I'm still trying to digest exactly what took place at Paul Brown Stadium Saturday night. We knew this one would be chippy, physical and gladiator-esque, but a loss of control, be it from factors controllable or not, led to what is one of the most talked-about NFL playoff game in some time.
Do me a favor when you read this post--make sure you look all the way through it before jumping to extreme conclusions. Emotions are high with both fan bases at the moment, so making sure everything is taken in its proper context would help the credence this post and Cincy Jungle has built. Here are the best and worst from the Bengals (and some from the Steelers) in the team's 18-16 loss to the Steelers in the Wild Card round.
Coming Back and a Better Playoff Showing: Again, read carefully here. By a "better playoff showing", we're talking about the high level of effort and the fact that they brought this game to the wire--something that wasn't a staple in Marvin Lewis' tenure as head coach. Obviously the fighting, penalties and other deplorable behavior wasn't acceptable, but the defense allowed very few big plays from the Steelers' offense, while the offense surged at the most important time of the game. They fought from a 15-0 deficit to take a 16-15 lead with under two minutes to play and were in position for their first playoff win in 25 years. A lot of things can be criticized, but effort and emotion were present in a setting in which they have usually lacked each.
Defense's Statistical Dominance: While they were foolish on the final drive, they were pumped up, gave their all and it showed in the stat sheet. They sacked Steelers quarterbacks four times, forced two turnovers and frustrated Pittsburgh's offense. Even more impressive was the play of substitute players in the wake of injury. Pat Sims played well in relief of Domata Peko, while Shawn Williams and Derron Smith played relatively well in relief of Reggie Nelson.
Dispersal of the Football to the Offensive Weapons: Though he made some nice plays late, AJ McCarron largely struggled on Saturday night. Still, when time was actually available, he used almost every weapon in the Bengals' arsenal in some capacity, hitting seven different receivers. The particularly clever use of Jeremy Hill late in the game with the rain falling and recognizing his previous struggles was a nice adjustment, as was finally looking A.J. Green's way in the second half.
A.J. Green Continues to Dominate Steelers and shows up in Playoffs: Even though the Bengals haven't been winning many games against the Steelers, Green has done more than his fair share. In the regular season, Green had 16 catches for 250 yards (two 100-yard receiving performances) and two touchdowns. Though he had a tough first half, Green finished as the team's leading receiver with five catches for 71 yards and the go-ahead 25-yard touchdown with under two minutes to play. It was a great moment for a player who had received so much flak for not showing up in the postseason.
Special Teams Unit: All three phases did very well on Saturday night. With the offense flailing in the first half, the Bengals relied on the able left leg of Kevin Huber to help with the field position battle. He answered the bell with three of his six punts landing inside the 20-yard line, while his coverage unit swallowed up Antonio Brown on returns. His counterpart, Mike Nugent, nailed an important 36-yarder in the rain along with an extra point, while Adam Jones provided a gigantic 24-yard punt return in the fourth quarter.
The Play of the Linebackers: Though Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman surprisingly found some creases in the running game, Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict were flying around the field. Yes, we know about Burfict's antics, but the stats can't be denied (sack, forced fumble, interception, five tackles), while Rey Maualuga led the team with 10 tackles.
Stopping Heath Miller: Many analysts, (including this intelligent writer), though the Steelers were going to try and use Miller in the shorter passing game because of the issues at running back and the Bengals' defensive game plan to focus on the Steelers' great receiving corps. In Todd Haley's short-passing game plan against the aggressive Bengals defense on Saturday night, one would have thought tight end screens and sit-down routes would be readily available. Miller finished with just two catches for nine yards, after grabbing 20 for 171 yards in the past two games against the Bengals.
Soap Operatic Football for the Masses: Most NFL fans, regardless of their team allegiance, could care less about the Cincinnati Bengals, but their renewed rivalry with the Steelers caught the national eye. After a pretty boring first half and a game that looked to be lost in the third quarter with the Bengals down 15-0, Cincinnati reeled in the national audience--for better or worse. Early ratings reports have the Nielsen Ratings at 19.2, good for the fifth-highest rating for a Wild Card game in NFL history. The fourth quarter was wild, unpredictable, fun and embarrassing all at the same time, but the NFL-loving masses ate it up.
