brought big-time redemption.
"Nothing special, just regular coverage," Gay said. "This was a total team effort."
Only if the offense would do its part this time, and it did: Big tight end Weslye Saunders caught an 11-yard pass for one first down, and Mike Wallace caught a 7-yarder for another.
"Victory formation," Saunders said with a broad smile. "It's always great not to put the defense back on the field. You've got to finish the game the right way."
"Man, that's what we've been looking for all year as a team," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We haven't been finishing anything. I mean, you can talk about it all you want, but we went out and did it."
The rest of the locker room seemed as delighted about that as the 7-3 record the Steelers carry into the bye week, right back to being tied for best in the AFC. But, as Roethlisberger and others rightly acknowledged, the Steelers didn't play a great game here. Nor did they face a great opponent. Yeah, I know the Bengals are 6-3, but this was just the beginning of the varsity portion of their schedule.
The Steelers were simply the better team, and they followed through on it.
It's what they should have been doing all season, but maybe all that's fumigated now.