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Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward (97) smiles after catching a fumbled ball during a NFL football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)
Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers show they can win in multitude of ways

(Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire)
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Expectations are rightly high for the Pittsburgh Steelers in this still-young season. The team’s progressed in terms of playoff success in each of the last two years and, this year, most feel like anything less than an AFC Championship appearance would be a letdown.

The Steelers showed why so many have high hopes for them with their Week 1 dismantling of the Washington Redskins. Pittsburgh exploded to the tune of 38 points and each of its major players — Ben Roethlisberger (300 yards, three touchdowns), Antonio Brown (126 yards, two touchdowns) and DeAngelo Williams (171 total yards, two touchdowns) — looked as stellar as ever.

Even Pittsburgh’s bend-but-don’t-break defense looked stout. The front seven suffocated Washington’s run game and the unit also came up with some timely turnovers. Washington may not be a Super Bowl contender, but it is still a defending division winner and, so, there’s something to be said for winning so convincingly.

On Sunday, however, Pittsburgh didn’t necessarily look like a world-beater. The Steelers outlasted the Bengals 24-16 and improved to 2-0 in the process, but they didn’t earn any style points in doing so. Roethlisberger threw two ill-advised interceptions, Brown had one of his worst yardage outputs in the last three years and it took Williams more than 30 carries to break 90 rushing yards.

It was a sloppy, uncharacteristic outing for a usually explosive offense. Credit a rain-soaked day for limiting the group, but there were bigger takeaways from this outing than Pittsburgh’s offensive struggles. Namely, the ability to grind out a tough win.

Everybody wants their team to win every game 100-0. But that’s not feasible in today’s parity-driven NFL. The teams that are contenders year after year are the ones who, when necessary, can eke out ugly, close wins. Not too long ago, the Steelers were one of those teams.

Go back to Pittsburgh’s 2008, Super Bowl season and you’ll find a litany of close matchups. Sure, there were some blowouts in the mix, but you’ll see that the games that defined the season, like the three tense affairs against Baltimore, all came down to the bitter end.

In recent years, the ability to close out, sometimes surprisingly, tough games has eluded the Steelers. 2015’s Week 16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, with Pittsburgh’s playoff life hanging in the balance, is a glowing example of that. One tough, gutty win against a division rival doesn’t signify that Pittsburgh’s turned the corner, but it’s certainly a start.

More impressive than Pittsburgh’s win was how it won. The team seemed to have hopped in a time machine to 2005 to deal with the weather. The defense was smothering, limiting Cincinnati to 46 rushing yards on 18 attempts. Sure, Andy Dalton racked up 366 passing yards, but it took him 54 attempts to do so. Dalton put up the same yardage a week before on 24 fewer attempts.

And, even when Cincinnati could get moving, Pittsburgh held steady. The Steelers limited Cincinnati to three red zone field goals in the game’s first three quarters. Most impressively, the defense answered the bell in crunch time. With Cincinnati driving toward a potential game-clinching score, James Harrison forced a clinching, if controversial, fumble.

On offense, Pittsburgh may not have been the dominating unit fans have grown accustomed to. There were a few splash plays, but the weather wouldn’t allow the vertical passing game to take over. So the Steelers relied on a ball control offense. Williams may not have exited Sunday’s game with a glowing stat line, but he did exit with the win. His ability to pick up even two or three yards consistently put Pittsburgh in better position to win than stubbornly throwing repeated incompletions would.

It wasn’t a pretty game, nor one that will go down in the annals of NFL history. But it was one the Steelers needed to get. Now they’ve got an early lead on last year’s AFC North champions. Not everything’s going to go right every week. It’s been rare in the Steel City lately, but even the stars will have down games. On Sunday, the NFL learned that the Steelers are talented enough to overcome that. Against a very good team that’s no small feat, and it could mean bad news for the rest of the AFC.

Steelers show they can win in multitude of ways

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