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Steelers lose Le’Veon Bell, but defense provides glimmer of hope

There was only so much the Pittsburgh Steelers defense could do.

Who would have thought back in August that any scribe would type a sentence implying that the Steelers defense did anything positive?

The unit has come a long way from the liability it looked like it would be in August, but it couldn’t bail out Ben Roethlisberger in Sunday’s 16-10 loss to the Bengals.

In his first game back after missing four weeks with an MCL sprain and bone bruise, Roethlisberger threw three interceptions. Two came in the final six minutes to set up the Bengals’ go-ahead touchdown and a crucial field goal.

Not everything the defense did registered on the stat sheet. In intercepting Andy Dalton twice, sacking him three times and protecting a one-score lead for 57 minutes, the defense infused some spirit into a Heinz Field crowd that was muted by Le’Veon Bell’s ugly knee injury in the second quarter.

According to Jason LaCanfora of CBSSports.com, the Steelers expect to put Bell on season-ending injured reserve Monday with what looks like an MCL tear.

That would be a huge blow to the Steelers’ playoff hopes, but it was almost possible to forget the image of Bell being carted into the locker room as a secondary that was salvaged from the junkyard confounded Dalton in the fourth quarter.

The Steelers’ 10-6 lead was in jeopardy when the Bengals had a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line with less than 10 minutes left in the game. But Ross Cockrell, who was released by the Bills in August, covered A.J. Green on two straight passes that fell incomplete. Then Antwon Blake, released by the Jaguars in 2013, intercepted Dalton in the end zone and returned it to the Steelers’ 40.

Blake’s second pick of the year, however, wasn’t enough to lock down the win. The Steelers went three-and-out and the Bengals were in business midway through the fourth quarter.

But not for long.

Cockrell tipped a pass intended for Green and safety Mike Mitchell plucked it out of the air. It was the second interception of the season for Mitchell, panned as a free agent flop last year. After a blocking-above-the-waist penalty by Robert Golden, the Steelers had the ball at their 24 with 6:27 left.

Two plays into the possession, we saw the vintage playground Roethlisberger. Just seconds later, however, we saw the kind of ill-advised pass he tends to throw when he returns from an injury.

Roethlisberger escaped a sack and rolled to his left, keeping the play alive as only he can. Then he attempted a pass to fullback Will Johnson that was picked off by safety Shawn Williams at the Steelers’ 45.

Considering Johnson isn’t on the team for his route-running, it’s not surprising a safety stepped in front of him for the interception.

The Steelers almost stopped the Bengals again, pressuring Dalton on third down from the 40. But the Red Rifle tossed a shovel pass to Giovani Bernard for 23 yards and a first down.

A noble as the day’s effort was, the defense gave the league’s highest-rated passer one chance too many. Dalton found Green for a nine-yard touchdown pass, giving the Bengals a 13-10 lead with three minutes left.

The ball quickly made its way back to that end of the field when Reggie Nelson intercepted Roethlisberger on the first play of the Steelers’ ensuing possession and returned it to the 2.

The Steelers held the Bengals to a field goal, so they still had a shot to win on their final possession. Roethlisberger moved the ball to the Cincinnati 16 with four seconds left, but overthrew Antonio Brown in the end zone on the final play.

Nelson, of course, played a major role in the Steelers’ 2012 demise when he intercepted Roethlisberger in the final minute of a 10-10 game at Heinz Field. Dalton followed that one with a 21-yard pass to Green to get the Bengals in range for the game-winning field goal. That loss eliminated the Steelers from playoff contention on the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception.

Nelson influenced the Steelers’ fortunes last year, too. His hit hyperextended Bell’s knee in the regular-season finale at Heinz Field, and without Bell the Steelers were one-and-done in the playoffs.

Amid all these historic reminders, the Bengals are 7-0 for the first time in franchise history.

The Steelers (4-4), meanwhile, likely will have to navigate the wild-card route without Bell to make the playoffs. It’s a sobering prospect even if DeAngelo Williams is more comforting as a fallback option than Ben Tate or Josh Harris.

During this season in which the Steelers offense was supposed post galactic numbers, it looks as though Roethlisberger and Bell will have been on the field together for only three full quarters.

Perhaps if the defense continues to grow, the Steelers won’t collapse without Bell like they did last year. They’re fifth in the league with 22 sacks and they’re allowing 3.8 yards per carry, tied for fifth. Their 11 takeaways through eight games puts them on pace for 22, more than they’ve forced in any season since 2010.

That defense could win the Steelers a few games in the second half of the season if Roethlisberger takes better care of the ball.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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