PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers are firmly in control of the AFC North thanks to the combination of Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell.
Roethlisberger threw for 224 yards and two touchdowns, and Bell had 192 total yards — 134 rushing, 58 receiving — as the Steelers downed the Cincinnati Bengals 29-14 on Sunday at Heinz Field. Chris Boswell added five field goals as Pittsburgh had a season-high points total.
The Steelers (5-2) now hold a two-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens (3-4) in the division race after winning back-to-back games. The third-place Bengals (2-4) fell 2.5 games off the pace as their two-game winning streak ended.
Here are five things we learned from the game:
Bell is best
Bell has reestablished himself as the NFL’s premier running back following a slow start caused in part by missing the preseason because of a contract dispute. Sunday’s performance, which included 35 carries and three receptions, came against a Bengals defense that entered the game second in the league in both total yards and points allowed.
It also came on the heels of Bell rushing for a season-high 179 yards last Sunday in a 19-13 victory over the then-unbeaten Chiefs at Kansas City. In his last four games, Bell has rushed for 504 yards and three touchdowns on 116 carries after totaling 180 yards and one TD on 52 carries in the first three weeks.
“This is what we come to expect from him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s rolling well, but when he does it, it’s a product of a lot of things. The guys up front obviously. I thought the wideout perimeter blocking was excellent. It’s an 11-man job to run the football for us.”
Ben still has it
It seems hard to believe that it was just two Sundays ago that Roethlisberger was questioning his effectiveness after throwing a career-high five interceptions in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Against the Bengals, Roethlisberger looked like the guy who has won two Super Bowls and been selected to five Pro Bowls in his 14-year career. He completed 14 of 24 passes, with first-half touchdown throws of 7 yards to Antonio Brown and 31 yards to JuJu Smith-Schuster.
“We felt really good throwing the ball,” Roethlisberger said. “The receivers and I thought we were on a good page. We felt like we could have thrown the ball all over the place, especially against a good defense.”
Red zone woes
Boswell connected on all five field-goal attempts as he improved to 16-for-18 this season, an 88.9 percent rate. The downside, though, is the Steelers had to settle for the field goals after scoring touchdowns on their first two drives.
The Steelers had a touchdown on only one of their six red-zone opportunities. They entered the game 16th in the league with a 50 percent success rate.
“I told him after the game, ‘Great job. We just gave you too many threes instead of ones,’” Roethlisberger said, referring to Boswell. “But we will take them any way we can get them. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
Tale of two halves
The Bengals trailed 20-14 at halftime, as quarterback Andy Dalton completed 11 of 18 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns; a 6-yarder to Brandon LaFell and a 1-yarder to Tyler Kroft. He also had no interceptions or sacks.
However, the Bengals failed to score in the second half, as Dalton was just 6 of 12 for 32 yards while being intercepted twice and sacked two times.
Furthermore, rookie running back Joe Mixon did not have a carry in the final two quarters after rushing seven times for 48 yards in the first half. Mixon’s 6.9-yard per carry average was a marked improvement over his 2.8 mark in the first games.
“We couldn’t run the ball in the second half, we couldn’t throw the ball in the second half,” LaFell said. “It felt like a horrible day at practice.”
Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict refused to shake hands with the Steelers’ captains after the opening coin toss. He also kicked Steelers fullback Roosevelt Nix in the face on the second play of the game.
Burfict has a long history with the Steelers. He celebrated on the field after Bell suffered a season-ending knee injury during the 2015 regular season. He then gave Brown a concussion with a blow to head late in a 2015 AFC wild-card playoff game.
Burfict received a three-game suspension to begin last season for the hit on Brown, and it seems likely that he will hear from the league office for kicking Nix.