PITTSBURGH – As Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) walked into the visiting locker room after completing an improbable sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he looked at offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and exulted in the smallest number on the stat sheet.
Zero: the number of Bengals turnovers.
After years of depending on Palmer's right arm to fill up box scores and put up points, the Bengals have made the transition to a new philosophy. They played small ball, beating the defending champion Steelers 18-12 at Heinz Field. In fact, as odd as this may sound, the Bengals outsmarted the Steelers.
In the process, Cincinnati (7-2) completed an astounding feat already this season, sweeping both the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens (last year's AFC runner up) – a first since the NFL was realigned in 2002 – to take control of a division that was supposed to be a two-team race in the AFC North.
The Bengals weren't supposed to be either of those teams.
On Sunday, they took control of the division (they essentially have a two-game lead over the 6-3 Steelers by virtue of the sweep) by playing a style that is completely foreign to them.
Slow, ugly, methodical and risk-averse, at least on offense. And they did this mostly without running back Cedric Benson(notes), an MVP candidate sidelined during the second half with a hip injury but expected back in the lineup against the Oakland Raiders in Week 11.
The Bengals can win in a low-key manner thanks to a sound defense that continues to confound opponents and critics alike. On Sunday, playing without their second starter to go on injured reserve (safety Roy Williams joined defensive end Antwan Odom(notes)), Cincinnati reduced the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) to a fluttering mess.
Roethlisberger, who had been playing his way into MVP consideration through eight games, put on his worst performance of the season, completing 20 of 40 passes for 174 yards and an interception. He was sacked four times, had four passes batted down at the line and, worst of all, made bad decisions at times.
"We did things that we – this may not make sense – we did things we don't normally do and we didn't do things that we normally do," said Roethlisberger, who forced four deep throws to wide receiver Santonio Holmes(notes) or rookie receiver Mike Wallace(notes), including two questionable deep balls in the final seven minutes of the game.
By contrast, Palmer, the former No. 1 pick with the right arm of Adonis, never threw deep. He never once challenged the Steelers defense, never once tried to dial up a bomb to Chad Ochocinco(notes) or any other receiver.
And Palmer was just fine with that.
"We have, in the past, gone into games thinking we had to score 35 points to win, opened the game throwing it all over the field," said Palmer, seemingly content with his task as game manager as he completed 18 of 30 passes for 178 yards.
Instead of touchdowns, Palmer talked about the value of simply getting first downs and changing field position in the tactical battle that is sometimes football, even in this modern age.
The Bengals are comfortable with this notion. Ochocinco, for example, couldn't have been much happier after the game. Yeah, he asked one reporter to move along after an insulting exchange over Ochocinco's past bouts with narcissism. But really, Ochocinco is like most players. When they win, life is grand.
"You think people are going to take us seriously now?" Ochocinco asked one reporter, flashing a wide grin. Even when the reporter told him no, that Cincinnati still has much to prove after two decades of mostly awful play, Ochocinco's buzz was still going strong.
"You're right, you're right, but that's fine, we'll show 'em," he said. As for his paltry contribution (two catches, 29 yards), Ochocinco couldn't care less. "We don't throw the ball deep against these guys, ever. If you want to beat these guys, you have to dink and dunk, run it, play defense. We did that."
After getting a 96-yard touchdown off a kickoff return by rookie Bernard Scott(notes) in the first quarter, the Bengals were content to spend the rest of the game trading field goals. They continued to lean heavily on their no-name defense, a collection of mostly castoffs sprinkled with some serious talent (former first-round picks, cornerbacks Leon Hall(notes) and Johnathan Joseph(notes), combined to limit the trio of Holmes, Wallace and Hines Ward(notes) to 12 catches on 29 passes thrown their direction).
The superior coverage was combined with a disciplined pass rush that kept Roethlisberger from getting outside of the pocket more than a half-dozen times. In contrast to Peyton Manning(notes) and Tom Brady(notes), Roethlisberger's game is largely dependent on extending plays by breaking the pocket and allowing his receivers to get open downfield.
"The defensive line did a great job of keeping him contained," Hall said. "When he breaks the pocket, that's when he's dangerous."
The Bengals did that by consistently maintaining the proper positioning on defense, particularly in the red zone. On Pittsburgh's four trips inside the Cincinnati 20-yard line, the Bengals safeties and linebacker never got caught out of position, never opening any holes in the coverage for Roethlisberger to easily exploit.
That has been the story all season for the Bengals, who came into the game ranked fifth in the league in points allowed (16.9 ppg).
"We've always had faith in one another," said linebacker Dhani Jones(notes), who had one of the four sacks on Roethlisberger. "We just needed a little bit more understanding of where each person was on the field."
In a greater sense, it's also about understanding where the Bengals are in the bigger scheme. It's about Palmer understanding that sometimes it's better to dump a pass off to a running back than to fire a rocket downfield.
"It's about getting the whole big picture," Bratkowski said. "You look at Pittsburgh's defense and how they feed off turnovers. That's what drives them. You look at our defense and what it's doing. Then you look at what's best for us in a given game. Do we want to be that explosive offense we were in the past? Of course. But sometimes it's not necessary. He knows that."