Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers brought their "B-minus" game to Heinz Field Thursday night. But that was more than enough to beat up on the lowly Cincinnati Bengals (1-9-1).
Pittsburgh continued its trend of surviving and advancing with a 27-10 victory over the Bengals to improve to 8-3. It was the second win in five days for the Steelers.
Perhaps style points are not important this time of year. But for three quarters the Steelers struggled in two phases of the game -- offense and special teams -- against an inferior team at home.
But the Steelers will take the win, and there were plenty of smiles in Pittsburgh's locker room Thursday night. The Steelers stretched their lead to 1½ games in the AFC North.
So, in many ways, it was mission accomplished.
"It was by no means perfect," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of the performance. "I thought we stumbled out the gate a little bit both offensively and defensively. They got up on us but the guys didn't blink. We stuck to the plan."
Here is what else we learned Thursday night:
Steelers still searching for offensive identity
In the past, everyone knew what they were getting from the Steelers' offense. Pittsburgh was going to run the football effectively and make big plays in the passing game if opponents decided to stack the box.
This year the Steelers seem unsure. They started Thursday's game running the football, then abandoned it after one quarter. Pittsburgh threw the ball a lot in the middle quarters until it got the lead in the final period, then it went back to the running game again to milk the clock.
The plan seemed sporadic against a subpar Bengals defense, which the Steelers torched for 38 points in their previous meeting.
With the Steelers' offense, there's nothing you can count on consistently week to week. Sometimes the Steelers are a run-first team. Sometimes quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throws 41 times. Thursday they were somewhere in between.
Pittsburgh still in a great spot
With all that said, Pittsburgh has the inside track on a division title and currently holds a bye in the first round of the playoffs with five games to play. That's the most likely goal with Pittsburgh trailing the Tennessee Titans (10-0) by a significant margin.
Thanks to their consistent defense, the Steelers should be in nearly every game the rest of the way. But Pittsburgh will have to be a more well-rounded team in other areas to beat stiffer competition the next two weeks -- the New England Patriots (6-4) and Dallas Cowboys (6-4).
In fact, Pittsburgh's next four opponents all have winning records and three of those games will be on the road. The Steelers, who improved to 2-2 in their past four home games, are hoping their lulls in the past month are behind them.
"We went through our midseason struggles, if you will, and still found a way to win...I feel that we're going in the right direction," Roethlisberger said.
There were several key injuries to the Steelers. Tailback Willie Parker and defensive end Brett Keisel both sustained knee injuries, and receiver Santonio Holmes suffered a concussion from a violent hit by Bengals safety Chris Crocker. The Steelers should have updates on all of these players in the next few days.
Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick didn't put up impressive numbers (168 yards, one touchdown, one interception). But he was one of the few quarterbacks this season able to avoid the Steelers' vaunted pass rush. The game plan called for a lot of quick-hitters to avoid sacks, and the Steelers had only one in the game, from linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
"You can't get frustrated," Woodley said of the lack of sacks. "As long as we go out and get a win and applying pressure to make him make bad decisions, that's still part of our job."
Pittsburgh punter Paul Ernster is on the hot seat after having five punts that averaged just 28.4 yards per kick. Tomlin described his performance as "horrible" and said the team will explore alternatives during its 10-day break between games.
"We will address it," Tomlin said.