There was no denying the Cincinnati Bengals came to play last night at Heinz Field. With seven losses in the first 11 games, the Bengals' season effectively was over, but you wouldn't know that from the way they took the game to the Steelers. The Bengals were on fire: precision passing, timely running, excellent pass protection and superb receiving.
For one series.
Then they were finished. Then they were the Bungals.
Then the Steelers snapped out of their two-game lethargy -- in which they lost to the weak New York Jets and almost lost to the winless Miami Dolphins -- and came from a seven-point deficit to a 24-10 win.
A season threatening to go awry had been righted. The Steelers might not be ready to handle the New England Patriots next week, but at least they go into the game with a nice dose of momentum. They also have what amounts to a three-game lead, with four games remaining, over the second-place Cleveland Browns in the AFC North Division.
The gaudiest numbers of the night belonged to wide receiver Hines Ward, who caught 11 passes, but this was a victory forged by the defense.
The chances of that happening looked slim after the way the Bengals dominated the first time they had the ball. They moved 75 yards in 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead. Quarterback Carson Palmer was superb on that drive, completing six of seven for 57 yards.
But the Bengals did almost nothing offensively the remainder of the night.
"Defensively, our guys did not blink," coach Mike Tomlin said. "They got better and better as the night went along."
This was no ordinary offense the Steelers shut down. Palmer is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. In league-wide offensive rankings, the Bengals were fifth, behind only the teams considered to be the best: New England, Dallas, Green Bay and Indianapolis.
After the first drive, the defense refocused -- despite often being put in poor field position -- and held the Bengals to one more score, a third-quarter field goal.
"We got off to a slow start," safety Anthony Smith said, "but we were fired up after that."
To say the least. After the touchdown, the Bengals' next four possessions went like this:
• After an 18-yard pass from Palmer to Chad Johnson moved the ball to their 45, the Bengals went three and out.
• Starting on their own 47, they gained 7 yards on three plays.
• Starting on the Steelers' 28, after a poor punt by Daniel Sepulveda, they got 8 yards on three plays, then missed a field goal.
• Beginning on their 31, they netted 3 yards on five plays.
The offense that had ground out 75 yards on its first possession could manage only 39 the remainder of the half. The quarterback who had picked the Steelers apart on the first possession completed only two of nine passes the remainder of the first half.
"On that first drive, there were a couple of blown assignments," inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "[Palmer] was reading our defense and guessing right. After that, we started hiding our coverages. We were taking things away.
"He calls a lot of plays on the line of scrimmage, so we were showing him something and doing something else."
The defense's finest moment came in the fourth quarter when the Cincinnati cornerback Johnathan Joseph returned a Ben Roethlisberger interception to the Steelers' 17. The Bengals ran seven plays, got one first down and 14 yards. Palmer completed one of five passes on the possession as the Bengals turned the ball over on downs.
What made the defensive showing all the more remarkable is that Palmer came in on a roll. In his two previous games -- against Tennessee and Arizona -- he threw for 612 yards. Last night, he threw for 183, completing 17 of 44. His passer rating was a miserable 51.6.
Palmer's favorite targets, Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, were stifled by the Steelers' secondary, although Palmer, usually very accurate, had something to do with that. Johnson, who had caught 20 passes for 191 yards in the two previous games, caught six for 86 yards. Houshmandzadeh, who had caught 15 passes for 153 yards in the two previous games, caught five for 42 yards.
Tomlin was pleased but, as he often does, acknowledged that "we fell a little short of perfection."
True, but on the defensive side of the ball, not by much.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .