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What we learned from Steelers' victory over Bengals

Pittsburgh's eighth straight win over Cincinnati came with eight sacks. The Steelers (1-3) throttled the winless Bengals (0-4), 27-3, to get their first win of the season on "Monday Night Football" in Week 4. Here's what we learned from the AFC North clash:

  1. After a conservative debut last week in which Mason Rudolph threw just two passes past one yard past the line of scrimmage, the thought was Pittsburgh would open up the playbook for the second-year backup and let him air it out. That was only partly right. The Steelers opened up the playbook on Monday night, but Rudolph rarely attempted a deep shot. With James Conner and Jaylen Samuels in the backfield, he didn't need to. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner helped out his young signal-caller by having the offense run through the running backs. Utilizing jet sweeps, the Wildcat and sometimes both on the same play, the Steelers spread out a confuddled Cincinnati front and let the tailbacks work.

Entering the night averaging just 32.3 rush YPG, Conner enjoyed his best night of the short season, racking up 125 total yards and reaching the end zone in the second quarter on a pseudo-pop pass to give Pittsburgh's first and lasting lead. Samuels, a tight end in college and a Steelers running back, played another position on Monday: quarterback (kind of)! Out of the Wildcat, the second-year back became the first non-QB with at least three completed passes in a game since Terrelle Pryor in 2016 -- to be fair, his throws were touch passes well behind the line of scrimmage but they all count the same in the box score. On the night, Conner and Samuels were responsible for 208 of Pittsburgh's 326 total yards. Rudolph (24-of-28, 229 yards, 2 TDs) will surely get credit for playing mistake-free football, playing within his means and hitting one (1) deep ball. But it was his ball-carriers that carried this one.

  1. Cincinnati's offensive line has been a liability for what feels like forever, and Monday night was no different. The Bengals front, without the injured rookie Jonah Williams and veteran Cordy Glenn, played as short-staffed as it was, subjecting Dalton to a career-high eight sacks and 12 QB hits. Tackles Andre Smith, who has filled in for Glenn, and Bobby Hart were particularly poor against the Steelers, proving no match for T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. Bengals coach Zac Taylor said after the loss he challenged his linemen to win their one-on-ones. Well, doing so proved to be a challenge. Though Joe Mixon "broke out" with a season-high 62 rushing yards, the running game also failed to move the chains with any consistency. The offensive line's poor play didn't allow much to develop downfield for Cincinnati, either, and down the stretch the Bengals relied on long-developing, run-heavy drives to move the ball; down 21 points, the Bengals embarked on one march in the fourth quarter that lasted 7:43, took 16 plays and traveled 67 yards, only to end in, not a score, but a end-zone interception. Cincinnati's lack of both urgency and results in the second half underscored how the Bengals have been unable to adjust to adversity and how lost this season already feels for Taylor's squad.
  1. The perma-joyful JuJu Smith-Schuster was mic'd up on Monday night, and while the cameras were focused on him all evening, Rudolph surely wasn't. When Rudolph wasn't dumping passes off to his running backs, the QB was not looking to his supposed No. 1 receiver (3 rec, 15 yards) or his former college teammate, James Washington (1 target, 0 rec). Instead, it was third-round rookie Diontae Johnson who reaped the benefits for the second straight game. Since taking over for a drop-happy Donte Moncrief in the starting lineup, Johnson has been Rudolph's preferred wideout target (6 rec, 77 yds on Monday). Against Cincy, he was on the receiving end of Rudolph's longest completion of the night (29.7 air yards) for the QB's second TD toss. JuJu often speaks as loud as his actions. But on Monday night, it was Johnson's play that dropped the mic.
  1. Could Pittsburgh's eight-sack shutdown of this overwhelmed Cincy team jumpstart Keith Butler's defense? The Steelers entered Week 4 ranked 28th in scoring defense and having allowed over 400 total yards in their first three games. By all measures, Pittsburgh's D was one of the franchise's worst of the millennium. So it's hard not to come away from Monday's mauling more optimistic with the direction of the unit. The Steelers surrendered just a field goal and 175 total yards. Pittsburgh saw its rookie linebacker Devin Bush record a sack, three TFLs and a pass defensed. Veteran lineman Cam Heyward compiled 2.5 sacks up the middle, his most since 2016. T.J. Watt notched another sack-plus and his ninth QB hit of the season. Minkah Fitzpatrick, worth a first-round pick in a trade two weeks ago, played all 64 defensive snaps in the win. Things are looking up for the Steelers defense, but a meeting with Lamar Jackson next week will prove whether Monday's get-right game was an exception or the rule.
  1. This certainly felt like a loser-goes-home match in the AFC North. At 0-4, it's highly unlikely these Bengals will stay competitive in the division or in the wild-card race even into October; they would find more like-minded company in Miami and D.C. than in Cleveland and Baltimore. The Steelers, meanwhile, are just one game behind the 2-2 Browns and Ravens in the division and have a great chance to pull back in the AFC standings over the next two weeks before their bye. Pittsburgh gets the Ravens on a losing streak at home next Sunday before traveling to Carson to take on the unpredictable Chargers. The Steelers' behind-the-sticks shtick might not work against more competitive teams than Cincinnati. But with one win under its belt, Pittsburgh avoided the ignominious 0-4 record from which only one team has bounced back and made the postseason (the 1992 Chargers) -- and that's all that matters this early in the campaign.
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