The Steelers defense had been searching for a playmaker all season, and Cortez Allen finally provided some big plays against the Bengals Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. Unfortunately for the Steelers, his big plays were not converted into points by the team's struggling offense, and that was one of the biggest reasons the Bengals came away with a 13-10 victory and the final playoff berth in the AFC.
Allen had two interceptions and caused a fumble to help the Steelers force a season-high three turnovers.
Allen's first interception came on the first play of the second half when he stepped in front of an pass by Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton and returned it to the Bengals 32. From there, the Steelers ran twice for 3 yards, and on third-and-8, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked to take the team out of field goal range.
Allen's forced fumble came on the second play of the fourth quarter when he stripped Bengals receiver A.J. Green. Ryan Clark recovered on the Steelers 28. Once again, after two plays netted 3 yards, the Bengals sacked Roethlisberger and forced a punt.
The final interception was spectacular in fashion. Early in the fourth quarter on third-and-17, reserve cornerback Josh Victorian leaped into the air near the sideline and tipped a Dalton pass back inbounds to Allen, who got one knee down on the Steelers 23.
The Steelers got two first downs on their ensuing drive -- one an Antonio Brown reception and another by penalty -- but they were ultimately forced to punt after three consecutive incomplete passes from their 42.
Allen is the first Steeler to get two interceptions in a game since Troy Polamalu had two against the Bengals in 2010.
The Bengals were more opportunistic when they caused turnovers.
Roethlisberger's two interceptions on Sunday led to 10 of the Bengals' 13 points. His overthrow of receiver Mike Wallace on a second-and-5 play from the Steelers 29 late in the fourth quarter was intercepted by Bengals safety Reggie Nelson and proved to be the difference-maker in the loss. Nelson returned the ball to the Steelers 46 with just 14 seconds left on the clock.
"My job was to stay deep and not give up a big play," Nelson said. "The D-line did a great job of putting pressure on him and getting the ball out of his hand. If [Wallace] had caught the ball, I'd have tackled him. But he sailed the ball over his head and my eyes got big. I'd dropped one earlier."
Nelson's pick set up Josh Brown's winning 43-yard field goal with four seconds left, but an earlier interception by cornerback Leon Hall provided the Bengals only touchdown of the game.
On a third-and-4 from his 14, Roethlisberger fired it short over the middle to tight end Heath Miller. Hall jumped in front of Miller and went untouched 17 yards for the score with 2:15 left in the first quarter.
"I was in man-to-man-to-man, I just make a break and made the play," Hall said.
Atkins a terror
When the Steelers beat Cincinnati in October Bengals defensive lineman Geno Atkins was not much of a factor. Atkins, who is regarded as one of the top interior defensive lineman in the league, recorded one sack and two tackles in the Steelers' 24-17 victory.
On Sunday, the Steelers could not handle Atkins, who had 2 1/2 sacks and led the charge for a defensive front that thwarted Roethlisberger all day. Atkins twice beat rookie right guard David DeCastro for sacks and beat Ramon Foster on the other.
"They were beating us physically some," coach Mike Tomlin said. "They're a good front. I think they're second in the league in quarterback sacks and for a reason. They have quality rushers."
The Bengals finished with four sacks and seldom allowed time for Roethlisberger to make plays down the field to his receivers. They also hit Roethlisberger seven times.
"It was just a defensive battle," Atkins said. "They'd get a turnover, we'd get a turnover, but the key was on third down we'd rush four and get pressure on them. We blitzed a couple of times, but the stats we got were from the four men rushing."
As for the final Steelers drive that ended in Nelson's interception, Atkins wasn't surprised that the Steelers would try to score even though they started at their 11 with 44 seconds left.
"We felt they'd try to win the game and go deep to Wallace or Antonio [Brown]," Atkins said.
When the Steelers won in Cincinnati they were 10 for 16 on third downs. They were 2 for 14 Sunday. One of the missed conversions came on a third-and-1 from the Bengals 6. Roethlisberger attempted a pass that was incomplete, and on the next play Shaun Suisham missed a 24-yard field goal after a bad snap from center Greg Warren.
"They made plays at significant moments more than we did," running back Jonathan Dwyer said. "We didn't cash in in the red zone. We didn't cash in when we needed it. That's what hurt us.
"The significant moments are third down. They made them more than we did. We didn't help our defense out as an offense by converting those third downs. We put all of the game on the defense."
Not strong enough
Suisham has proven to be a reliable place-kicker for the Steelers this season. Before Sunday, he had made 26 of his 27 attempts on the season. Suisham missed two against the Bengals. His first came after Warren's bad snap and his second was from 53 yards with 1:47 remaining.
Suisham's previous miss was from 54 yards at Tennessee. In that game, the Titans marched down the field and kicked the winning field goal after Suisham's miss.
The Bengals had the same opportunity, but the Steelers forced a punt before Roethlisberger threw the interception that put Cincinnati in position to win the game.
Tomlin had no second thoughts about giving Suisham the opportunity to kick again from that distance.
"We've got a great deal of confidence in Shaun and rightfully so," Tomlin said.
Season over for Miller, Batch
Tight end Miller injured his knee late in the fourth quarter and is out for the season. Tomlin said after the game that Miller had damage to his medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Reserve running back Baron Batch fractured a bone in an arm in the first half. A few others had less significant injuries. Reserve cornerback has an Achilles strain, Mike Wallace a hamstring injury and Maurkice Pouncey a knee sprain. Pouncey and Wallace finished the game.
• The Steelers will not finish with a winning record under Tomlin for the first time. When the Steelers missed the playoffs in Tomlin's third season the team finished 9-7.
• One week after being suspended from the team for not showing up for the Chargers game, Rashard Mendenhall led the team with 50 rushing yards on 11 carries.
• Brown's 60-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter was his longest play of the season and tied for the Steelers' second-longest play this year.
• Miller finished with the season with a career-high 816 receiving yards.
• Lawrence Timmons registered two sacks for his fifth multiple sack game of his career. Two of those have come against the Bengals.
• Polamalu recorded his 10th career sack and became the fifth defensive back in franchise history to reach 10 sacks. Polamalu's position coach, Carnell Lake, leads all Steelers defensive backs with 21 1/2 sacks. Deshea Townsend is second with 15 1/2.
Sports editor Jerry Micco contributed. Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published December 24, 2012 5:00 AM