The Cincinnati Bengals preached patience for Lou Anarumo and their remade defense this offseason. That faith is a big reason why they sit tied atop the AFC North after Sunday's 24-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Anarumo's crew set Joe Burrow and the offense up with short fields, capitalized on costly mistakes from the ghost of Ben Roethlisberger, and closed out a game in the Steel City for the first time since 2015.
Here is the Three Down Look of a crucial division victory that gives Cincinnati a 2-1 record on the season.
First Down: Defensive Dominance
The Bengals' defense played like a top-10 unit in nearly every major category over the first two games of the season. Despite their fast start, they struggled to force turnovers. Cincinnati ranked t-18th with two takeaways heading into Pittsburgh.
Logan Wilson equaled that mark on his own as the Bengals' front seven added four more sacks to their top-10 season total, completely bottling up the Steelers. It was just the fourth time since 2015 that the Bengals gave up 10 points or fewer.
Zac Taylor-led teams had only stifled a team like this one other time in a 22-6 victory 2019 win over the Jets. Pittsburgh moved the ball at points of the game, but long drives with no downfield plays required perfection that the offense couldn't muster.
No Steeler amassed one EPA on the day as Najee Harris and Roethlisberger combined for -6.9 and -6.4 EPA, respectively. Harris is the latest of a trio of highly-touted backs to fall flat against the Bengals. The defense is yet to allow more than 3.1 yards per carry to any primary running back this season, despite facing Dalvin Cook, David Montgomery and now Harris.
Wilson continued looking eerily similar to Odell Thurman, joining Thurman and Vontaze Burfict as the only Bengals linebackers this century to post a multi-interception game. Wilson has rare instincts on short passes. He quickly started keying on Roethlisberger's unwillingness to throw downfield and made plays throughout the game. Big Ben completed just 1-of-5 20-plus yard attempts in the contest.
The budding star led the team with a career-high 14 tackles (career-high 6 solo) and two interceptions. Tack on a defense that finished with four sacks and applied constant pressure from the front four, and you get a complete defensive performance at just the right time against a rival.
Second Down: Protection Plan Holds Up
Plenty of Bengals fans and critics rolled their eyes when Taylor said his team had a "great plan" to deal with the Pittsburgh pass rush. Turns out he was spot on.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bengals allowed one pressure all afternoon and zero sacks. Short fields were too much for the Steelers to defend as the Bengals leaned on Joe Mixon to the tune of 18 carries for 90 yards.
The workhorse back added to his second-ranked rushing total in the AFC while making sure the Bengals could limit their exposure to the offensive line. Taylor pushed the right buttons on deep shot calls. Burrow went 1-of-2 for 34 yards and a touchdown on pass attempts of 20-plus yards.
Normally this offense will need to be more aggressive, but a dominant defensive performance left them able to pick their spots. The offensive line gave Burrow plenty of time, not allowing a sack for the sixth time since 2015.
The Steelers' streak of 75 games with a sack was broken on Sunday. The big men in the middle held up for the Bengals and snapped Pittsburgh's streak.
The biggest question mark heading into the day surrounded rookie Jackson Carman, who was making his first NFL start. The rookie only aided the strong outing in protection, finishing with zero pressures allowed.
Overall, this Bengals offensive line did something no unit in the history of NFL Next Gen Stats has accomplished.
Third Down: Brisk Burrow
Burrow added one more thing to his game in Pittsburgh that brings him closer to his Heisman Trophy winning performances that dominated at LSU. The stats don't pop off the page, but Burrow's five carries for 7 yards showed a crucial return for his mobility.
Burrow took sacks while under pressure at a crazy rate over the first two weeks: 41% of his pressures led to sacks. That led the NFL and was a far cry from his 21% rate last season.
Fortunately for the Bengals. Burrow was more mobile on Sunday. The second-year player showed sharp movement in the pocket all afternoon as he put up the second most EPA in the game (7.1) behind Ja'Marr Chase (7.9). He even had the confidence to check into an 8-yard quarterback run that set up their final touchdown.
“Coming into this season I didn’t know if I’d be able to do that stuff,” Burrow said. "It’s exciting for me to feel that way and feel confidence in my leg. We’re just gonna keep building, we’re gonna keep doing my rehab stuff so that can continue.”
Sunday was Burrow's fourth career game with 5-plus rushing attempts and his first this season.
Not many people knew what 2021 held for the Bengals with a recovering franchise star and a coach eager to prove he can compete at the highest level. Three weeks in and two Ohio teams sit atop the AFC North, ready to usher in a new era.
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