Running backs streaking through open holes into the secondary. A defense that showed some swagger and backed it up with solid play. A fourth-quarter lead on the road that ended with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger snapping the ball in victory formation instead of watching an opponent drill the game-winning field goal following a spectacular collapse.
Yep, the Pittsburgh Steelers are back. For the moment anyway.
Pittsburgh's decisive 24-17 win over Cincinnati on Sunday night did more than snap a four-game road losing streak and give the Steelers (3-3) a much-needed momentum boost, it also provided a reminder that there are few teams in the league as resilient as the guys wearing black and gold.
It's why coach Mike Tomlin didn't act surprised after third-string running back Jonathan Dwyer rushed for a career-high 122 yards behind an offensive line missing two starters.
Pittsburgh preaches the importance of "next man up." Against the Bengals the next men played an awful lot like the guys they were replacing.
"The standard is the standard here," Dwyer said. "We lost our franchise player, Maurkice Pouncey, and Doug (Legursky) stepped up tremendously. It shows how talented we are and that we try to live up to that high standard."
One the Steelers failed to meet in critical situations during befuddling road losses to Oakland and Tennessee. Yet instead of flinching after Chris Rainey's 11-yard touchdown sprint early in the fourth quarter put Pittsburgh in front, the Steelers flexed.
Three times the Bengals had the ball in the final 14 minutes with a chance to tie the score. Three times they punted, the last coming with 3:57 to go. Dwyer helped make sure Cincinnati's offense never came back on the field, sealing it with a 32-yard dash that allowed Pittsburgh to run out the clock.
While starter Rashard Mendenhall and backup Isaac Redman watched from the sideline in sweats, Dwyer kept chipping away at Cincinnati's defense until it finally broke.
"Two of my teammates and my brothers went down, but it was an opportunity," Dwyer said. "As a unit, we wanted to fill that void."
It wasn't just the running game, however, that showed some signs of life. Pittsburgh's secondary endured a withering 10 days of criticism after Tennessee stormed back in the final 5 minutes to steal a 26-23 win on Oct. 12.
No player took more heat than cornerback Ike Taylor, who was torched for the game-tying touchdown against the Titans on a night he was also flagged twice for pass interference and once for defensive holding.
Tasked with trying to corral the hottest receiver in the NFL in second-year wideout A.J. Green, Taylor responded by playing like someone who considers himself one of the better cover men in the league.
Though Green did manage an eight-yard touchdown reception in the first half — on a pass Taylor just missed knocking down — it was the only time Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton was able to get the ball to his budding star.
The final ball thrown Green's way was a tribute to Taylor's terrific night. On third-and-10 at the Cincinnati 11 on what would be the Bengals' final drive, Dalton chucked it high and out of bounds while trying to hit Green down the sideline.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, whose interception late in the second quarter helped Pittsburgh tie the game just before the half, figures the Steelers simply returned to a formula that's made them one of the most consistent teams in the league over the last decade.
"We got off the field on third down," Woodley said. "We got a turnover that put the offense in good field position to put points on the board. At the end of the day, that's all you ask. We put pressure on their quarterback. Ike Taylor did a good job against their top receiver."
Pittsburgh held the Bengals to 105 yards on their final 10 possessions. While the Steelers didn't register a sack, they forced Dalton into an off night and shut down Cincinnati's running game after getting gashed on an early 80-yard touchdown drive.
It was a needed return to normalcy for Pittsburgh, which improved to 12-2 at Paul Brown Stadium while sending the Bengals to their third straight loss. The Steelers play six of their final 10 games at Heinz Field — where they've been nearly unbeatable the last two-plus seasons — and with injury-ravaged Baltimore (5-2) suddenly looking very vulnerable, Pittsburgh appears right back in it.
Then again, the Steelers never really thought they were out of it. Sure, they needed to make up some ground. They hope arguably their best game of the season is just the start.
"We got ourselves into a hole," Tomlin said. "The first thing we've got to do is stop digging. We did that; now we've got to build on it."
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