PITTSBURGH — On a frigid day on the North Shore, the Steelers’ faint flame of playoff hopes fizzled even more. A two-game winning streak was not to be, and neither was a season sweep of the Bengals, who made just about every play necessary on offense and simply let the Steelers offense beat itself yet again in a 37-30 win Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.
The Steelers (3-7) couldn’t do anything with a 20-17 halftime lead, moving in fits and starts in the third quarter before shutting down almost entirely in the fourth until their last-minute touchdown. Cincinnati (6-4) keeps itself firmly in the AFC postseason picture.
Kenny Pickett showed flashes in the first half of his first AFC North clash. He avoided picks and allowed George Pickens to pick on Bengals defenders all day to the tune of their best connection yet. But he didn’t do enough after halftime, and his offensive line struggled against a Bengals front rushing with alacrity. Pickett finished with 265 yards on 25-for-42 passing, with four of those catches, 83 of the yards and his lone touchdown going to Pickens.
The Steelers didn’t get four more interceptions off of Joe Burrow but harassed the Bengals’ franchise quarterback for much of the game, sacking him twice, picking him off twice and hitting him seven times. Their problem was trying to cover Tee Higgins, elevated to Burrow’s No. 1 target in the absence of star wideout Ja’Marr Chase. But Higgins made up for the injured Chase and then some, hauling in nine catches for 148 yards over seemingly every Steelers defensive back — then Clairton and Pitt great Tyler Boyd took over as the closer with a couple huge receptions in the fourth quarter to energize the final touchdown drive. Burrow made it look easy, throwing for 355 yards and four scores.
It was over when: Matthew Wright’s onside kick was snagged mid-air by Boyd, on the same ground where he won WPIAL championships year after year. All the Bengals had to do with 44 seconds left was take a knee.
Player of the game: Samaje Perine. No Joe Mixon, no problem. The Bengals’ go-to running back left early with a concussion but Perine had already been wrecking the Steelers. Oddly enough, the stout Perine did it as a pass catcher more than as a rusher. Three of his four catches for 52 yards went for touchdowns, covering distances of 29, 11 and 6 yards in the first, second and fourth quarters.
Trending up: T.J. Watt. One week after the Steelers were reinvigorated by his mere presence, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year made more of an impact in the box score. His third-quarter interception of Joe Burrow was the stuff of legend, setting up the Steelers offense with a short field and sending the home crowd into a frenzy. He also could’ve had a sack or two if teammates didn’t get there first or Burrow couldn’t side-step him in the pocket. Opponents better buckle up for the stretch run with Watt looking like he hasn’t lost a step — or an inch in his vertical leap — since his early-season injuries.
Trending down: Malik Reed. The only problem right now with the Steelers’ pass rush is how mundane it is with Watt or Alex Highsmith on the sideline. Reed was brought in on cut-down day to be the No. 3, a role that is significant but hasn’t provided much since Melvin Ingram early last season. An experienced player who notched his share of sacks the past few years with the Broncos, Reed needs to make more of his opportunities, which are usually one-on-one matchups given the attention shown to the guy on the other side.
Next up: An extra day to prepare for a Monday night matchup with the Colts, now led by former center and interim head coach Jeff Saturday.