PITTSBURGH – Two weeks ago, running back Le’Veon Bell said the Steelers didn’t run the football enough during a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Two games and nearly 70 carries later, Bell isn’t just getting the ball plenty, he’s carried the team to back-to-back victories.
Bell had 35 carries for 134 yards and the Pittsburgh defense limited Cincinnati to 20 total yards in the second half as the Steelers rolled to a 29-14 victory Sunday at Heinz Field.
Ben Roethlisberger added a pair of first-half touchdown passes, and Chris Boswell kicked five field goals in a 15-0 run as the Steelers improved to 5-2 and took firm control of first place in the AFC North.
All of Pittsburgh’s division rivals lost Sunday. The Steelers have a game remaining next week at Detroit before they head into their bye week.
“We’ve put ourselves in good position,” said guard David DeCastro. “Now we need to take care of business next week and head into our bye to rest and get ready for the stretch run.”
Before that could happen, they needed to dispatch of the Bengals (2-4), who came in having won their past two games after an 0-3 start.
And it looked like the Bengals would be up to the challenge of hanging with the Steelers as Andy Dalton matched Roethlisberger with a pair of first-half touchdown passes, one each to tight end Tyler Croft and wide receiver Brandon LaFell.
Roethlisberger tossed a 7-yard TD pass to Antonio Brown and another of 31 yards to rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster as he completed eight of his first 11 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
“We really felt good throwing the ball,” said Roethlisberger, who finished with 224 yards as the Steelers went to a heavy rushing attack in the second half. “I thought we were on a good page today. We could have thrown the ball all over the place.”
They didn’t need to.
After Dalton’s TD pass to Kroft, Pittsburgh’s defense took over. Cincinnati had only 20 total yards and no first downs on its final eight possessions. Two ended with interceptions. Two others resulted in turnovers on downs.
The Steelers sacked Dalton four times in the second half.
“We didn’t do a very good job of protecting our quarterback,” said Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis, a McDonald native who fell to 8-21 in his career against the Steelers.
“I can’t tell you whether it was the offensive line or whose responsibility it was.”
It didn’t help that his defense was getting run over, around and through by Bell. No play showed that quite like a 42-yard catch-and-run by Bell in the second quarter after Dalton’s second TD pass. Bell caught a little dump off over the middle, burst through two tackle attempts and stiff-armed cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick violently to the ground.
“I just saw a seam and tried to hit it as hard as I could,” said Bell.
By the time the Bengals ran him out of bounds, Bell had set up the first of Boswell’s field goals and a 17-14 lead.
“That’s why he’s the best running back in the game,” said fullback Roosevelt Nix, who paved the way for many of Bell’s rushing yards.
From there, the Steelers kept adding on. Boswell kicked another field goal at the end of the half and booted three more in the second half.
Of course, the game wasn’t without some drama.
Early in the game, Cincinnati linebacker Vontaze Burfict kicked Nix in the face as they got up off a pile. He was not penalized for the play but the Steelers were on notice and Nix essentially neutralized Burfict.
“Rosie made sure he knew where (Burfict) was at every play after that,” said Bell.
Now, the Steelers have put the Bengals in their rearview mirror and plan to keep them there – at least until the rematch Dec. 2 in Cincinnati.
“That was classic AFC North football,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “It was touch-and-go there for an extended period of time. I give those guys credit. … We were close going into the half. As the game wore on, we made the necessary plays in all three phases.”
Dalton finished 17 of 30 for 140 yards and two interceptions. … Joe Haden had his first interception as a member of the Steelers. William Gay also intercepted a pass. … The Steelers outgained the Bengals 420-179. … T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward had sacks for the Steelers. … The Bengals came into the game with a streak of 34 consecutive games with a sack, the longest streak in the NFL, but had that end. … Safety Robert Golden completed a 44-yard pass to receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey on a fake punt in the fourth quarter.