While some may not have expected the Bengals to pull out a victory against the Steelers on Sunday, it's highly-probable that fans experienced major surprises in the form of injuries that transpired. For the second time in a decade, a game against Pittsburgh has caused the Bengals' Super Bowl hopes to take a deep dive by the division matchup costing the Bengals their quarterback.
Excuses don't work for NFL squads in December and January, so the Bengals will need to recover, both physically and emotionally, while rallying behind their new signal-caller, however long he may be under center. Despite the lopsided 33-20 score, there were some positives to take from one of the most crippling losses in recent memory.
A.J. Green Dominates the Steelers again: It doesn't matter the venue, weather, trash talk or even who is throwing him the football--Green owns Pittsburgh. The Pro Bowl wideout went off for another nine catches, 132 receiving yards and a score with both Andy Dalton and AJ McCarron tossing him the football. In the last four games against the Steelers, Green has a combined 39 catches for 552 yards and three touchdowns.
The Other AJ Stepping up: When Andy Dalton went down with a fractured thumb, it was baptism by fire for second-year quarterback, AJ McCarron. For the most part, McCarron did pretty well in an emotionally-fueled game, throwing for 280 yards and two touchdowns. What was impressive was his willingness and effectiveness to throw the ball down the field, whereas most inexperienced quarterbacks put into a similar situation likely would have relegated to throwing dump-off passes.
Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga: The former Pro Bowl linebacker started a pre-game fracas between the two teams, but was also everywhere when playing defense. He had 11 total tackles, even though he was on and off the field at times because of various health issues. Maualuga also had a nice day with seven tackles as both didn't back down from Pittsburgh's bullying, while containing DeAngelo Williams on the ground.
The Defensive Ends: Pressure wasn't as frequent as most would have liked to see against Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday afternoon, but Dunlap and Johnson each grabbed a quarterback sack apiece. Both plays were in huge situations to give the Bengals a much-needed morale boost. Dunlap has a career-high 10.5 sacks in what has been a Pro Bowl-like year, while Johnson has continued to quietly contribute on a good defensive line.
Keeping Composed Under Fire, While not Backing down: The Steelers tried to do everything to get the Bengals to lose control, including injuring their players. But, through it all, the Bengals only had four penalties for 27 yards and didn't back down to some of the more-than-questionable antics of Pittsburgh players (see A.J. Green and Antwon Blake).
Limiting Long Bombs from Big Ben: The Steelers' offense came into Paul Brown Stadium red-hot, with Roethlisberger winging big plays against many different defenses. In fact, in the four games between the two matchups against the Bengals, Roethlisberger had ten touchdown passes, five interceptions and was averaging 383 passing yards per game in the span. On Sunday, he had 282 passing yards, zero touchdowns and an interception, though he did complete 30-of-39 passes.
Offensive Weapons Contribute in Passing Game, Despite Injuries: Dalton went out after their first offensive series, as did Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert, but the offense was still moving the ball. Nine different players caught passes on Sunday, ranging from Green's big statistical day to Rex Burkhead's late touchdown grab. Marvin Jones, Eifert and Tyler Kroft were all effective in different ways, combining for 10 catches and 134 yards.
Giovani Bernard Still Productive with few Touches: Bernard torched the Steelers with nearly seven yards per carry Sunday, but was only limited to six carries. He also contributed as a receiver, grabbing three passes for 27 yards. Though his touches haven't been over-the-top this season, he is showing the versatility and explosive plays they drooled over while he was at the University of North Carolina.
Facets of McCarron's play: Though he winged the ball well, particularly on deep and intermediate throws, there were the expected mistakes. Old CJ friend, Joe Goodberry diagrammed McCarron's pick-six on Twitter, basically showing the many options he had on the play. Of the three major choices he faced (giving the ball to Jeremy Hill, throwing the screen to Mohamed Sanu or throwing deep to Green down the seam), throwing late to the outside in the NFL just never works out well. His second interception gets a little more of a pass, given that it occurred one play after he made a nice pass nullified by a holding penalty on Andrew Whitworth.
Mike Nugent's Missed Field Goal: We hate to pile on a guy for missing a difficult 54-yard kick, especially when he has been so consistent in the past few weeks, but the miss signaled a couple of troubling issues, both short-term and long-term. For the short term, Nugent's miss added to the emotional snowball that was pushed downhill after the Dalton and Eifert injuries. In more of a macro viewpoint, this team will need long field goal conversions in the weeks ahead because of poor weather and the offense likely not being able to move the ball with the same effectiveness.
Injuries: The Bengals have lost their starting quarterback for at least a few weeks, while their franchise record-setting tight end is recovering from a dreaded concussion. George Iloka re-aggravated a groin injury he's been dealing with for a couple of weeks and Burfict left the game on a number of occasions. We knew it would a physical game, but major casualties are piling up at the worst possible time of the year after the Bengals managed to avoid them all season long.
Pittsburgh's Sentiment That Injuring Players Makes Them More Physical: News flash: it doesn't. Injuring players is cheap, dirty and goes against the code of the NFL. Steelers linebacker Vince Williams tweeted out he'd "paint" Burfict in the streets of Miami, and whether his idea was to punch him or go after Burfict with a lethal weapon, it wasn't funny. Mike Mitchell proclaimed Bengals blood would be spilled and the first opportunity he had, he speared Eifert up high, causing his concussion. There's somewhat-viral video of David DeCastro attempting to gouge out Wallace Gilberry's eyes after a play while he was on the ground and Antonio Brown was taking swings at people. In a Tweet he has since deleted, Steelers offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert proceeded to chide the Bengals by saying he wanted to face them again in the playoffs because "they choke". These are your Pittsburgh Steelers, ladies and gentlemen.
Bengals' Third Down Defense: For all the good things they did on deep passes and keeping Roethlisberger out of the end zone, they just couldn't get off the field. At one point in the fourth quarter, Big Ben was 10-off-11 passing, while the team converted 57 percent of their third down tries. Four of the six stops the Bengals did make still resulted in field goals, so they didn't totally stop the Steelers' offensive juggernaut.
The Offensive Line and Running Game: True, the Bengals were in catch-up mode for most of the day and the two main backs (Hill and Bernard) only combined for 13 carries, but it was tough sledding once again as they tried to tote the rock. Bernard had an 18-yard scamper and Hill had a 12-yarder, but 13 carries for 56 yards from the duo isn't ideal. Bengals quarterbacks also suffered three sacks on the afternoon to continue to point to the offensive line, along with multiple pressures--like the one James Harrison applied on the pick-six. And, even though it seemed like a phantom hold by Andrew Whitworth on Harrison to negate a nice fourth quarter pass by McCarron, the next play resulted in an interception.
Losing to the Steelers and Classlessness from Players and Fans: The Steelers' fan base is universally hated by others in the NFL. It's a combination of factors that contributes to said hatred, including being envious of their past successes and Steelers Nation's ability to show up big-time at almost any NFL venue. You won--fine. You've largely dominated the Bengals throughout their Marvin Lewis renaissance, especially in Cincinnati--got it. But, specifically seeking out to injure players as part of the game plan (yep--I said it even though nobody else will), laughing about it and poking fun of fans for their players getting injured is just sick. Even though the win-loss record doesn't aptly show it, this is quickly becoming one of the most heated rivalries in the league. The Steelers and their fans won't readily admit it, but look at how fired up their players were on Sunday.