CINCINNATI – Maybe this was what they needed, because a game at this venue against this opponent brings out something in the Pittsburgh Steelers. It could be termed a quality, or a characteristic, or a necessary ingredient, but it just seems that when they see those striped helmets they find it in themselves to become more than the sum of their individual parts.
Football often is referred to as the ultimate team sport, and the Steelers are never more of a team than they are in games against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium, it was more of the same. Elements of the Steelers' performance could be, and should be picked apart, identified as below the line and targeted for improvement. But somehow the Steelers found a way to compensate and overcome, and in that way their 28-21 victory over the division-leading Bengals was a thing of beauty.
The win raised the Steelers' record to 3-2-1 and has them above .500 for the first time this season, while the Bengals and the Ravens – thanks to their shutout victory over Tennessee – are tied atop the AFC North at 4-2.
Some of the things the Steelers needed to overcome at Paul Brown Stadium were leaky kickoff coverage, spotty red zone offense, special teams penalties that adversely impacted field position, and a mini-collapse by their defense at a time when the outcome of the game was hanging in the balance. Most of it was self-inflicted, and the sum of it all should've been enough to send the Steelers home with a defeat, but instead they dug deep and found a way to overcome their circumstances and win a very important game.
Wrapped up in all of this was Ryan Shazier's first return to the place where his life changed. It was last Dec. 4 at Paul Brown Stadium while making a routine tackle on a seemingly routine play when Shazier sustained a spinal injury that would require surgery. Part of the weekend for him was his first trip back to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, which was where so much critical work was done immediately that was responsible for putting him on a path where he was able to walk into that facility without assistance 10 months later.
On Saturday afternoon Shazier spent some time with the trauma team that rescued him from a possible life sentence in a wheelchair, and then on Sunday he did everything he could to help his teammates achieve the desired outcome.
"I think there are so many things that happen in Ryan's daily life that are part of his recovery. Things that either remind him of where he is or remind him of the ground that he has covered," said Mike Tomlin when asked about the situation of Shazier's return to Cincinnati. "Ryan is a special guy. We don't hide from it. We walk that journey with him. We appreciate him allowing us to do so."
Shazier forever will be a member of the Steelers family, and he has found ways to contribute to the team without playing, and maybe this whole return to Cincinnati weekend provided an emotional lift that somehow led to the outcome yesterday afternoon. Maybe not. Or maybe this game was just a natural step in the development of the 2018 Steelers. But whatever the cause, it was a necessary development, and the Steelers figure to come out the other end stronger mentally as a result.
Here's one snippet that can illustrate the point. It was the fourth quarter and even though the Steelers were clinging to a 20-14 lead, their defense seemed to be on a mission to turn that six-point lead into a deficit because the Bengals were methodically moving the ball toward a go-ahead touchdown that seemed imminent.
It's no secret that Artie Burns has been struggling at the cornerback position opposite Joe Haden, struggling to the point that Mike Tomlin had instituted a rotation system with the dual purpose of getting better play at the spot while also trying to light a fire under the team's 2016 first-round draft pick. With 2:29 to play, Burns committed an obvious pass interference penalty that reeked of poor technique on a throw intended for Alex Erickson, and Tomlin immediately pulled him from the game and replaced him with Coty Sensabaugh.
Visibly distraught, Burns found a spot on the bench by himself and hung his head. Almost immediately, Burns was approached by a teammate who sat next to him and proceeded to provide some support mixed in with a kick in the butt. That teammate was Antonio Brown.
Brown has had his own issues so far this season, both on and off the field, but in that precise moment he was a teammate trying to do what he could to rally a brother-in-arms. And then a short time later, it was Brown who combined with Ben Roethlisberger to author the 31-yard catch-and-run that capped a 77-yard drive that consumed 68 seconds and provided the Steelers with the game-winning touchdown with exactly 10 seconds to spare.
It's not possible, nor is it really necessary, to define precisely the whys leading to the outcome, because what's actually important is the Steelers took steps here toward becoming a team. That's what was necessary. That's what they can build upon. That's what they should be able to call upon in the inevitable tough times later in this season.
And they will have the Bengals to thank for that.