The Bengals picked up their third loss of the season at the hands of the hated Steelers this week, getting banged up pretty badly in the process and casting doubt on their potential to finish the season strong. Perhaps the biggest storyline coming out of this game was Andy Dalton's injury and AJ McCarron's subsequent entrance into his first important regular season game action.
This week's goat of the week is a weird one, because no single person really had a significant enough negative impact in this game to blame them for the loss. That's typically the case in a team sport, like football. The team lost 33-20, including a garbage time touchdown, so there were plenty of negatives about the game. That said, the biggest issue seemed to be injuries and lack of experience from the backup players. It's hard to blame them for being backups, but at the same time, their job is to be prepared to be go into the game at any time. One of the strongest qualities of any championship team is the depth of the roster and the ability for the "next man up" to be prepared to play at a high level.
So, without further ado, here are your Week 14 goat of the week candidates. Leave your vote for the "award" at the bottom in the poll, and don't forget to chime in in the comments!
To kick off the list of backups who performed below the expectations of a starter, Josh Shaw really struggled while trying to give the Bengals' banged up starters some rest. He was targeted on seven passes, but in the process he allowed a combined five catches to Martavis Bryant and Antonio Brown. To make it worse, he allowed approximately 15 yards per catch. He was the least effective cornerback in the game this week. Luckily his number of snaps were limited. Sure he's a rookie who doesn't expect to play much, but he's going to need to make a significant improvement if he wants to see more playing time in the future.
Maybe it's not fair to blame McCarron for the loss. After all, he had a decent game after the iron man, Andy Dalton, went down with the first serious injury of his career. The problem is, McCarron was wildly up and down and the screams from fans who have been waiting to yell "AJ TO A.J.!!!" were seen and heard across Bengaldom when he threw that beautiful touchdown pass to Green, but there was plenty of less exciting material for him to improve on throughout the game.
The main issue is the interceptions. Yes, he threw for that fantastic touchdown and another one in garbage time to Rex Burkhead. But, he essentially negated those touchdowns with a rookie mistake pick-six thrown to William Gay and another one thrown to Robert Golden that set up a Steelers touchdown drive that ended almost all faint hopes of a Bengals comeback. Granted, it was his first real game action of his career and it would have been a MUCH bigger surprise if he had gone out there and lit it up, but he needs to improve on his decision making and awareness if the Bengals are to beat the 49ers this week.
Both quarterbacks were dealing with pressure all day. Dalton wasn't in long enough to be sacked, but you could tell that he was having to make some hasty decisions with the ball that are uncharacteristic of a quarterback with plenty of time to throw. McCarron, on the other hand, was sacked three times. That might have led to his problem with throwing interceptions at the worst possible time.
Andrew Whitworth is almost always one of the best players on the team, regardless of position. But, he really dropped the ball this week in a game in which a win would clinch the division. Whitworth gave up two QB hurries, two QB hits, and a sack on the game, which ranks as his worst game since Week 10 of 2013. Big Whit has been so steady that you can forgive a bad game here and there, but this may have been one of the absolute worst times to turn in a bad game.
To answer the question that I feel like you're probably asking, no it's not fair at all to accuse Dalton of blowing the game when he was only in the game for one offensive series. Dalton has been one of the most steady and exciting players on the team this season so, like Whitworth, you can't be mad at the guy for one bad drive that just happened to be the only drive he had during the day. If there is one thing Dalton has done really well this year, that's bounce back from a not-so-great start.
The issue is, that he didn't have a chance to bounce back and left McCarron with a 10 point hole to dig the team out of. In his lone drive of the game, Dalton only completed three of his five pass attempts for 59 yards and an interception. It was also probably the worst interception of his life, because it was an incredibly poorly timed shovel pass to Giovani Bernard up the middle among a sea of defenders. Stephon Tuitt had the awareness to get in front of the pass and pick it off. Dalton had enough presence of mind to quickly get to the defender to make the tackle, but not enough presence of mind to protect himself. In the process, he fractured his thumb and left McCarron to clean up his mess as well as finish out the season with virtually no experience at leading an NFL team.
Luckily, Dalton has a possibility to be back for the playoffs, but we can't have any more mistakes like this one. It's not often that one single play can dictate the entire direction of the game, as well as influence the direction of the rest of the season.
No one player is particularly more responsible for this loss than any other, but my vote for goat of the week would probably go to Dalton.