Players win football games, and that fact was reinforced during the Steelers' wild overtime win in Cincinnati in Week 1. The biggest star in Sunday's win, two-time All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, started the game with a pick-six before blocking the Bengals' point-after attempt to force overtime. Fitzpatrick also led both teams with 14 tackles while playing a huge role in the Steelers' 23-20 upset victory.
T.J. Watt, Diontae Johnson, Mitchell Trubisky and tight end Pat Freiermuth also made key plays down the stretch to help the Steelers snap their three-game losing skid against the Bengals. And while the players deserve the lion's share of the credit, Mike Tomlin's work in preparing his team leading up to their game against the defending AFC champions also deserves mention.
If nothing else, Sunday's game showed how well prepared Tomlin's team was for the season opener compared to their opponent. The Bengals, who sat their starters for the entire preseason, clearly weren't ready for Week 1. Conversely, the Steelers, who played their starters in just about every preseason game, didn't need time to warm up to the competition. They instead achieved their goal of starting out fast, as Pittsburgh took a 17-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
Schematically, Tomlin's use of his defensive line paid major dividends. The Steelers, in order to address their lack of depth on the D-line, brought in several new faces this offseason, including former Bengal Larry Ogunjobi and rookie DeMarvin Leal.
The result was an effective rotation that kept the pressure on Burrow as the game went to overtime, even as the Steelers' defense reached 100 snaps on the day.
"We rotated a lot of guys," defensive end Chris Wormley told CBS Sports after the game. "When you're fresh as can be for an overtime game like that, when you throw a lot of guys at them, it allows you to get to the quarterback."
Steelers defensive line snap counts
|Player||Snaps||Percentage of team defensive snaps|
The Steelers' depth on the defensive line allowed them to provide consistent pressure on Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who committed four first half turnovers before recording his fifth during the second half. Pittsburgh's defense also held Bengals Pro Bowl running back Joe Mixon to under 20 yards rushing during the second half.
"Going into the offseason, we knew we had to stop the run," Wormley said. "Thirty-two in the league last year was unacceptable. We got some additions additions like Larry and Myles [Jack] to help out with that. With a running back like Joe Mixon, we bottled him as much as we could."
Pittsburgh's rebuilt defensive line received kudos from Fitzpatrick and outside linebacker Alex Highsmith after the game.
"There's no one else I'd rather go to war with," said Highsmith, who recorded three of Pittsburgh's seven sacks of Burrow. "Just thankful for them. We've got a good group of guys and we're to continue to just get better."
"They smashed the run for the most part," added Fitzpatrick. "They got after Joe. They put pressure on him. Made him make hard throws. Made him run around in the backfield."
Many have pointed to the fact that, had Bengals long snapper Clark Harris had been healthy for overtime, the Bengals would have left Sunday's game with the win. That may be true, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that Tomlin's team was able to take the Bengals' best punch during the fourth quarter and in overtime and was able to come out with a victory.
"I think we were just prepared for those moments," Highsmith said. "I think Coach Tomlin and the rest of the coaching staff did a great job of putting us in those moments in practice and getting us in shape. One thing he always preaches is physical condition proceeds all else. ... I think it just shows the resiliency of our team."