PITTSBURGH - Steelers rookie first-round draft pick Cameron Heyward made the biggest play of his NFL career on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, and fellow defensive end Brett Keisel was feeling jealous.
Heyward blocked a Mike Nugent field-goal attempt in the first quarter to keep the Bengals from jumping out to an early lead.
"I went to Heyward and said, 'This is your first year, right?''' said Keisel, an athletic 6-foot-5 former special teams ace. "'I've been in the league 10 years, and I don't have any of those. I never blocked a kick.''
Mirror photos by J.D. Cavrich
Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace celebrates a touchdown during the Steelers’ victory over Cincinnati on Sunday at Heinz Field.
Heyward's effort was just one of three big plays on special teams that helped the Steelers post their most complete victory of the season with a 35-7 pounding of their AFC North Division foes at Heinz Field.
The Steelers improved their record to 9-3 and kept pace with the Baltimore Ravens, also 9-3, for first place in the division. The Steelers will host another divisional opponent, the 4-8 Cleveland Browns, at 8:20 p.m. Thursday.
"We played solid in all three facets of the game,'' Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "We gave up one drive [to the Bengals] in the second [quarter], but we had some big plays on special teams, and the offense made plays as well. That falls to the defense, and makes it easier for us.''
Heyward's block came after the Bengals self-imploded on their first drive of the game. Cincinnati, with the help of a 43-yard pass from rookie Andy Dalton to rookie A.J. Green, marched to the Steelers' 4-yard line and scored on a Dalton pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham. But Green was called for a false start on the play.
After an incompletion and another penalty, Nugent lined up for a 33-yard field-goal attempt. Heyward, the 6-5 Ohio State product, reached up - he said afterward he didn't get far off the ground - and got a piece of the ball to keep the game scoreless.
"Ziggy [Hood] penetrated through the B gap, and the guard went to his side,'' said Heyward, who hadn't blocked a kick since his high school days. "Then, I just saw it open, and I was able to make the play.''
The play was significant in changing the momentum, and the Steelers offense came to life and capitalized. Two Rashard Mendenhall touchdown runs at the beginning of the second quarter gave the Steelers a 14-0 advantage.
The first score was set up by a 45-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown, and the second came after a 45-yard pass interference penalty against the Bengals' Chris Crocker.
"That first [Cincinnati] drive where they had the changed TD, that could have changed the whole outcome or momentum of the game,'' Polamalu said. "It was just one drive in the first quarter, but our offense continued to put drives on top of one another, and that took the pressure off of the defense, and we got some big plays on special teams.''
The second big play on special teams came after Mendenhall's second touchdown when linebacker Stevenson Sylvester hit the Bengals' Brandon Tate on the ensuing kickoff return and the ball was jarred loose. After Tate fumbled it, the Steelers' Emmanuel Sanders recovered it at the Bengals' 23-yard line.
The Steelers then scored three plays later on a Roethlisberger 12-yard pass to Mike Wallace to make it 21-0.
"I didn't know [Tate] fumbled until I turned around and saw the ball,'' Sylvester said. "I had grabbed his arm on the play, not the ball. It was cool. Finally, we got a turnover on special teams.''
The Bengals cut the lead to 21-7 on a Dalton 11-yard touchdown pass to Green with 4 minutes left in the first half, but the Steelers answered with another huge special teams play.
Brown received a Kevin Huber punt at his own 40-yard line, and after rookie Curtis Brown took out Johnstown native Andrew Hawkins on a questionable block to Hawkins' left shoulder, Antonio Brown ran to the middle of the field and cut out to his right. With only Huber with a chance to stop him, Brown raced 60 yards for the Steelers' first regular-season punt return for a touchdown since 2006.
"Bryant McFadden did a great job on the last block, allowing me to get the corner,'' Brown said. "And from there, it was me and the punter.''
The Steelers added a 19-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Wallace in the third quarter to keep the game from becoming close like the Steelers' 24-17 victory in the first meeting on Nov. 13 in Cincinnati. Roethlisberger completed 15-of-23 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Other stars for the Steelers included Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, who combined for 111 yards rushing on 24 carries, linebacker James Harrison, who had three sacks, and cornerback Ike Taylor, who intercepted a pass and broke up two others while chasing Green the entire game.
The defense stopped the Bengals nine times on 11 third-down attempts and held them to 232 total yards. Cincinnati (7-5) didn't help itself with 10 penalties for 109 yards and two turnovers.
"It's tough,'' Green said. "We shot ourselves in the foot a few times on some drives. Being the very good team that [the Steelers] are, they capitalized.''
The Steelers are hoping the victory will be a boost toward finishing the season strong. They may have to win their final four games to win the division title, and it starts with a short week of practice before Thursday's game.
"If we play well in all three phases of the game, like we did today, we're going to be tough to beat,'' Keisel said. "But we can't pat ourselves on the back - we have some tough games coming up.''