Bell’s big hit sets tone as Bengals stun slumping Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers' Benny Snell (24) is tackled by Cincinnati Bengals' Mackensie Alexander (21) and Germaine Pratt (57) during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP)

CINCINNATI (AP) — Bengals safety Vonn Bell made a beeline for JuJu Smith-Schuster and delivered a devastating hit, forcing a fumble while sending the Steelers’ receiver flying backward.

After dancing on Cincinnati’s midfield logo before the game, Smith-Schuster got planted in the turf — and the underdog Bengals were no pussycats at all in a 27-17 upset Monday night.

Pittsburgh pushovers for years, the last-place Bengals (3-10-1) used a strong defensive effort to beat their AFC North rivals for the first time since 2015 and send the slumping Steelers (11-3) to their third straight defeat.

Bell set the tone near the end of the first quarter with his punishing hit on Smith-Schuster after he caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger. The ball popped free and was recovered by Cincinnati, one of three Pittsburgh turnovers in the game.

As promised, Smith-Schuster danced on the Bengals logo before kickoff. He did the same thing in Buffalo prior to a Week 14 loss. Smith-Schuster was not made available to reporters postgame, but Bell had a wry smile when asked about the hit.

“I read Ben’s eyes, I saw 19, and I just went and made a play,” he said. “We talked about it on the sidelines, and it just happened.”

The Bengals had lost 11 straight games to the Steelers, and they weren’t supposed to win this one — especially with third-string quarterback Ryan Finley making his first start of the season.

As it turned out, Cincinnati prevented first-place Pittsburgh from wrapping up the AFC North title, and made the Steelers’ postseason prospects look shaky.

Since starting the season 11-0, the Steelers have dropped three straight and scored fewer than 20 points in each of their past four games.

Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that the Bengals were the more physical team on Monday night, which is rarely the case in this rivalry.

Cincinnati outrushed the Steelers 152-86 despite playing without running back Joe Mixon. Giovanni Bernard ran for 83 yards and a touchdown, and caught a 14-yard pass for another score.

“We’ve got to dig deep,” Steelers linebacker TJ Watt said. “We’ve got to find out what’s going wrong and get better.”

Roethlisberger completed just two of his first eight passes as the Steelers went three-and-out on seven of their first eight possessions. He had an interception and a fumbled exchange in the first half as the Bengals built a 17-0 lead.

Roethlisberger finished 20 of 38 for 170 yards with one TD and one pick.

“I wasn’t good enough today,” he said. “Their whole defense kept us off balance.”

With leading rusher James Conner out with a quadriceps injury, the Steelers relied heavily on Bennie Snell Jr., who had 84 of their 86 yards rushing. Roethlisberger, however, never got into any kind of consistent rhythm in the passing game. And there was frustration on both sides of the ball.

“We’re two weeks out (from the playoffs)” said Pittsburgh defensive tackle Cam Heyward. “We need to make the plays early and not be in a catch-up game. To start 17-0, you’re asking a lot for our offense. And our offense has got to start faster.”

Roethlisberger continues to preach patience, but he acknowledged the Steelers’ frustration level was “high” following the loss.

“I will never stop believing in this team,” he said. “We better get it figured out and I think we can.”