Nothing could have prepared us for one of the worst first quarters in Bengals history. Not when the defense is proudly defiant and special teams had earned the right to being one of the best in the league -- coverage, punts, blocking, you name it. There were no hints that the defense would lose their reliability and special teams would collapse.
"Well I didn’t come into the game thinking this could happen," said Lewis after the game. No one did.
Maybe that's on us. Spoiled, we are. Those defensive issues, failing to slow the opposing offense from collecting first downs late in the game, or costly special teams mistakes, haven't been an issue all season. Maybe Sunday was an aberration -- a one-time thing with the game being on prime time. We react, sometimes with violent keyboard expressions, and forget to realize how we got here. Yet losses in big games have become decidedly frustrating; an involuntary reaction to ditch everything we've learned between weeks 1-14.
Whatever it was, it was the worst first quarter performance in 27 years -- the last time that Cincinnati allowed 21 points in the game's opening period; a feat that wasn't even accomplished during the 90s.
It began when Pittsburgh opened the game from their own 20. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was called for a face mask on Le'Veon Bell's five-yard screen, tacking a 15-yard personal foul to Pittsburgh's 40-yard line. Kirkpatrick, replacing the injured Terence Newman with the non-enviable task of proving himself as a former first-round pick, added a missed tackle two plays later during Antonio Brown's reception on a quick pass, allowing the receiver 12 yards and a first down. Fortunately the defense held and the Steelers were forced to punt.
Following A.J. Green's nine-yard curl on Cincinnati's ensuing route and Troy Polamalu disrupting a bubble screen on second down, BenJarvus Green-Ellis is stuffed when Ziggy Hood man-handled Andre Smith into the assigned running lane. No gain. Punt. Well, that was the call. With 10:47 remaining in the first, Kevin Huber dropped the snap, was tackled at the one-yard line and the Pittsburgh Steelers took a 7-0 lead two plays later.
"The miscues we had with dropping the snap on the punt put ourselves behind right away. We didn't make any plays and make anything happen and create opportunity and create field position," said Lewis after the game. "We played behind the field position deal almost the whole first half. We really made it hard on ourselves. We have to play better. We have to prepare better. We have to play better. We have to execute better on offense, defense, special teams, in all three phases."
Cincinnati responded with a six-play possession, picking up a first down but were forced to punt after Ziggy Hood's quarterback sack with 7:15 remaining in the first. Huber caught the punt this time, and kicked the football 48 yards to the Steelers 42-yard line with Antonio Brown returning it 11 yards to the Bengals 47-yard line.
Pittsburgh easily drove the football, but required a fourth down conversion from the Bengals 31-yard line. Running back Le'Veon Bell cleared out of the backfield with Vontaze Burfict covering. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scrambled, forcing Burfict to choose. Stay on the route or clock Roethlisberger. The indecision allowed Bell to break free and haul in the pass for a 16-yard gain. Two plays later, the Steelers took a 14-0 lead when Roethlisberger had nearly eight seconds of pass protection to find an open Antonio Brown.
Cincinnati responded with a three-and-out on offense when the punt team jogged onto the field. Brandon Ghee was called for a false start, pushing Cincinnati back to their own 29-yard line. Huber kicked the football down the middle where Brown fielded the punt. Jayson DiManche failed to break down while Shawn Williams and Brandon Ghee were easily blocked, allowing Brown to break free for the 67-yard punt return for a touchdown. The Steelers take a 21-0 lead and history is achieved.
Despite a valiant effort to generate a comeback, the game was essentially over.