Steelers beat the Bengals in ugly AFC North game marred by injuries and penalties

Ryan Shazier was taken to the hospital after a hit that left his lower body limp.

Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was carted off the field against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was carted off the field against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It was a tale of two halves Monday night, as the Steelers had one of the worst opening 30 minutes of the season, managing only a last-second field goal to lessen the halftime deficit to 17-3 Bengals. Ben Roethlisberger had just 109 yards on 8-of-16 passing in the first half and the Steelers looked wholly overmatched against their division rival.

Then the second half happened, and another last-second field goal won it.

Pittsburgh’s offense came to life, scoring 20 points in the second half, while the defense stepped up in a big way, allowing just three points over the final 30 minutes to Cincinnati, as the Steelers pulled off a big division win and head into next Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens with a chance to officially lock up the AFC North title. It was a big win. And yet, it sure was ugly.

For most of the contest, the Steelers managed to again play down to their opponents. The offense sputtered, the defense looked overmatched and the coaches made some questionable calls against another under .500 opponent. In total there were 20 penalties for 239 yards, and that doesn’t even include the flags that were declined.

Chris Boswell hit a 43-yard field goal as time expired to give the Steelers another walk-off win. But in a larger sense, whether or not the Steelers won the game didn’t really matter much. Not after Ryan Shazier went down.

The Steelers’ starting linebacker went head-first into a tackle early in Monday night’s contest and immediately clutched his back as he fell to the ground, rolling over, but looking like he was unable to move his legs. The medical staff attended to Shazier on the field for several minutes, eventually strapping him to a board and driving him off the playing surface and to a hospital via ambulance for further treatment. After the initial announcement, the Steelers shared no additional medical information during or after the game.

UPDATE: The Steelers announced that Shazier had a CT scan and MRI and does not require surgery at this time. He is expected to join the team back home as soon as possible.

Shazier’s injury was clearly the most severe of the game, but he was one of a number of players carted off the field or ruled out for the game due to injury.

Bengals running back Joe Mixon was knocked out with a concussion, linebacker Vontaze Burfict was carted off after taking a cheap shot from JuJu Smith-Schuster and Tyler Matakevich was also knocked out for the game. That doesn’t include the cheap shot Antonio Brown took in the end zone on the game-tying touchdown. It was a really ugly game.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

After the game, Ben Roethlisberger was asked by ESPN’s Lisa Salters about how the team responded after Shazier’s injury, saying, “he’s one of the leaders of that defense. Play caller. This is a physical football game. Prayers and thoughts are with everybody that got hurt. There are a lot of injuries tonight, so prayers and thoughts are really with everybody that got hurt, their families, because I know there are a lot of worried people out there.”

Antonio Brown said after the game, “we tried not to focus on it. We just kept him in our prayers. Obviously we know he didn’t look well. He hit the guy head on head and he rolled over to his back and he couldn’t get up on his own wheels, so we’ll keep him in our prayers.”

Thoughts and prayers seemed to be the theme of the night, as players around the NFL sent notes of thoughts and prayers during the game. Mike Tomlin said after the game of Shazier, “5-0 is our brother. He’s got a lot of brothers in that (locker) room. Our thoughts and prayers out to him,” before saying the Steelers wanted to honor him with their performance.

Odd, perhaps, in such an ugly game that the Shazier play wasn’t a dirty play. It was just a guy in the wrong position at the wrong time.

The notion of having to pick oneself up and continue to play a game while a teammate is strapped to a stretcher is incomprehensible. How the Steelers defense was able to continue that drive, and that game, is incredible. And so if the distraction of seeing a teammate like that, coupled with the defense losing one of its top players, was too much for the Steelers to overcome in the first half, whatever Tomlin said to the team at halftime seemed to do the trick.

Asked several times, he opted to keep those comments to himself.

Now the concern is for Shazier’s long-term health, which makes the football win seem wholly inconsequential. Yet on an emotional night, the Steelers pulled off another great comeback against a bitter rival to keep pace in the AFC. They have all but locked up a first round bye in the playoffs, as both New England and Pittsburgh are two games up on the next closest division leader. And despite the hated Ravens up next week with a chance to lock down the division, the Steelers still have eyes for two weeks from now against New England.

With the win Monday night, the Ravens game next week doesn’t mean nearly as much for Pittsburgh. Even if they go into the game against New England with one additional loss, a victory over the Pats would even them in the standings, giving the head-to-head tiebreaker to the Steelers.

There’s no guarantee the Pats will win all their remaining games, but with a road game at the Dolphins then hosting the Bills and Jets to end the season, New England’s toughest challenge is clearly at Heinz Field in two weeks. The Steelers have Baltimore, New England, at Houston and home to Cleveland to end the season.

The Steelers have another primetime game next week on a short week after a highly emotional win and the week before the game their coach said is the only one that matters. If there was ever a time for a let down, it might be next Sunday, but after the way Monday night went in Cincinnati, the Steelers will rally around one another again. This time for each other, and their fallen teammate.