The defending AFC champions can hurt opponents in all kinds of ways no matter who's in the lineup. Joe Burrow laid the proof bare in a 37-30 victory over Pittsburgh on Sunday.
Yes, that was Samaje Perine setting a franchise record by catching three touchdown passes, the most in a single game by a Cincinnati running back. Yes, that was practice squad call-up Trent Irwin hauling in the first score of his four-year career with a 1-yard grab in the back of the end zone to give the Bengals the lead for good midway through the third quarter.
Two-plus months removed from an upset home loss to the Steelers in Week 1 in which he was pummeled relentlessly, Burrow responded by going 24 of 39 for 355 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions.
“He's always comfortable,” Cincinnati coach Zac Taylor said. “The whole world could be falling down around him (and it doesn't faze him) ... he's a special player.”
One who is hardly doing it alone. The Bengals (6-4) have won four of five following a 2/3 start, topping 30 points in all four wins, the last two despite Chase sitting out while recovering from a hip injury.
“It just shows what we've got,” said Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins, who caught nine passes for 148 yards. “We've got firepower.”
The Bengals piled up 408 yards of total offense and put together touchdown drives of 79, 92 and 93 yards to beat the Steelers (3-7) for the fourth time in five meetings.
“I think we're playing as good as anybody,” said Burrow, who passed 10,000 career yards passing in 36 games, tying him with Hall of Famer Kurt Warner for the third-fastest player in league history to reach that plateau. “We're hitting our stride offensively."
Mixon, coming off a five-touchdown performance in a blowout win over Carolina two weeks ago, managed just 20 yards rushing before entering the NFL's concussion protocol. No matter. Perine stepped in and turned flips from Burrow into touchdowns of 29, 11 and 6 yards, the final one with Steelers defensive back Levi Wallace on Perine's back that gave the Bengals a 34-23 lead with 4:30 to go.
“I'm the checkdown (guy) and fortunate to have some space when (Burrow) checks down to make something happen," Perine said. “Other than that, I’m just the next guy up.”
Pittsburgh (3-7) saw its chance of repeating its Week 1 upset it pulled off in Cincinnati in September vanish in the second half as a 20-17 lead slipped away. Rookie Kenny Pickett passed for 265 yards and a touchdown and Najee Harris ran for 90 yards and two scores, but the NFL's second-lowest scoring offense sputtered after halftime.
“Our defense did a great job to give us a chance to win the game and we didn’t come through in the second half,” Pickett said. “That’s on us. we have to get it fixed and have two strong halves in order to beat a team like that.”
The Steelers managed just 52 total yards on their first six drives of the second half and turned a pair of short fields into only three points. That was all the space Burrow needed to likely end any slim outside chance Pittsburgh had in being a factor in the AFC North race down the stretch.
“It's not good,” Harris said. “But we just have to be here and stack bricks. ... It was a tough one. We really wanted this one.”
The Steelers failed to disrupt Burrow as effectively as they did in Week 1, when they sacked him seven times and forced five Bengals turnovers. Pittsburgh took down Burrow just twice, though linebacker T.J. Watt provided another highlight-reel play when he simultaneously fought off a block from Bengals tackle La'el Collins and snatched Burrow's pass in mid-air for his sixth career interception and second this season against Burrow.
“I would love to say that there's something I can do about that, but there's nothing I can do about that,” Burrow said.
The Steelers started a drive at the Cincinnati 47 trailing by four early in the fourth quarter. A 13-yard run by Harris gave Pittsburgh a first down before things went sideways. A holding call and an illegal man downfield penalty forced the Steelers back 15 yards. Two incompletions and a draw play to Harris led to a punt.
Cincinnati took over at its own 7 and needed just eight plays to reach the end zone, with Burrow completing four of his passes on the drive, including a 32-yard catch-and-run by Irwin, playing in his 12th career game.
“We had the ball at midfield (and) we don't produce points),” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “Pinned them back and they go the length of the field. That's a significant swing.”
Bengals: Travel to AFC South-leading Tennessee (7-3) next Sunday.
Steelers: Visit Indianapolis (4-6-1) next Monday night.
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