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Steelers vs Bengals: Defense fails to step up on third downs

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The Cincinnati Bengals did some good things against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their high-flying offense on Sunday, but their inability to get off the field crippled them in the loss.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

American football is most definitely known as a team sport. That being the case, it's hard for us as analysts to single out certain units or facets of the game as being specifically responsible for a loss. Anyone who watched the Bengals' 33-20 loss against the Steelers knows that it was a variety of factors that led to Cincinnati's disheartening loss at Paul Brown Stadium.

The most convenient and obvious reason for the Bengals' third loss of the 2015 season is injuries. When you lose your starting quarterback, tight end, safety and linebacker (at times), while also dealing with other inactives, a cop-out is already embedded in the outcome. Even so, other factors beyond those out of the Bengals' control contributed to the disheartening loss.

Cincinnati's defense played well as a whole on Sunday. DeAngelo Williams recorded just 76 yards on 23 carries, while the longest pass of the day from Ben Roethlisberger and the high-flying Steelers offense was 31 yards. Markus Wheaton grabbed that pass on the opening drive, but the unit didn't allow many other big plays on the day.

It was a game plan they have utilized all year: keep plays in front of the sticks, limit the big gains, and utilizing the strong defensive line and sound tackling on the back end to keep points at a minimum. While the pressure on Roethlisberger was relatively inconsistent, due in part to the idea of disallowing his ability to improvise, Cincinnati didn't let Antonio Brown or Martavis Bryant break their backs with plays that have plagued other teams in recent weeks.

In fact, all individual passing and receiving parties were kept out of the end zone, marking it as winning a battle whilst losing the war for the Bengals. No Steelers receiver cracked the 100-yard mark contributing to the failure in the same vein of their running back. It was a formula that normally would add up to a win, but with the accrued injuries and a major ineffectiveness in one significant area, the equation didn't add up.

Roethlisberger and his weapons were nearly impeccable on the most important down, with the majority of their gashes coming on third downs. On the day, Pittsburgh was 8-of-14 on third downs, with a couple of those playing into the concession of the game as the clock was winding down.

By the middle of the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger was 10-of-11 passing on third down, obviously pointing to an area of their game plan. The Bengals were ailing in the secondary with a season-ending injury to Darqueze Dennard a couple of weeks ago, while their best corner, Adam Jones, was out for the second time in four weeks with a foot injury. Safety George Iloka also had been nursing a groin injury, which hindered him again on Sunday and caused him to leave the game.

But, hey, these are excuses.

The most frustrating aspect of Sunday's game was in the actions of Steelers players and the Bengals' chippy retaliations. Most fans actually liked the emotional and physical response to a team that always prides itself on being the bully, but it overshadowed other facets of the game. In most every aspect, the Bengals matched the intensity of Pittsburgh's foamy-mouthed approached, except for on third down defense.

On four of the six Steelers failures on third down, kicker Chris Boswell nailed field goals. When a defense holds a potent offense to three points instead of seven, that's a small victory. However, the aforementioned inconsistent pass rush and the overall compiled injuries didn't stop the Steelers from getting into scoring position.

Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who has had his share of ups and downs in 2015 was also been pretty vocal about the comments leading up to this week had more on Sunday, per Bengals.com. "We lost our cool a couple of times with what those guys were trying to get us to do," Kirkpatrick said. "We just have to stay consistent and continue to play together and continue to rely on each other," as he conceded the mental and verbal warfare by the Steelers having an effect on the outcome.

Kirkpatrick also had qualms about some calls that seemed to go in Brown's favor, but one thing that can't be criticized about No. 27's play on Sunday was his intensity. A few Bengals were especially animated in their response to what the Steelers provoked out of them and the veteran corner was one of them.

All in all, the Bengals' defense wisely took away the big play from the Steelers on Sunday, but Pittsburgh still found a frustrating way to move the sticks and get themselves points. Quick-hitting passes to Brown, Bryant and Heath Miller all paid dividends, while Big Ben conjured up the slimmer version of himself to scramble for yardage or vintage broken plays. As it came to be, Roethlisberger used a myriad of yards-after-the-catch plays to wear Cincinnati down.

For the most part, the Bengals' defense did their part in a tough matchup, especially considering AJ McCarron's pick-six, despite his decent day in relief of Andy Dalton. Still, in evenly-matched contests, third downs tell the tale of the tape, especially with their 37 percent third down conversion rate paling in comparison to what the Steelers were doing on offense. Should the Bengals get the fortuitous opportunity to face the Steelers again in the playoffs, there are many lessons to be learned--especially on how to get the defense off-the-field.