CINCINNATI -- Whether they score three points in a football game or 43 points, offensive players are never bashful about pointing out that they probably left some points out there.
Sunday night it was too obvious to mention, the examples too glaring for even a weary protocol.
How many points did the Steelers leave scattered on the glistening carpet of Paul Brown Stadium? Too many to calculate, but four when Mike Wallace dropped a first-half pass that forced the Steelers to settle for field goal, and seven when Baron Batch dropped, of all things, an Antonio Brown pass, at the Bengals 10 and no one within a Queen City block of him. That drive ended when Chris Crocker stepped in front of Ben Roethlisberger's pass to Heath Miller for an interception in the back of the end zone.
So that's 11 unredeemed points in a game that was tied at 14, tied at 17, and looking to all of its Sunday Night Football witnesses like there might not be a verdict until midnight.
But who figured this Steelers offense to turn around and cash in the old-fashioned way?
That's right, nobody, at least nobody expected this duct-taped offensive line to blow a hole in the Cincinnati front big enough for Chris Rainey to sprint through for an 11-yard winning touchdown, a hole three Chris Raineys abreast could have negotiated, a hole that gave the Steelers their biggest lead of the game.
So what if it was their only lead of the game?
That hole represented the sudden discovery of mostly unknown capability associated with Todd Haley's offense, and no one dared expect it to emerge at this point.
Willie Colon and Heath Miller, two of the healthier bodies up front, made that hole, and suddenly made the up-for-grabs AFC North understand that the Steelers could actually run the ball.
Jonathan Dwyer, a third-string running back, slashed into a similar gap for a 14-yard clock-bleeding run on a night the Steelers would rush for more than twice the 75 yards it typically manages. Three plays later, there was an even bigger avenue through Cincinnati's defense, and Dwyer ran on it as though it were as wide as Pete Rose Way.
Thirty-two yards later, Roethlisberger needed only a kneel down and the Steelers had a 24-17 victory along with their very own 3-3 record everyone in the NFL has found so fashionable this season. They were the only AFC North team to win Sunday, and they did it mostly because of Doug Legursky's understudy performance for banged up Maurkice Pouncey at center and Michael Adams' stand-in gig for injured right tackle Marcus Gilbert were little short of spectacular.
Dwyer ran 17 times for 122 yards (7.2 per pop) as the Steelers piled up 167 rushing yards among their robust total of 431, ripping more than 37 minutes off the game clock in the precision-blocking process.
That offensive line wasn't as flawless in pass protection, as Roethlisberger was felled four times, once leading to a turnover, but generally it delivered a long-missing suggestion of balance to a team desperate for a win, particularly on the road, where Mike Tomlin's team had lost four in a row including the postseason, and five of the past six. The only team they'd been able to beat away from Heinz Field in that span was the Cleveland Browns, and even then by just four points.
The Steelers have scored fewer points than any team in the division, but suddenly they look a world more capable.
Roethlisberger completed 27 of his 37 throws, and at least a half dozen of the incompletions were smack on target. He had to throw 15 times to the skittish Wallace to arrange for eight catches. His most reliable connection was Brown, who caught seven balls for 96 yards.
Brown's 16-yard reception on a third-and-8 extended the Steelers' winning drive, as did Emmanuel Sanders 31-yard catch and run on third-and-6. Sanders' gallop through a crossed-up Bungles secondary put the ball at the 14. Roethlisberger hit Miller with a short toss to the 11, and that's where they were for second-and-7 with Rainey in the backfield.
Roethlisberger probably had the worst view of it: He spun around and handed off to Rainey, but when was able to look again, it seemed Miller and Colon had separated the Bengals' front seven into equal halves that were nowhere near the point of attack.
Touchdown Rainey. Turn the clock over to Dwyer. The tone and tenor of a season might have turned in that fourth quarter.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org First Published October 22, 2012 5:15 AM