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Steelers defense shines again in win over Bengals

Oh yeah, the Steelers have Joe Haden.

Somehow a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback acquired from a division rival has flown under the radar this season despite playing more than 98 percent of the Steelers’ defensive snaps.

That’s a good thing. It means Haden, who the Steelers signed after he was cut by the Browns, hasn’t been noticeably schooled by an opposing receiver.

So when Haden made his 20th career interception Sunday, his first as a Steeler, it was a pleasant reminder that a former adversary is now on the Steelers’ side.

The pick came in the third quarter of the Steelers’ 29-14 win over the Bengals at Heinz Field, and it led to a 49-yard field goal by Chris Boswell that increased the Steelers’ lead to 26-14.

On the Bengals’ next possession, we were reminded that …

Oh yeah, the Steelers still have William Gay.

Gay intercepted Andy Dalton for the 13th pick of his career with three minutes left in the third quarter, with the help of a deflection by Sean Davis.

Even though his role has decreased, Gay played his 167th consecutive game Sunday. It’s the longest active streak in the NFL for a defensive player. He hasn’t missed a game since the Steelers took him in the fifth round of the 2007 draft. He’s the only remaining member of that draft class and the third-most tenured Steeler after James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger.

The Bengals’ next two drives were squashed by T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree. They both sacked Dalton on third down to force punts and rock the Heinz Field crowd.

It would be awfully hard to forget that Watt and Dupree are on this team. They’re two of the Steelers’ last three first-round draft picks. But two more players checked in with a “Remember me?” moment to help the Steelers (5-2) nail down this victory.

With 6:53 left in the game, the Steelers lined up to punt from their own 40, but Robert Golden took the snap and threw a 44-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey to set up Boswell’s fifth and final field goal.

Golden had his moment in the sun on defense early last season before Davis became a full-time starter as a rookie. Golden has been hard to identify on the field this year because he’s wearing a different uniform number, selling No. 21 to Haden.

Heyward-Bey always will carry some notoriety as the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft. He hasn’t quite fulfilled the expectations the Raiders had for him, but in his fourth year as a Steeler he’s carved out a role on special teams and made a nice career for himself.

The connection between Golden and Heyward-Bey was longer than any play by the Steelers’ offense, which accounted for 420 yards and reached its highest point total of the season but still had trouble finishing. The Steelers converted just two of their 11 third downs and came away with one touchdown on six trips inside the red zone.

It looked like this would be the week the Steelers offense was going to have to live up to its billing and win a shootout when the Bengals matched the Steelers’ first two touchdowns.

Thanks to the defense, however, the game wasn’t a shootout.

It was a kickout.

Boswell essentially broke a 14-14 tie with his five field goals while the defense held the Bengals (2-4) to 19 yards in the second half. In three of the last four games, the Steelers defense has been responsible for 14 points or less. The 258.7 yards they’re allowing per game are second only to the Broncos (258.5) and the 16.6 points they’re allowing per game are second only to the Jaguars (15.7).

Speaking of the Jaguars, those losses to the Jaguars and Bears are a little more forgivable now, aren’t they? The Jaguars are 4-3 and the Bears are 3-4 after two straight wins.

The Steelers, meanwhile, are 5-2 for the first time since 2011. Not that 2011 evokes pleasant memories. That was the year the 12-4 Steelers were vanquished in the wild-card game by Tim Tebow and the 8-8 Broncos.

The 2017 Steelers have forced 10 turnovers through seven games. The 2011 edition forced just three at that point and 15 for the season. Seven of the Steelers’ defensive starters that year were 30 or older, which helps explain that lack of tenacity and the two straight 8-8 seasons that were to come.

This year, the only thirtysomething starting on the Steelers’ defense is 30-year-old Mike Mitchell. That makes it reasonable to believe that even better days are ahead for this defense and the Steelers.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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