DK'S GRIND

Kovacevic: Behold the (almost) first-place, for-real getting-better Steelers ☕

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Diontae Johnson's hoisted by JuJu Smith-Schuster after his 43-yard touchdown catch Monday night at Heinz Field. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

"Aw, you saw that?"

Dude. Everyone saw it.

I mean, you're the one out there in front of 57,959 fans and a national TV audience, forcing that fumble, then flying out toward the 50-yard line and ... uh, doing whatever this was:

Hey, wait, the ESPN cameras whiffed on most of this?

No way!

Well, take my word from up in the press box: What Bud Dupree committed in the immediate aftermath of that sequence was cruel and unusual punishment to the concept of the sack dance. He sprinted forward, stutter-stepped, planted both feet, raised his arms ... I don't even know how to label the rest. All that was missing was a Simon Cowell scowl. Or just a big old gong.

"I'm sorry, man, I just got so wound up," Dupree would finally reply, with a broad grin, once I was done with some scathing of my own. "But I get out there, I'm so pumped up, and I just didn't really care. I just wanted to share it."

OK, on that front, then, cue the applause.

Steelers 27, Bengals 3, in fact. They finally, on the fourth try, won a football game.

Oh, and next Sunday, they'll play for first freaking place.

____________________

Bud's clumsy exhilaration might as well have represented the entire Nation's. After opening 0-3, after losing the franchise quarterback, after all the expected doubt and despair that followed, this was ... at least an exhale.

Boy, the Bengals stink. Those five syllables might summarize this game more succinctly than anything I could type.

At the same time, let these three truths rise above any gripes, old or new:

1.  The Steelers finally showed some semblance of identity and -- gasp -- creativity on offense.

2. The defense, particularly the pass rush, has been there all along and, as Terrell Edmunds told me afterward, "It's only going up."

3. A victory here next Sunday against the Ravens could put these guys atop the AFC North, both potentially at 2-3 but with the Steelers obviously taking the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Browns are 2-2, but they face the still-undefeated 49ers way out west the next night, so ...

I know, right?

Watt clearly didn't know what to say, either, when I brought it up:

A very business-like approach, as I'd described from the Rooney Complex after the Saturday practice. They were out to beat the Bengals and see where the math and the path took them.

Most important, though -- and it's been this way from kickoff in Foxborough -- they just needed to get better, you know?

I've never doubted there's enough talent here, even without Ben Roethlisberger, to contend within the AFC North, and that doubly applies after seeing that the division's only non-division victories have come against the Dolphins, Cardinals and Jets, now a combined 0-10-1. Because the Steelers will get their own shot at those losers, as well, not to mention the Colts without Andrew Luck and the Bills once they're further exposed as a fraudulent 3-1.

That's doable. It's not a far cry from contender status, but doable.

"Man, it feels really good to handle our business," Mike Tomlin began his postgame presser, and there was another reference to business. "Really, just an outstanding effort. It needs to be a springboard for us as we move forward."

Maybe it will be. But that'll depend, as I'd been insisting all summer, on the offense.

I liked this offense. It was fun. It was unpredictable. And yet, at its root, it was college material, utilizing both running backs, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels, to such a degree that one or the other -- or both -- touched the ball 39 times out of 56 snaps.

Which opened up back-to-back beauties like these:

Ouch. Check out the Bengals' Jessie Bates biting hard toward Conner on that direct snap.

All that running's nuts in and of itself in 2019, but mix in the wildcat, the three passes by Samuels, and it helps to explain the stirring 24-of-28 efficiency from Mason Rudolph, to go with his 229 yards, two touchdowns and zero picks.

Kid got the game ball, too.

"Can't say enough about Mason," Tomlin brought up unsolicited.

"It's great," Rudolph would say of the game ball. "Unbelievable team win. A lot of leadership in the locker room from guys who know how to win. We stuck together all week, even with the rough start. Our message all week was stack one, then start stacking some more."

All credit's deserved. But I'll tread lightly with credit toward Randy Fichtner and Tomlin for these adjustments because, if anything, everything they showed here -- especially the short routes that made Rudolph visibly so much more comfortable -- also would've been wonderful out in Santa Clara. It was even more necessary then, actually.

Put another way, there remains no excuse for asking Mason to be Ben in his first NFL start, and there remains nothing remotely rational about not having Samuels touch the ball a solitary time out West.

This is better, but that was still embarrassing.

I didn't like the defense. I loved it.

Truth be told, there hasn't been much wavering on that stance. The pass rush has been there all along, a view corroborated by Tomlin when I broached it with him, and the rest is rounding into form. Eight sacks, including 2.5 for a lit-on-fire Cam Heyward, and 1.5 for the team-MVP-to-date Watt ...

... and two more takeaways, as well, in that fumble recovery by Watt and a pick in the end zone by Mark Barron.

But even that doesn't tell the tale.

"We were everywhere, man," Minkah Fitzpatrick told me. "Everywhere."

"Everywhere," Edmunds echoed from the next stall, apparently to clarify the point.

The biggest plus on defense, though, was a minus: Their snap total, an unwieldy 73 and 72 the previous two weeks, was down to 65. And even that was deceiving, as 27 of those came on Cincinnati's hollow final two drives.

Hollow, as in Andy Dalton probably should have dug himself a hole somewhere to hide.

"Yeah, you've just got to play," he'd say when asked about the Bengals' line being eaten alive. "I tried to just keep playing throughout the whole game."

It's a medical miracle that he did.

It's a good defense. But it had better be a good defense, with 10 first-round picks and two second-rounders on that side of the ball. Keith Butler did well to dial up the pressure, but Bob from Blawnox calling from his car could have phoned in that scheme against Cincinnati. The growth in this area needs to become exponential for the Steelers to keep rising. Meaning the pass rush needs to lead to picks, and the coverage -- as happened more than once -- needs to buy the pass rush another precious second or two.

"That's what's got to happen," Barron told me. "It can't be one or the other. And it hasn't been. It's been both. I thought everyone played really well tonight."

They did. Now they'll have to maintain the momentum.

____________________

Still deflated?

If so, I sure get it.

The Steelers have sold every ticket to every home game since 1970, and this wasn't an exception. But there were a little more than 10,000 no-shows, based on Heinz Field's officially listed capacity for football of 68,400, and that was an unmistakable sign of the understandable skepticism at hand. People had their hopes up. People had maybe begun to embrace the group a little more, with Antonio Brown gone. And then came the 0-3 thud.

Division titles don't quite cut it around here. If they did, fans might be carving Tomlin's statue rather than openly rooting for failure to accelerate his firing. So this season won't be seen as a success with just a playoff appearance, or even a playoff win or two.

What's left?

That still feels cloudy.

It's possible this business-like thing has some merit: Win the next one, look at the math and the path, then just basically figure out how to celebrate as you go.

MATT SUNDAY GALLERY

[caption id="attachment_896569" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Steelers vs. Bengals, Heinz Field, Sept. 30, 2019 -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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