PITTSBURGH — After weeks of quarterback controversy, the Pittsburgh Steelers found stability — and success — behind Mason Rudolph in a 34-11 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Rudolph, who started the season third on the Steelers’ QB depth chart, restored confidence in a faltering Steelers offense that’s been missing starter Kenny Pickett since he suffered a right ankle injury on Dec. 3.
Pittsburgh (8-7) jumped out to a 24-0 lead in the first half and the Bengals (8-7) weren’t ever within striking distance. The loss is a huge blow to Cincinnati’s playoff chase, dropping its chances to 14%. Here are the keys to know about each team’s performance:
With a quarterback named Rudolph and a depleted defense, the Steelers pulled off an improbable Christmas weekend win against the Bengals. Not only did Rudolph guide the offense to six scoring drives and a 24-point first half — the most scored by the Steelers in the opening frame since Week 7 of the 2020 season — but a defense playing without its top four safeties and top three inside linebackers held the Bengals offense to a first-half shutout, just 11 total points and forced Bengals quarterback Jake Browning to throw three interceptions.
Once maligned by the fanbase for his struggles throughout the 2019 season, Rudolph heard his name chanted by the stadium at least four times in the fourth quarter.
The win buoyed the Steelers’ dwindling playoff hopes by snapping a three-game skid, and it also quieted some of the noise around coach Mike Tomlin and his locker room, which has been heavily criticized recently for a lack of leadership and effort. The challenge, now, for the Steelers is to carry the momentum from this win into a pivotal final two weeks of the season.
Buy on a breakout performance: WR George Pickens. The week leading up to Saturday’s game was all about Pickens in the worst way. His effort blocking on a play from the loss to the Indianapolis Colts was panned, and he came under fire for a trend of concerning behavior. It took just two plays to quiet critics. On the second play of the Steelers’ first possession, Pickens caught a short pass from Rudolph and turned it into an 86-yard touchdown, the Steelers’ longest touchdown since 2018. He had another touchdown in the second half and finished with a career-high 195 yards on four catches, putting him over 1,000 yards for the season.
Bold prediction for next week: Rudolph starts against the Seattle Seahawks. The Steelers have been searching for electric quarterback play all season and might’ve found it just in time. Second-year QB Pickett was a limited participant in practice each day last week as he rehabbed from surgery on his right ankle. Following surgery on Dec. 4, Pickett’s estimated timeline to return was between three and four weeks. But with Rudolph’s showing against the Bengals, riding the hot hand would be the prudent thing to do.
Pivotal play: Rudolph to George Pickens for 44 yards on third-and-15. Not only did Pickens get both feet down — upheld by a replay — but the pass was also the longest completion by air yards for a Steelers quarterback all season. The completion kept the drive going, preventing the Bengals from getting the ball back before halftime. The Steelers eventually kicked a 50-yard field goal as time expired to give them a 24-0 lead at the half — their largest halftime lead since Week 4 of 2016.
Eye-popping stat: The Steelers recorded 178 yards after catch, their most in a game since 2021. Entering Saturday’s game, Steelers pass-catchers were averaging just 94 YAC, ranking 27th in the league. –Brooke Pryor
Next game: at Seahawks on Sunday, Dec. 31
A resurgent season was abruptly derailed on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
The Bengals were trounced, ending a three-game winning streak and significantly diminishing Cincinnati’s playoff hopes.
Coming into Week 16, the Bengals were tentatively slotted into a wild-card spot with three weeks left in the regular season. In the week leading up to the AFC North game, Bengals players talked of the game’s importance to their playoff chances.
But the rout against the Steelers might be too much to overcome. The Bengals trailed 24-0 at the half and now need to likely beat Kansas City and Cleveland to reach the postseason for a third straight season. According to ESPN Analytics, Cincinnati’s playoff chances dropped to 14% after the defeat.
Describe the game in two words: Massive letdown. The Bengals couldn’t take advantage of a Steelers team in turmoil and were demolished despite being road favorites.
Biggest hole in the game plan: Covering George Pickens. So much for all the talk of Pickens applying himself. Pickens had a few big plays that gashed Cincinnati’s defense. His 86-yard touchdown on Pittsburgh’s first possession was largely because of a missed tackle. His second touchdown was on a go-route down the left sideline in a 1-on-1 matchup against cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Pickens is the second player in Steelers history to have multiple receiving touchdowns of 60 or more yards in a single game.
QB breakdown: Browning was far from the player that had helped the Bengals win three games in four starts. He tried to extend plays and, in some spots, committed key turnovers. Browning threw an interception in the red zone on Cincinnati’s first drive of the game. He had another interception in the first half and also had a fumble that Cincinnati recovered. He finished 28 of 42 with 335 yards and was sacked three times. For the second time this year, the Steelers got the best of him.
Eye-popping Next Gen stat: Browning was blitzed on just three of his first 39 pass attempts. On the 34 throws in which he wasn’t blitzed, he was pressured 17 times. — Ben Baby
Next game: at Chiefs on Sunday, Dec. 31