Almost to a man, players in both locker rooms identified a blocked field-goal attempt by Pittsburgh first-round rookie defensive end Cameron Heyward, which precluded the Bengals from jumping to a 3-0 lead five minutes into the game at Heinz Field, as the rather unlikely signature moment.
"It started everything," acknowledged Bengals kicker Mike Nugent, whose 33-yard try was swatted back at him by Heyward on the opening Cincinnati possession. "The floodgates opened from there. Everything seemed right, so I won't know exactly what happened until I see the film. But I know it would have been nice to get up on them in their place ... and it didn't happen. It kind of set a trend, I guess."
Indeed, Cameron's block - made possible in part when Ziggy Hood gained good penetration through the "B-gap," Steve McClendon collapsed the inside of the line, and William Gay came hard off the edge - established a tone for a unit that over the last several seasons has been roundly criticized by Steelers fans.
On an afternoon in which the Pittsburgh offense was efficient (four-for-four in the red zone), and a defense led by linebacker James Harrison (three sacks) limited Cincinnati to just an innocuous second-quarter touchdown catch by rookie wide receiver A.J. Green, it was the normally overlooked special teams units that carried the Steelers to victory and a 9-3 record. The Bengals, who lost to the Steelers for a second time in three weeks, dropped to 7-5, and probably fell out of contention for the AFC North title.
The 28-point differential was the largest for the Steelers in the 84-game history of the series.
"We just never let them get untracked after the first big play," said free safety Ryan Clark, who led the Steelers with eight tackles, referring to Heyward's block.
The smothered field-goal attempt came after the Bengals had an apparent four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jermaine Gresham nullified by a false-start penalty on Green and after Cincinnati was flagged for delay of game. Green acknowledged that the "momentum really shifted" after the Bengals botched their opening possession, which came after the defense had held the Pittsburgh offense to a three-and-out on its opening series of the game, and Cincinnati never really regained its traction.
In addition to Heyward's block, the Steelers recovered a fumbled kickoff by Bengals return man Brandon Tate, got a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown by Antonio Brown, and standout performances from the coverage units. The Tate fumble, forced by backup linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, led to Ben Roethlisberger's first of two touchdown passes to Mike Wallace.
Tailback Rashard Mendenhall also scored twice for the Steelers, on runs of three and five yards.
In a runaway, the Steelers found room for some milestones: Roethlisberger passed Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw for the most completions in franchise history. Wide receiver Hines Ward, who unofficially played 20 snaps as his role continues to be diminished, became the first Pittsburgh player with 12,000 yards through the air, and just the 19th in league history. And Harrison became just the third player in Steelers history with at least two games of three sacks in a season.
But it was the contribution from the often maligned Pittsburgh special teams units that stood out the most.
"It feels good to play a part like that," said Heyward, who blocked his first field goal since he played for Peachtree Ridge High School in suburban Atlanta. "Everybody has to have a role, you know, to be a complete team, which is what we talk about here all the time. I mean, the (special teams) can kind of be forgotten."
So can some players, like former starter Bryant McFadden, who seems to have fallen to spot No. 5 on the cornerback depth chart. But the seven-year veteran provided the key block on Brown's punt return, setting the right edge nicely and allowing the emerging Steelers star to get to the corner. Once he got into space along the right sideline, Brown was easily able to deke by Cincinnati punter Kevin Huber.
The Brown score was the Steelers' first regular-season punt return for a touchdown since Santonio Holmes went 65 yards at Carolina on Dec. 17, 2006, a stretch of 78 games. Coming just before halftime, and pushing Pittsburgh to a 28-7 advantage, it essentially blew out whatever wind remained in the Bengals' sails.
"I kind of tried to (funnel) everyone to the middle, then broke to the right, and my man (McFadden) gave me the room over there," said Brown, who also added a pair of catches, for 22 and 45 yards, the latter of which set up the Steelers' first score. "It's a (testament) to this team that guys will find ways to make plays."
Said Cincinnati right tackle Andre Smith: "We felt like, after the first game, we could play with them. But it was like a snowball effect.
"Once it all started down the hill, we couldn't stop it."
And it was Heyward, the son of the late NFL fullback Craig "Ironhead" Heyward and the 31st pick in the draft seven-plus months ago, who nudged the snowball forward.
"It felt pretty good to get the snowball rolling," Heyward said. "It's something that I won't forget."
Neither did anyone else in either locker room.