The Bengals failed to complete the season sweep over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers due to a number of reasons including some key injuries to the team. The Bengals will need to win at least one game with AJ McCarron under center if they want to lock up the AFC North. Some of the highest graded players by Pro Football Focus this week were Kevin Zeitler (+5.7), Geno Atkins (+3.4), Carlos Dunlap (+3.3), A.J. Green (+2.5), and Rey Maualuga (+2.5).
The Bengals lost Andy Dalton for the game late in the first quarter prompting AJ McCarron's first real regular season game action in his career. He didn't have a great game, but probably played better than you would expect in the circumstances.
He went 17 for 22 passing for 246 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception when not facing pressure, which resulted in a respectable passing grade (+1.1). Unfortunately, he was easily flustered when facing pressure, going five for 10 for 34 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception, resulting in a pretty poor passing grade (-2.8). Overall, it averaged out to a not so great grade (-1.7), but what do you expect out of a quarterback who has never truly taken an important snap in what is essentially his redshirt rookie season.
The Bengals saw pretty good play out of one of their younger offensive lineman, Kevin Zeitler, who did not allow any pressure and graded very well in the run game (+3.7). That helped him to be the highest overall rated guard in the NFL this week (+5.7). Unfortunately, the performance was marred by a poor performance from one of the more steady veteran players on the line, Andrew Whitworth, who allowed a sack, two hits, and two hurries for his lowest pass blocking grade since Week 10 of the 2013 season (-1.6). Whitworth was also questionably flagged for holding which negated a big McCarron throw for a fist down. The next play led to a pick six.
A.J. Green was a bright spot in an otherwise dark day for the team, contributing positively to his overall season grade that currently ranks fifth best among wide receivers in the NFL (+17.6). Only Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson have been having better seasons, according to PFF.
It was a great day from the defensive line starters. Geno Atkins (+3.4), Domata Peko (+0.3), Michael Johnson (+0.3), and Carlos Dunlap (+3.3) all recorded positive grades and managed to put pressure on Ben Roethlisberger. Unfortunately, it was a fairly poor day for the majority of the backup pass rushers. Margus Hunt (-0.9), Pat Sims (-2.5), Chris Carter (-0.2), and Wallace Gillberry (-2.4) all recorded negative overall grades, making the unit as a whole look pretty average.
The Bengals are lucky to have Reggie Nelson (+5.4) and George Iloka (+5.4), who are tied as the ninth highest graded coverage safeties in the NFL to date. But, they could both stand to improve against the run. Iloka has graded poorly so far (-0.6) and Nelson looks bad by comparison (-2.1). Iloka also was injured early in the game and didn't return.
Speaking of the secondary, Josh Shaw saw some significant action this week with Adam Jones missing the game. He was targeted seven times, allowing five catches for 74 yards. Needless to say, he graded pretty poorly in coverage (-1.3), which was the lowest defensive backs on the team.
But, it wasn't all bad. Rey Maualuga had his best grade of the season (+2.5). This came as a result of five tackles, four stops, a QB hurry, and only a single missed tackle. With as many issues as the team has had with missed tackles this season, we'll take that.
Speaking of players the Bengals are lucky to have, Kevin Huber hasn't been used much this season as he has in the past, punting only 48 times so far this season (fourth fewest in the NFL of punters who have played all 13 games). Only Jacob Schum (45), Drew Butler (46), and Jordan Berry (47) have punted less. However, he still makes the most of each punt. Not only is he top 10 in net average punt yards (40.7), but he also sinks approximately 37 percent of his punts inside the opposing team's 20 yard line, which is also roughly the percentage of his punts that have been returned.
Losing Dalton for the game (and potentially the rest of the regular season) is awful, and it probably contributed to the team's inability to keep up with the Steelers, ultimately losing by 13 including a garbage time touchdown by the Steelers. He wasn't really having a great game before he went out, though. He completed three of his five passes for 59 yards and an interception.
In his one offensive series, did play a bit better when using play action. He completed roughly 4.6 percent more passes for 2.3 more yards per attempt. His passer rating when using play action this season (119.7) is the highest in the league. AJ McCarron played better when not using play action. He has completed 3.3 percent fewer passes per attempt for 3.5 less yards per attempt when using play action on Sunday.