- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Bengals tried to make their case as the best defense in the AFC North by sacking Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger four times.
PITTSBURGH -- The high-powered offense of the Cincinnati Bengals didn't get into the end zone Sunday.
Cedric Benson, one of the NFL’s top tailbacks, sat out the entire second half with a hip injury.
Two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer was average and, at times, shaky.
Chalk it up to Cincinnati's dominant yet underrated defense, which carried the Bengals for all four quarters against the defending Super Bowl champions.
For one of the first times at Heinz Field, the best defense on the grass Sunday wasn't wearing black and gold. Cincinnati’s unit in orange and black was all over the field harassing Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked four times, had an interception and often saw his receivers covered well downfield.
"They’re playing like the best defense in the league," said Palmer, who had only 178 passing yards. "They believe that, and they’re also producing numbers like that too."
Just as the rest of league has come to the realization that the first-place Bengals (7-2) are for real, the same has to be said of their defense.
Pittsburgh, which had a five-game winning streak ended, had only 226 yards of total offense. The Steelers (6-3) were stopped on 12 of 15 third-down conversions and were held without a touchdown in four trips to the red zone.
The Bengals didn't accomplish much offensively either, but it didn't matter.
"We knew it was going to be that kind of a game and that the best defense would win this game," Bengals safety Chris Crocker said. "That's all [Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer] talked about."
At least for this season, it is time to put Cincinnati's defense in the same category as the defenses of the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
In fact, when the Bengals played head-to-head against the Ravens and Steelers this season, it was Cincinnati's unit that stood out by making a majority of the key plays.
"They’ve been the cornerstones of the league the last few years," Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph said of the Ravens and Steelers. "They’ve been going back and forth No. 1 and No. 2 as the top-ranked defenses in this league ... We want to make our presence felt as well."
Thanks in large part to the performance of the defense, the Bengals swept Baltimore and Pittsburgh in four games this season to become the new bullies of the AFC North.
"It’s an amazing feeling to be able to go into our division and do that to two big-time teams," Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe said. "It’s like we’re playing baseball. You’re not supposed to sweep people in football. It’s hard, but it's been exciting."
In a huge game for both teams, the Bengals remained a couple steps ahead of Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati's defense dictated the pace of the game by controlling the line of scrimmage.
Steelers tailback Rashard Mendenhall, who entered the game red hot, was held to 36 yards on 13 carries (2.8 yard average). The Bengals sacked Roethlisberger four times, including two by defensive end Jonathan Fanene. Fellow defensive end Frostee Rucker had the only interception of the game on a deflection in the third quarter.
Pittsburgh got a majority of its yards through the air, particularly with receiver Santonio Holmes (seven catches, 88 yards). But every time the Steelers strung together several good plays, Cincinnati’s defense would make a big stop to end the drive or force a field goal to keep the game from getting out of hand.
Just as the front seven stuffed the running game, Cincinnati's secondary did a great job against Holmes, Hines Ward (four catches, 24 yards) and rookie receiver Mike Wallace (one catch, 16 yards). Bengals cornerbacks Joseph and Leon Hall were once again outstanding as they continue to develop into one of the league’s best tandems.
"After dealing with me for such a long time, they’re probably the best two in the league right now," Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco said.
Cincinnati made its biggest statement of the season by sweeping Pittsburgh, but the seasons for both of these teams are far from over. Expect a lot of jockeying for playoff positioning in the final seven games.
As with most quality AFC North teams, the Bengals and Steelers are versatile and both have the potential to make a lot of noise in the postseason if they can keep things together.
"We'll probably see them again in the playoffs," Crocker nodded.
Bengals-Steelers III in January for all the marbles?
Now that would be interesting.
6hEric D. Williams