Mason Rudolph assured the media late last week that Jaylen Samuels would be an extensive part of the game plan heading into Monday night’s game against the visiting Cincinnati Bengals. Rudolph, as it turns out, was spot-on. During Pittsburgh’s 27-3 thrashing of Cincinnati, Samuels, according to ESPN Stats & Info, became only the second player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger with three pass completions, three rushes and three receptions in a game. His performance helped Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin improve to 14-2 on “Monday Night Football” and 6-0 at home on Monday night. The Steelers as a team have won 17 straight home games played on Monday night.
After not receiving a single touch in Pittsburgh’s Week 3 loss to the 49ers, he completed all three of his pass attempts for 31 yards while operating out of the Steelers’ newly installed wildcat attack. He also gained 26 yards on the ground while catching all eight of his targets. His 2-yard touchdown run — out of the wildcat formation — gave Pittsburgh a 17-3 third quarter lead.
Samuels was the perfect complement to fellow running back James Conner, who amassed 125 all-purpose yards and a score on 18 touches.
“That means a lot,” Samuels said of re-establishing Pittsburgh’s rushing attack, via DKPittsburghSports.com. “That’s what we do, as Pittsburgh Steelers, that’s what we do. We run the football, we’re a physical, downhill team. For us to have those runs that we have today, I think that got us back in the groove.”
The efforts of Samuels, Conner, and Pittsburgh’s offensive line helped Rudolph settle into a groove, going 24 of 28 for 229 yards with two scores and no interceptions. While Rudolph mostly played his safe, he took several calculated shots. At the start of the third quarter, his 17-yard throw to recently acquired tight end Nick Vannett helped set up Samuels’ score. On Pittsburgh’s next possession, Rudolph went deep to rookie wideout Diontae Johnson, who pulled down Rudolph’s pass for a 43-yard score. Johnson, one of the draft picks the Steelers acquired from Oakland in the Antonio Brown trade, caught a 39-yard scoring strike from Rudolph the previous week.
“The safety took a step towards Diontae, then saw JuJu [Smith-Schuster] coming and that kinda distracted all of the attention,” Rudolph said after the game when asked how Johnson got so wide open. “JuJu’s been an unbelievable leader for us. Even in those moments where he doesn’t score. He’s as positive as ever, encouraging his teammates. I gotta start giving him more touches.”
While Smith-Schuster is embracing everything that comes with being a No.1 receiver, Rudolph — who received a game ball for Monday night’s performance — continues to get settled into his new role as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback.
“We’re still working towards maybe taking some more shots,” he said. “That’s on me and what I’m comfortable with. We’re still kinda moving towards that. It’s only week two with me and Randy [Fichtner] kinda being together. We’ll continue to try to threaten teams vertically.”
Pittsburgh’s defense, one of the worst-ranked units from a statistical standpoint entering the game, unleashed their potential Monday night. Facing Andy Dalton and a Bengals offense that entered the game as the second most prolific passing attack in the NFL, the Steelers recorded eight sacks, the highest total Dalton has endured in any game over his nine-year career.
Defensive captain Cam Heyward and Pro Bowl outside linebacker T.J. Watt combined to record half of Pittsburgh’s sack total, while first-round pick and inside linebacker Devin Bush, filled the stat sheet with nine tackles (seven solo stops), one sack and three tackles for loss. Inside linebacker Mark Barron, a starter on the Los Angeles Rams‘ Super Bowl defense last fall, recorded a team-high 11 tackles while also coming down with an fourth quarter, red zone interception of Dalton that unceremoniously ended a 16-play drive.
One of the defense’s best moments took place in the first quarter. After Johnson put the ball on the ground deep in Pittsburgh territory on the Steelers’ first offensive possession, the defense forced the Bengals to settle for a field goal. Unlike the previous week’s game in San Francisco, the stand was an indication of Pittsburgh’s newfound ability to play in concert, something that typically wasn’t the case during the season’s first three weeks.
Conversely, Pittsburgh’s eventual success on offense Monday night allowed the Steelers’ defense — the league’s pass-rushing unit over the past two years — to pin their ears back and fully get after Dalton and a Bengals offense that became one-dimensional. The result was four second half sacks of Dalton that helped Pittsburgh turn a tight game into a runaway.
“It’s just a lesson for all of us,” Tomlin said after the game. “In an effort for us to be at our best, it takes collaborative work in all three phases to produce an environment where our strengths get an opportunity to be shown. And it shown tonight.”
While his stats didn’t stand out as much as they did in San Francisco, recently acquired free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick continued to make strides within Pittsburgh’s defense. His presence Monday night helped the Steelers hold the Bengals to just 102 net yards passes. Fitzpatrick also helped Pittsburgh shut out Cincinnati’s three red zone trips.
“He’s a sharp guy,” Tomlin said of Fitzpatrick, who was acquired after the Steelers the Dolphins their 2020 first-round pick. “We learned that last week in his ability to play a large number of snaps on a short period of time. It just got further revealed this week. Now he’s doing all the little things, the little nuances, pre-snap movement in disguises. We’re happy to have him. He’s a significant addition.”
The Steelers weren’t perfect Monday night. They were just 3 of 9 on third down, an issue that has plagued Pittsburgh throughout the first quarter of the regular season. Pittsburgh’s rushing attack, one of the league’s worst entering the game, gained just 66 yards on 25 carries against a Cincinnati run defense that was ranked 31st in football entering Monday night’s game. Rudolph, as he discussed after the game, wants to take more shots down the field while getting Smith-Schuster more involved.
While there is still work to be done, Pittsburgh achieved their goal Monday night by finding a way to win while they continue to find their collective identity. They’ll quickly get back to work, with the 2-2 Baltimore Ravens coming to Heinz Field this Sunday.
“[There’s] a lot of leadership in that locker room,” Rudolph said. “Guys that know how to win, guys that have won a lot of games in their careers. We stuck together all week enough [after] the rough start. Our message all week was to stack one, and then start stacking more. That’s the plan moving forward, and [we] got a heckuva group of guys that can do that.”