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Steelers at Bengals: The good, the bad and the ugly

The Bengals’ season came crashing down at the hands of the Steelers for the second straight season, but there were still positive facets in the Week 15 loss.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

Deja vu, anyone? After seeing an enormous playoff win slip through their fingers in January, the Steelers once again dashed the Bengals’ hopes for a potentially special 2016 season. Cincinnati played inspired football early on in Sunday’s AFC North clash, but as has happened so many times in Bengals history, the Steelers reminded them of who still reigns supreme in the NFL.

The 24-20 result in favor of Pittsburgh definitely leaves a sour taste, but there were positives to be taken away, especially now that Bengals fans are looking at the long-term situations. Here are the best and worst facets from Cincinnati in their Week 15 loss to the Steelers.

The Good:

Brandon LaFell: It’s been a yo-yo-like season from the veteran receiver, but he’s put together a handful of nice games in the wake of so much transition on offense. The veteran receiver made a lot of nice short and intermediate catches, greatly helping to put the Bengals up 20-9 at the half. LaFell finished with seven catches for 91 yards and forced another pass interference to set up a touchdown.

First half attitude: Cincinnati played like a team possessed in the first two quarters, putting forth one of the best efforts against a team who has constantly had their number over the years. In those first 30 minutes, the Bengals played more like what we’ve seen from the Steelers and were gouging Pittsburgh in almost every possible facet. On a day where they needed a huge win to keep their playoff hopes alive, it was great to see the team play inspired football, even if temporarily.

Randy Bullock: The Bengals needed all the points they could scrounge together on Sunday and their new kicker came up in a big way. Bullock made every kick possible against his former team and had eight total points—two on field goals and two on extra points.

Alex Freaking Erickson: After a terrible start to the season as a returner, the undrafted rookie has really come on in the second half of the year. He didn’t have a punt return, but a 72-yard kickoff return was a major play in the game. Unfortunately, Erickson got tripped up on his way to the end zone, but it still led to a big field goal with just under three minutes to play in the first half.

Rex Burkhead: While there is no replacing Giovani Bernard, Burkhead is doing a pretty nice impression of No. 25 lately. Burkhead had seven carries for 32 yards and two catches for 18 yards on Sunday, complementing Jeremy Hill’s strong first half on the ground.

The Bad:

Receivers not named Brandon LaFell: As mentioned previously, LaFell had a solid 91 receiving yards against the Steelers on Sunday. However, with Andy Dalton only throwing for 157 yards, it led to six other receivers combining for just nine catches and 66 yards. With a Pro Bowl tight end readily available and rookie chain-mover Tyler Boyd also at Dalton’s disposal, it was a shame to see LaFell as the only consistent target on the afternoon.

Andy Dalton: Speaking of the Bengals’ signal-caller, he struggled through another matchup against the vaunted Steelers defense. The conservative approach on offense worked in the first half, but as the game got close, Dalton struggled once again in crunch time. He threw a crushing interception and saw a previous one get dropped by a Pittsburgh defender, along with just throwing for 157 passing yards.

Penalties: While a couple of the eight penalties against the Bengals were ticky-tack, the fact remains that their reputation for blowing up against the Steelers at the end of games once again became national fodder. Seven of the eight penalties came in the second half, which is inexcusable.

The Ugly:

Lack of second half adjustments: We’ve talked about this a bit here at Cincy Jungle since the loss, but the coaches should be shouldering the blame for another epic meltdown. Aside from the seven penalties in the final two quarters, the Bengals managed just 38 total yards and didn’t score a single point in the second half. While players need to execute, the coaches need to put the team in the proper position for success and they didn’t achieve that on Sunday.

Zero pass rush: What has happened up front this year? Sure, the big boys on the Bengals’ defensive line have gotten a bit older, but they they just aren’t getting to the quarterback with any regularity, as they have done in recent years. When six of your games on the schedule come against Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Tom Brady, you need to get pressure and sacks on them. Roethlisberger wasn’t sacked on Sunday and was rarely pressured or hit.

Another second half meltdown to bitter rivals: It’s almost like the old days when we heard rumblings of opponents’ halftime messages when they played Cincinnati. Other coaches knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Bengals shot themselves in the foot, and even with their five straight postseason appearances in recent years, they just keep reverting back to the bad old days. It happened again Sunday, and the Bengals just aren’t going to beat the Steelers with any regularity if these second half collapses continue.

Zero turnovers forced: Usually, not forcing turnovers wouldn’t fall under the “ugly” category, but forcing them against the Steelers is always a key. Not only is winning the turnover battle a sign of quality football, it also shows that a team was usually more physical than the other. The inability to get to Roethlisberger while also playing soft zones throughout the afternoon led to another day of Big Ben picking apart the Bengals’ defense.

Missed opportunities: Sunday afternoon was a vintage Bengals kind of day. Erickson had the big kickoff return, but Chris Boswell got an unlikely finger on his shoe to trip him up before he hit paydirt. After a subsequent field goal, it ended up being a four point difference by that one phantom-like tackle.

Additionally, Roethlisberger avoided trouble on a couple of occasions—mostly in the form of ricocheted passes where Bengals defenders had shots at interceptions. These bounces of the proverbial football went the Bengals’ way over the past handful of years, but this year, that has been far from the case.