Standing up to the Bully: Look, I'm not preaching violence or promoting injuring of players at all, but one thing Pittsburgh has always prided itself on is playing physical. Often times in the history of the rivalry, the Steelers have imposed their physical will on the Bengals, frustrating Who Dey Nation. This time, the Bengals weren't going to be pushed around in their own backyard and brought the same type of physicality, inside and outside the rules. Steelers fans won't concede "hey, good game" because of the ugly nature of the matchup, but both teams brought their best and it wouldn't be surprising if this ends up being the ugliest and most competitive game (in multiple respects) of the postseason.
Bad Weather Causing Sloppy Play: The spurts of rain that fell down on Cincinnati Saturday night affected both teams. The high-flying Steelers offense had to rely on short passes that may or may not have garnered yards-after-the-catch, while backup quarterback AJ McCarron had many passes flutter, as he obviously had a poor grip on the football. McCarron switched at one point to wearing a glove on his throwing hand, but switched back later in the game to go gloveless.
Backup Steeler Running Backs Proving Effective: With Todman and Toussaint, the Steelers still managed to get 183 total yards from their third and fourth string running backs, with Toussaint managing 118 total yards on his own (58 rushing, 60 receiving). Credit the Steelers and their offensive line for bringing some semblance of balance to their offense, though most of the yardage came on plays where backs made major cutbacks after the Bengals' defense dealt their hand.
The Injuries: First of all, we knew it would be a bloodbath between these two and, unfortunately, we knew there might be some questionable hits. We also knew both teams would be giving their all because of the nature of the rivalry and it being a playoff game. Unfortunately, some of the best players on both teams left the game because of hits deemed "dirty". Giovani Bernard took one to the head and was reportedly knocked unconscious by Ryan Shazier, while Reggie Nelson, Ben Roethlisberger, Domata Peko, Dre KIrkpatrick, Wallace Gilberry and others left the game for varying periods of time.
Act Like You've Been There Before/Improper Celebrations: The most obvious was Burfict's channeling of Bo Jackson/Flipper Anderson's celebratory run into the tunnel after what seemed like a game-sealing and franchise-changing interception. While it was funny at the moment, hindsight gives us the ability to criticize things far after they happen, and given how things played out, it's a move Burfict shouldn't have made. Speaking of moves players shouldn't have made, check out Shazier and Steelers defensive back Antwon Blake excessively celebrating while Bernard was being attended to by trainers:
A lot going on here but Antwon Blake and Ryan Shazier dancing while Gio Bernard is still down on the field.... https://t.co/yJ7VF3gFn3— TK (@TK_Sports_) January 10, 2016
Jeremy Hill: I just don't know what to say about a player that had such high expectations going into 2015. I intentionally didn't mention Hill's fumbling issues all week leading up to the game in an effort to not jinx the second-year back. Hill had a great 38-yard run in the third quarter, but the other 11 carries he had netted 12 yards. Hill had the back-breaking fumble immediately following the Burfict interception with under two minutes to play and eventually allowed the Steelers to get the winning score. There were so many areas that could be criticized Saturday night, but that fumble was a focal point. To Hill's credit, he publicly apologized and owned up to it, though he didn't need to at all.
Coaching and Play-Calls: Speaking of Hill's fumble, how about the message relayed to him and the composure successful coaches should relay to their players. Hand the thing off three times, fall down each carry, burn the Steelers' timeouts, while getting the field goal. I realize the more sure-handed back in Bernard was out of the lineup, but the coaching staff should have grabbed Hill by the facemark and screamed at him to hold on to the ball at all costs. To Hill's credit , he was fighting for extra yardage when the fumble occurred, but he should have known better by falling to the ground to set up a field goal. Aside from that, the coaches did not reign in their most explosive players to cause a collapse in the oddest and most epic proportions at the end of the game.
