PITTSBURGH — It’s fitting that Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Trenton Irwin wasn’t the primary option when he caught his first NFL touchdown.
For most of the last four years, Irwin has toiled in obscurity, mostly as a member of the practice squad, working on routes, catching tennis balls, massaging soft tissue with a foam roller, all while hardly anyone watched.
On Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Irwin scrambled along the back of the end zone before quarterback Joe Burrow spotted him for a 1-yard touchdown pass that put Cincinnati ahead for the rest of the day in a 37-30 win.
It also exemplified where Cincinnati’s offense stands at this point in the season. Earlier in the year, the unit sputtered. On a cold and windy day, on the road against the Steelers and without two of the team’s best playmakers, the Bengals still delivered. And don’t look now, but it’s quietly turned into one of the best units in the NFL.
“We're playing as good as anybody,” Burrow said after the game. “We're hitting our stride offensively.”
The numbers support what the Bengals (6-4) have believed over the last several weeks. At the conclusion of Sunday’s games, Cincinnati was ranked third in the NFL in points per drive and touchdowns per drive and was atop the league in red zone efficiency.
Against a Steelers (3-7) defense that has troubled the Bengals often, Cincinnati went on a 20-3 scoring run in the second half to pick up the team’s first divisional win.
The fact that top wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase (hip) was unavailable and running back Joe Mixon (concussion) was forced out of the game didn’t matter. Others down the roster made key contributions.
Samaje Perine, the team’s backup running back, set the franchise record with three receiving touchdowns. Irwin, who was called up from the team’s practice squad with Chase out, had three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown.
Irwin came inches away from scoring the first potential touchdown of his career in Week 9 against the Carolina Panthers. The agonizingly close opportunity wasn’t on his mind two weeks later against Pittsburgh.
“You know, I ain’t been thinking a lot lately,” Irwin said. "I’ve just been doing whatever I can do and making the plays that come.”
The backups weren’t the only ones who had big days. The team’s other top wide receivers, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd reeled in timely catches in the second half.
Higgins had nine catches on 13 targets for 148 yards, all of which were team highs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Higgins matched Chase with eight 100-yard games since he entered the league in 2020.
Boyd had two catches for 47 yards. Despite the relatively low numbers, one of those receptions was a 27-yard completion that kickstarted a 93-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.
“He always just waits his turn,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said after the game. “And knows when his number's called, he's going to be expected to make the play. And that's exactly what he did on that last drive.”
The assortment of cast members contributing to Cincinnati’s offensive success highlights one of the top storylines for this year’s team.
Entering the season, many pegged the Bengals to have one of the most high-powered offenses in the league. Between Mixon, the top three wide receivers and an improved offensive line to protect Burrow, it had all the trappings to be elite.
Instead, Cincinnati started the year with two straight losses, including a season-opening defeat at home to Pittsburgh. That prompted the Bengals to manufacture ways to create a sense of urgency as they sought to defend their status as reigning AFC champions.
Aside from a blowout loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 8, the Bengals have played up to their preseason potential. Cincinnati has won four of its last five games. Since Week 6, the Bengals have averaged 31.4 points per game.
What happened at the beginning of the year feels like a distant memory.
“The first couple of weeks, you never really get into the top level of your offense, you know what I’m saying?” Boyd said. “You gotta still rebuild, still gotta find it, still start clicking again.
“Once it starts clicking, it’s hard for teams to stop us.”
And Taylor, the team’s offensive playcaller who was under significant pressure from the fan base during the rough stretches at the beginning of the season, saw the team thrive against a Pittsburgh defensive front that features edge rusher T.J. Watt, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year last year.
Taylor and the players worked in tandem to optimize the offense against the Steelers. Higgins talked with his head coach throughout the game as they discussed tweaks to exploit Pittsburgh’s defense. It paid off.
“They call the plays and put us in the best positions possible,” Higgins said of Taylor and the coaching staff. “I was able to go out there and Joe [Burrow] was able to get me the ball. We’re all connected.”
During last year’s run to the Super Bowl, quality offensive play was lacking in a postseason push that featured stout defense and a slew of field goals. As Cincinnati rounds into form, the offense the franchise wanted has finally arrived.
“I feel like we've had good momentum,” Taylor said. “This team's in a really good place.”