PITTSBURGH -- Powered by pop passes, the Wildcat formation and a rejuvenated ground game, the Pittsburgh Steelers got in the win column for the first time this season with a 27-3 victory against the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday night.
More important, it charted a road map for the Steelers to succeed with quarterback Mason Rudolph in 2019.
Primarily targeting his running backs, Rudolph thrived on short-yardage throws, completing 24 of 28 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns. Rudolph averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, but 169 of his passing yards came after the catch.
Rudolph stretched the field a couple of times, but the Steelers' game plan showed he didn't need to. It was enough to chip away with short passes, while allowing the versatile running backs to shoulder most of the offensive load. The Steelers will obviously face tougher teams than the 0-4 Bengals in the coming weeks, but Monday's win was a step in the right direction.
”We knew coming into this game that we was a big part of the game plan," running back Jaylen Samuels said. "So me and [James Conner] knew that we had to come out here and do our thing in the Wildcat and in the running back stuff. Downhill runs and stuff like that, we knew we had to make guys miss in open space.
"James had a couple good runs that bursted out and I had a couple good catches, so we was just feeding off each other and that’s kind of how we play and that’s how it was."
Describe the game in two words: Complete performance. If it wasn’t enough that the defense mauled Andy Dalton with eight sacks, the offense hummed along after a sputtering start to score on four consecutive possessions spanning the second and third quarters.
Buy a breakout performance: Buy all the stock in Samuels. Technically, he’s a running back, but he did it all Monday night. He became the first NFL player with multiple completions, rushes and receptions in a game since Terrelle Pryor in 2016 and the first Steelers player with a completion, rushing attempt and catch since Mewelde Moore in Week 4 of 2009 against the Chargers. In Week 3, Samuels was barely used -- he got on the field for 14 snaps but didn’t touch the ball. After an anemic run game at San Francisco, Pittsburgh's coaching staff shook things up and completely integrated Samuels into this week’s plan. In addition to traditional running back duties, Samuels was used in the Wildcat formation seven times for 43 yards and a touchdown.
"I think we saw it last year with how special and how versatile he is in space with the football, catching the football out of the backfield," Rudolph said. "He’s a great piece of our offense. And he complements James Conner well."
Promising trend: Conner got back on track with three plays of at least 20 yards -- including a season-long 21-yard run. Conner showed visible frustration after the first three games, during which he had only one play that went more than 20 yards. Conner finished the night with 42 yards on 10 carries, and he was the Steelers' top receiver, with 83 yards and a touchdown on eight targets. On a night when JuJu Smith-Schuster was quiet, Conner's complete performance was a difference-maker.
"We were a team thirsty for a win, simple and plain," Conner said. "Less talking, more action ... our team played great tonight, defense was all over the field. Flying around, creating turnovers and big sacks. We play like that off one another, get the run game going a little bit. ... This is division play. These games are weighted different. Awesome to be a part of. Keep stacking week by week."
Pivotal play: Linebacker Bud Dupree made the defensive play of the game when he strip-sacked Dalton at the Steelers’ 18-yard line -- one of Pittsburgh's eight sacks Monday night. Cincinnati was in the final stages of responding to the Steelers’ first touchdown drive with a long scoring drive of its own when Dupree swarmed Dalton and knocked the ball loose. T.J. Watt recovered it to end the Bengals’ longest drive (46 yards) to that point. Cincinnati’s next three drives went for a net of 18 yards.