Fight back. This was Marvin Lewis’ primary message to his charges during the offseason. For the embattled coach, it was more than a catch-phrase for the annual training camp T-shirt. It was the battle cry he wanted instilled in the DNA of a team that has been all to often beaten down.
Through two games, this Bengals team had proven they could. They had fought back from a one-in-a-million nightmare play. They fought back from being down 14 points on the tundra of Titletown. As impressive as all that may have been, none of it would matter to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers came into Paul Brown Stadium Sunday with their own need to fight back. Having barely won in overtime against a still-winless Titans team then losing at Chicago, the men of steel were showing cracks in their championship armor. They needed a win in Cincinnati to right the ship, boost their confidence, and in their estimation, restore order to the division.
Through three full quarters, they had done that, and in convincing fashion. They proved to be what they’ve always been to the Bengals. They ran the ball with authority, despite ranking 28th in the league in that category. They passed all over the field. They blitzed from all directions. Their supposedly suspect offensive line gave Big Ben all the time he needed to dissect a confused and out of position secondary. In short, they dominated like they’ve done for most of the last two decades.
For Bengal fans, it was largely a frustrating re-run of games past. Yet looking outclassed and intimidated for most of the game, the men in stripes kept getting up. They pulled their bruised jaw off the canvas and raised a pair of weary gloves. They still had one round to go.
Chad Ochocinco makes some tough leader-like catches. Carson Palmer stands tall in a collapsing pocket to find his receivers. The offensive line holds off an onslaught of blitzers.
Suddenly, Cedric Benson darts off left tackle and into the end zone. Then for the third straight week the defense comes up with a critical stop. The beleaguered offense gets the ball back in time for one more swing at the champ.
Fourth-and-two with one minute to go. Five yard pass to Laverneus Coles. First down.
Fourth-and-ten with 36 precious seconds remaining. Palmer finds Brian Leonard on a five yard dump-off. Number 40 miraculously outruns enough defenders to dive for 11 yards. First down.
Eighteen seconds left. Palmer to Andre Caldwell. Touchdown. Palmer finds Leonard again for the all-important 2-point conversion.
Ben Roethlisberger’s desperation heave with 2 seconds left fails. There will be no lottery winners today. Ball game. Statement made. The bully, at least on this day, would go home with the bloodied nose.
Steeler nation will take heart in the fact that they outgained the Bengals by 100 yards, and had a huge advantage in time of possession. They’ll no doubt note that the Steelers lost the game as much as the Bengals won it. They’ll emphasize Limas Sweed’s dropped touchdown, Jeff Reed’s missed field goal, and their costly penalties. But don’t buy it. The Bengals had to survive another ridiculously botched snap, bad penalties, dropped coverages, poor tackling and a missed field goal of their own.
They overcame their issues where the Steelers could not. They did what the Steelers usually do. In short, they heard their coach’s battle cry.