CINCINNATI -- The ball didn't just hang in the night air for what seemed like an eternity. The Steelers' season was right there with it. Both landed softly and safely in the big hands of linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers couldn't have been more thrilled. Woodley didn't just make the big play in their 24-17 win against the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday night -- they now live to fight another day in the AFC North Division.
"Have you ever seen us so happy for being 3-3?" linebacker Larry Foote asked. "Psychologically, this was huge for our defense."
Much maligned for blowing fourth-quarter leads in four of the first five games, the Steelers defense shut the Bengals down not once, not twice, but three times in the fourth quarter after Steelers running back Chris Rainey scored an 11-yard touchdown to break a 17-17 tie. The defense was strong all night, at least after allowing the Bengals to go 80 yards in 15 plays for a touchdown on their first possession. Cornerback Ike Taylor was another big star. Who predicted that? After being torched in the loss to the Tennessee Titans Oct. 11, he bounced back to hold Bengals star receiver A.J. Green to one catch for 8 yards, although it went for a touchdown.
But it was the defensive stands in the fourth quarter that made this game memorable.
"All week we talked fourth quarter, fourth quarter, fourth quarter," Foote said. "I'm glad it played out the way it did. It's going to help us going forward. But it would have crushed [us] if we had let this one slip away."
It doesn't do any good to wonder how much better the Steelers defense would have been this season if it had a healthy safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker James Harrison in every game. That is a waste of time. What is worth talking about is the return of Woodley, who missed the Tennessee game because of a hamstring injury. He is one of the NFL's most significant difference-makers. The defense is much more formidable with him on the field.
Ask the Bengals. They know.
The Steelers played a miserable first half and appeared to be on their way to a loss that would have left them in critical condition with a 2-4 record, all four losses in the AFC. The Bengals led, 14-6, and were driving at the Cincinnati 45 with 1:30 left in the second quarter. That's when Woodley ended up as the right man in the right place, which so often happens to great players.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's first-down pass appeared to slip out of his hand and banged off the helmet of his right guard, Kevin Zeitler. The ball deflected in the air to Woodley, who pulled it in gently at the Cincinnati 40 and rumbled 11 yards to give the Steelers the ball at the Bengals 29. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger quickly turned the opportunity into a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Heath Miller and, after Roethlisberger threw to Miller for the 2-point conversion, the score was tied, 14-14.
You could almost see the Paul Brown Stadium crowd squirm. The Steelers had won 10 of the previous 11 games here. The thousands in the stands waving Terrible Towels anticipated the Steelers making it 11 of 12. Bengals fans dreaded it.
"That was my fifth pick. I knew what to do," Woodley said. "The big thing is catching the ball and giving your offense good field position."
Woodley's interception was just the Steelers' third of the season. Who knows how many more they would have if Harrison had been harassing quarterbacks all season and Polamalu had been patrolling the secondary ...
Time is better spent thinking about what the defense might do in the final 10 games with a healthy Woodley and Harrison rushing the opposing quarterback. Before Sunday night, they played together just one quarter this season, against the Philadelphia Eagles Oct. 7. Woodley left that game with his hamstring problem. Harrison missed the first three games with a knee injury.
You can't look at one or the other, Woodley or Harrison. You have to look at both as a tandem. Neither had a sack against the Bengals, who did a nice job containing Harrison. But when Woodley and Harrison are on their game, they can cover for a lot of mistakes by the Steelers secondary, which figures to be without Polamalu for a lot longer.
"It's not just rushing the passer," Foote said. "You know those guys are going to do that. But they hold the edge for us against the run. They clog the edge and close everything down. They're so strong they can push the tackle or the tight end back. That's just as important to us as getting after the quarterback."
Woodley's interception was even more valuable than a sack on this gorgeous autumn night. It nullified a series of Steelers mistakes in the first half, including a dropped pass by running back Baron Batch that should have gone for a 29-yard touchdown, two other drops by wide receiver Mike Wallace, three holding penalties on kick returns and an interception and fumble by Roethlisberger. More than that, the interception gave the team a chance to win in the second half.
"We played Steelers football today," Woodley said.
Foote predicted the best is yet to come.
"I just want to see Woodley and Harrison play together for a month so they really can get in shape. Then, we'll really play ball."
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.