Bengals' win over Steelers shows progress needed to end rebuild

PITTSBURGH -- The sounds outside of the visitors’ locker room echoed through the tunnels of Heinz Field.

The slaps on the back thudded and the cheers from the Cincinnati Bengals' players, coaches and other personnel were the sounds of a team celebrating a certain type of win. Sunday’s road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- a team dealing with significant injuries and a fading quarterback -- was going to be the first big benchmark to gauge where the Bengals stand at this point in their rebuilding process.

The resounding 24-10 win, perhaps the most complete performance in coach Zac Taylor’s three seasons, shows the Bengals they can be competitive in the AFC North. Cincinnati produced the type of performance that could resonate for the rest of the season and prove pivotal come December.

“We expect to be on the road, win divisional games, to achieve all the things that we talk about internally as a team,” Taylor said after the game. “This is something that’s necessary.”

This wasn’t the first time the Bengals (2-1) have beaten the Steelers (1-2) in Taylor’s tenure. Cincinnati stunned a playoff-bound Pittsburgh team on Monday Night Football last December.

But the team’s second-straight win over its AFC North rival was far more significant. Last year’s victory came with quarterback Joe Burrow already sidelined for the season with a knee injury, and with postseason hopes extinguished.

Taylor said if he could have drawn up the schedule, a Week 3 road game against a divisional opponent would have been his preference. A victory over Pittsburgh on a cloudless day in September showed why.

Before Sunday, the Bengals had zero divisional wins in any month but December in Taylor’s first two seasons. Cincinnati linebacker Logan Wilson, who had a game-high 14 tackles and two interceptions, said the win at Heinz Field was a continuation off what the team accomplished in 2020, and would provide the team a boost of early-season momentum.

“We just gotta believe that we can beat the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Wilson said. “They’re a historically great organization. So any time you can come away with a win against them, it’s huge.”

Cincinnati showed some much-needed resolve on Sunday. Taylor’s playcalling came under fire following a lackluster loss in Chicago last week. But the Bengals responded by averaging 6.4 yards per play and imposing their authority on the game despite having 35 fewer snaps than the Steelers. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin summed it up best when asked about the Steelers, who were missing pass rushers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, snapping their NFL record by failing to register a sack for the first time in 76 games.

“They were in control of the game,” Tomlin said. “I mean, what are we even talking about?”

Burrow overcame an early interception to throw three touchdowns passes, including two to rookie Ja'Marr Chase. In Burrow’s only game against Pittsburgh last season, Cincinnati was thoroughly outplayed in a 36-10 defeat.

That game and two big losses to the Baltimore Ravens showed the ground the Bengals needed to make up against the other teams in their division.

And especially coming off last week’s defeat to the Bears, Burrow said the team was aware of what was required in Pittsburgh.

“We knew we had to come in here and play the way we did,” Burrow said.

Taylor said the most meaningful part of the victory was being able to finish a win on the road. In early 2020, the Bengals squandered a fourth-quarter lead to tie the Philadelphia Eagles in Philly.

That didn’t happen against Pittsburgh. Instead, Cincinnati produced the kind of performance that could lead to the team playing meaningful games in December.

“This is something we needed,” Taylor said. “But it’s just a small step in our journey for the rest of the season.”