Getting Burned by the Characters: In the mid-2000s, the Bengals were both a picture of a Phoenix rising from the ashes and a franchise viewed as a safe haven for problem-children. Let's be fair: Burfict's issues are purely on-field, so if people are going to label him as "dirty", it's only as a football player. In the oddest of dichotomies, Burfct and Jones, were directly responsible for the Bengals getting back into the game and eventually losing it. Unfortunately, it's what is so tempting for teams when it comes to talented players with a past--you get the often-good, with the untimely bad.
The NFL, Media Reaction and Officiating: The NFL has made some mistakes lately, and a recent one has to be the placement of the same referee who was in charge of a game that was out of control a month ago. Same venue, same two teams, same staff; things would be under control, right? Not so much. The officiating staff kept things in control early, but they were insanely inconsistent at the end of the game--for both teams. While they called a number of accurate penalties, they missed an egregious personal foul penalty against David DeCastro, and then failed to make an equivalent call against Shazier on Bernard after making a similar one on Shawn Williams earlier in the game. Did we mention Joey Porter? Making it worse is a one-sided NFL media march against the Bengals when both teams were totally out of control. It's easy to victimize Cincinnati, a continual whipping boy, but both teams had egregious issues that have seemed to have been overlooked by a biased slant. It's also difficult to swallow that the ending of the game was essentially decided on flags.
The Steelers' Coaches: People should have been ejected and/or lose their jobs. If you're angry at the Bengals' players, how about Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak pulling Nelson's hair on the sideline or Porter goading Bengals' defenders into a penalty when he shouldn't have been on the field in the first place. Munchak was called for the penalty, while Porter was not and should have been. If you're going to say he was on the field to attend to Antonio Brown's injury, Porter is the linebackers coach; Brown's injury is not something he should be on the field for.
Missed opportunities: We're not going to point at the officials or other questionable calls to explain the loss, two earlier plays defined the forthcoming futility. Right before halftime, the Bengals were attempting to keep Pittsburgh out of the end zone to keep the game within reach and the Bengals had a chance for a big momentum swing. Ben Roethlisberger dropped back and threw one right to Vincent Rey to wipe a field goal on the scoreboard and No. 57 had a chance to be an unsung hero. Instead, Big Ben's pass literally bounced off Rey's facemark to allow Pittsburgh to get the field goal. Later, after the Bengals took a 16-15 lead, they needed to go for two points. Hue Jackson's play call for a swing pass to Jeremy Hill was understandable, predictable and terrible all at the same time. You can blame Hill's fumble, the lack of composure and/or a lack of offense, but these two plays are silently being overlooked.
The Offensive Line: When Andrew Whitworth had an awkward pregame interview, I felt it was more about jitters. It turns out that the All-Pro offensive lineman was the recipient of two false start penalties at home, while also letting up some pressures on some of the biggest plays by the Steelers' defense on the night. The Bengals' starting offensive line is comprised of two first round picks (Andre Smith and Kevin Zeitler), a second round pick (Whitworth) and two fourth round picks (Russell Bodine and Clint Boling), yet they could not get any push in the running game. The group also let up three sacks, multiple pressures and couldn't pave lanes for the running game, not a formula for a Bengals win.
The Fans: I'm always supporting Who Dey Nation, but the Bengals faithful who were in attendance largely embarrassed themselves on national television. Mad at the officials? Fine. Hate the Steelers? Okay. But, throwing trash at Big Ben as he's carted off the field is just terrible, as is the cheering of opposing players getting injured. I understand you're fed up with this team and have hard feelings against the Steelers, but come on.
Total Lack of Composure: What else is there to say? Some of the aforementioned Bengals defenders made egregious mistakes, but a lack of historically winning the big games clearly affected Cincinnati players. Burfict and Jones were the biggest culprits, and it feels like this team is almost allergic to success. I almost envision the Bengals looking at the ever-so-elusive potential playoff win as something out of Looney Tunes, where they smother a chance at success until it slips through their grasp.