What happened? Things seemed to be going pretty well for the CIncinnati Bengals on Sunday, as they kept pace with the Steelers, exchanging scores frequently. Then in a flash (or, about the time it took to lose a fumble), the final 12 minutes of the game were completely out of control for the Bengals.
The sequence of events from the fumble on, were so typical of Cincinnati in a big game against a quality opponent--namely creating a bonehead turnover and not having the intestinal fortitude to recover from it. Unfortunately, it is these types of performances that have opposing fan bases cling to the "Bungles" stereotype.
Even though the result isn't what the team was hoping for, there were a few silver linings in the 21-point loss. We examine the best and worst from the Bengals on Sunday against the Steelers.
The Andy Dalton to A.J. Green Connection: One could argue that even though the team lost by three touchdowns, Dalton and Green had one of the best games in their respective careers. Green had a career-high in receiving yards and came one reception shy of tying his career-best in a game (12). Dalton, on the other hand, missed only eight passes all day, with at least two of those being drops. Dalton threw for 302 yards and two touchdowns, with another rushing touchdown.
Vincent Rey: Though the defense as a whole stunk, Rey had a solid game early on. The game was pretty even through three quarters and though Le'Veon Bell had brief moments of solid play in that time, Rey was doing some solid work. He had a pass break-up to Heath Miller on a third down try and accounted for 15 total tackles. The 21-point fourth quarter and 543 yards given up by the defense, tarnished his day a bit, but he was one of the few bright spots on the defense.
Jeremy Hill In Limited Opportunities: Hill had 11 touches on Sunday, eight carries and three catches, but was still productive. He averaged 6.1 yards per touch and again sniffed that average, running the ball at 5.75 per carry. The team was forced to abandon the run in the fourth quarter and relied on the effectiveness of Dalton and Green through the air.
Punting Seven Times: If it weren't for a few huge plays, this game would have been even more lopsided, given the amount of stalled drives. Huber had a decent day and could have been put in the "good category" as well, but having only one punt land inside the 20-yard line made us hesitant to do so. Even with the Bengals offense having issues running the ball and finding a reliable second receiving option on the day, they managed to get over 400 yards of offense. Hence, why seven punts is disappointing.
The Running Game: Whether it's Giovani Bernard averaging less than three yards per carry, or Hill and Dalton fumbling the ball away on a read-option play, the ground game struggled. Hill was effective with that high yards-per-carry average, but there were only 21 carries on the day with HIll and Bernard getting just 14 of those. Whether it's Hue Jackson improperly using the two, poor blocking by the offensive line, and/or Bernard not reading holes correctly, the inconsistencies are hurting the offense.
Third Down Conversion Rate: I suppose that this could be grouped in with the punting issue, but the Bengals didn't do well on third down against the Steelers on Sunday. Only converting three of 11 tries (27%), it was a wonder that the team was not only able to put up 21 points, but also have a lead in the fourth quarter. There have been a few games where the Bengals have fared excellently in this area, but many others that resembled Sunday, too.
Drops And A Lack Of A Reliable Second Receiver: Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham both had critical drops on Sunday, and one could also put the Bernard-stumble-drop in that category as well. Gresham had a nice touchdown grab and a couple of other catches, but nobody outside of Green truly scared the Steelers defense. The question of Bernard's effectiveness and role once again comes into question with performances like this and makes some of us wonder if he should be used more in the slot with Hill in the backfield.
The 94-Yard Bomb To End It: You almost felt it coming, didn't you? Huber pinned the Steelers at their own six-yard line and with a seven-point lead, one would think the defense would be able to hold Pittsburgh and get the ball back. Nope. Martavis Bryant was wide open down the sideline, thanks to a poor defensive scheme with George Iloka left alone to try and cover two open receivers streaking down each sideline. It's easy to second-guess, but one would think that the Bengals would line up differently and concede a potential decent gain from Bell, given the amount of field that they had to work with. Had they shown a different look on defense, the bomb may not have happened. Still, the thought at the time was likely just to stop Bell. Really, this play is an example of what makes the Steelers the Steelers and the Bengals, well, the Bengals.
The Unsuccessful Fake Punt: In an early move of desperation, Marvin Lewis tried to trick the Steelers defense with a direct snap to Cedric Peerman on a punt attempt. Peerman fumbled the ball and though the Bengals recovered past the first down marker, NFL rules state that that isn't legal, so Pittsburgh gained possession. While it was clever in theory, it almost seemed predictable, even for the usually-conservative Lewis. Furthermore, if the Bengals were going to go for it, they might as well have put the best playmakers on the field and tried something with Green, Hill, etc.
Getting Out-Physicaled At Home. By Pittsburgh. Again.: For a while, the Bengals were keeping pace with and even out-dueling the Steelers, leading 14-10 at the half and 21-20 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Still, signs of the foundation cracking were noticeable early on--especially with Bell's play, the defense's missed first tackle attempts, and the lack of pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh had three sacks to Cincinnati's zero, and while also out-rushing them by 107 yards. As Bell gashed the Bengals late when the game was getting out of hand, I wonder how many Bengals fans had the painful memories of Jerome Bettis doing the same so many times in years prior.
The Secondary/Two Steelers Wide Receivers Over 100 Yards Receiving: Sure, the three other catches that Bryant had on the day only went for 15 yards, but the 94-yarder sealed the game. Antonio Brown proved to be slippery, as he consistently chopped through the Bengals secondary via nine catches and 117 yards. Terence Newman had a couple of nice plays early, but his performance declined and he was forced to leave with an injury. Leon Hall was burned a couple of times on the day, including the 94-yard bomb. It might be time for Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard to take heavier roles.
The Defensive Line: Zero sacks on the quarterback and 193 rushing yards allowed. That is never a formula for success, nor does it point to a good day at the office for a defensive unit. The once-formidable Bengals front got manhandled by a middle-of-the-road Steelers offensive line, and it undoubtedly affected the play of the secondary. In what's a likely correlation, the Bengals' defense is ranked 31st in sacks with 15 and have just 12 interceptions on the year, which places them near the middle of the NFL pack. A recovering Geno Atkins, a injured Vontaze Burfict and losing Michael Johnson have all appeared to hit the group.