Boyd returns as Pittsburgh opponent

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Boyd returns as Pittsburgh opponent

Tyler Boyd finished with six catches for 78 yards and one costly, controversial fumble against the Steelers. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer.

Tyler Boyd finished with six catches for 78 yards and one costly, controversial fumble against the Steelers. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer.

Tyler Boyd finished with six catches for 78 yards and one costly, controversial fumble against the Steelers. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer.

Tyler Boyd finished with six catches for 78 yards and one costly, controversial fumble against the Steelers. Matt Hawley / Staff Photographer.

By Steve Rotstein | Sports Editor

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A strong start in former Pitt wide receiver Tyler Boyd’s Heinz Field homecoming turned into a nightmare finish for the Cincinnati Bengals rookie.

Boyd returned home Sunday to the stadium where he spent three years torching secondaries with the Panthers –– this time as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ archrival Bengals. He played well in just the second game of his NFL career, finishing with six catches for 78 yards.

But his last catch is one he’ll wish he could have back.

Boyd caught a pass over the middle coming out of the two-minute warning with the Bengals trailing, 24-16, late in the fourth quarter. As soon as he turned upfield, the Steelers’ fearsome 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison laid a punishing hit on the 6-foot-1, 197-pound Boyd.

Officials ruled that the ball came loose before Boyd’s knee touched the ground, and the Steelers recovered the fumble to effectively ice the game.

“At first when it happened immediately I really didn’t know [if my knee was down],” Boyd said. “But after I watched it, my knee was obviously down and I still had possession of the ball, clearly. But the refs made a call and stood with it.”

A native of Clairton, Pennsylvania, Boyd spent the past seven years as one of western Pennsylvania’s brightest football stars.

By the time his high school career was over, Boyd had rushed for 5,755 yards and scored 117 total touchdowns. His Clairton Bears captured the PIAA Class A state championship all four years in high school en route to a state-record 66-game winning streak.

Boyd left Clairton as a four-star recruit and the No. 12 wide receiver prospect in the nation, according to Rivals. He had the choice of playing for virtually any big-name college football program he desired, with offers from Michigan State, Notre Dame and Wisconsin.

Instead, he chose to stay home and play for Pitt, where he set numerous records and left his mark as one of the best pass-catchers to ever suit up for the Panthers.

Boyd made an impact as soon as he arrived on campus, earning second-team All-ACC honors in his first year at Pitt while setting an ACC first-year record with 85 receptions and adding 1,174 yards receiving and eight touchdowns.

Over the next two years, he earned first-team All-ACC honors in both his sophomore and junior seasons and finishing his three-year college career as the Panthers’ all-time leader in receptions with 254 and receiving yards with 3,361.

The Bengals then selected Boyd in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, locking him into a division rivalry against his hometown team –– starting Week 2 in Pittsburgh. He had a candid response about facing his home team going into the game.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for the Steelers. Even though I have so much respect for them, I’m still going to try and punch them in the mouth,” Boyd told the Steelers’ official website“[And] make sure I compete because I don’t want a guy to punch me in the mouth. Whatever I have to do to win.”

After getting his professional career off to a slow start with only two catches for 24 yards in Cincinnati’s season-opening 23-22 victory over the New York Jets, Boyd made his presence known immediately against the Steelers.

With the Bengals facing third-and-5 on their first possession, quarterback Andy Dalton hit Boyd for a 10-yard gain and a first down. But the Steelers’ defense held and forced a punt.

After another field goal put the Steelers up 10-3, Boyd came up with another third-down conversion late in the first half. Dalton found him over the middle for 16 yards on third-and-3, and Boyd absorbed a hit from Steelers safety Mike Mitchell to secure the catch.

With just over five minutes left in the third quarter and the Bengals facing first-and-25 from their own 10-yard line, Boyd came up with the biggest catch of his NFL career so far, streaking open over the middle for a 29-yard gain and a big first down.

That play sparked a long drive for Cincinnati, who moved the ball all the way to the Steelers’ 1-yard line before settling for another field goal to cut the Steelers’ lead to 17-9.

The Bengals finally found the end zone on Dalton’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Giovani Bernard with 3:25 left, then forced a three-and-out and got the ball back with a chance to tie the game down 24-16.

Cincinnati moved the ball across midfield and Dalton found Boyd over the middle for his sixth catch. But Harrison was ready and waiting to lower the boom and dash any hopes of a magical comeback for Boyd and the Bengals.

“My instinct once I caught the ball and spun, I saw a guy like [Harrison] I just wanted to immediately get down,” Boyd said. “Just the simple fact that I knew I wasn’t going to get anywhere … not necessarily that he was going to kill me, I just wanted to continue the drive.”

Boyd said he felt he let his team down, but his veteran teammates weren’t about to blame him.

“I thought [Boyd] played well, I thought he did a lot of good things. You can’t focus on the fumble,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to move on from it and learn from it, and I think he will.”

Boyd’s teammate at wide receiver, A.J. Green, emphasized that the team wouldn’t have been in position to tie the game late without the rookie receiver.

“He played great for us today. He was making all the plays on third down to get us down and score,” Green said. “So, we definitely needed him today. He stepped up big today for us.”

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