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Familiar Themes: Steelers 24, Bengals 16

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There were a lot of familiar themes seen during the Bengals’ 24-16 loss to the Steelers. They always seem to surface during these meetings.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

You don’t need to be repeatedly reminded; this story is so tightly woven into your lexicon as a Bengals fan. Years of slights, perceptions, misconceptions and disrespect have collided with elements of pride and narcissism, culminating into postgame whining, overt celebration, jackasses named Joey Porter, perceived cheap shots and cowardly Twitter-based death threats that went ignored by the NFL and law enforcement.

Yet, despite the tense atmosphere that comprises Cincinnati’s rivalry against Pittsburgh, the Bengals have always approached the Steelers with a flawed “I’ll teach you to respect me” attitude. At times it worked; most of the time it backfired with untimely personal fouls, none worse than in the final moments of Cincinnati’s heartbreaking loss to the Steelers on January 9.

Whether we’re reflecting on the horrific period between 1992 and 2002, or specifically the Marvin Lewis era, the Bengals simply can’t avoid compromising themselves in situations that lead to losses against a team that holds zero respect for them. Between the years of Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau, the Bengals posted a winning percentage of .273 against the Steelers. Current head coach Marvin Lewis has a better winning percentage during his tenure… by 0.013. And after Sunday’s game, the Bengals have lost six of their last seven against Pittsburgh.

(Sigh)

Sunday’s game didn’t reflect the attitude of a rivalry; there were some arguments, a few shoves, but nothing you normally wouldn’t see during a traditional game in the NFL.

Shockingly, that wasn’t Sunday’s narrative.

Cincinnati’s rushing offense was nonexistent, carrying a theme of decline since running wild with 2,157 yards rushing in 2014 (with 4.4 yards/rush). A.J. Green faced suffocating coverage and Andy Dalton, often in a jittery state of mind, couldn’t find consistent alternatives -- and when he did, his throws weren’t sharp.

Defensively, the Bengals were valiant, forced to cover the slack for a sleepy offense while facing disadvantageous field position before allowing two second half touchdowns, concluded with a spirit-crushing touchdown pass to an uncovered DeAngelo Williams with 6:54 remaining in the fourth quarter. Cincinnati made a run with a Giovani Bernard touchdown reception, but too little, too late — especially when you’re the recipient of a bullshit review on the Tyler Boyd fumble with two minutes remaining in the game (more on that in a second).

Despite beating Pittsburgh every once-in-awhile, Cincinnati’s loss to the Steelers on Sunday carried a familiar theme with 25 years of sports-based abuse. Whether Cincinnati was missing the attitude of Vontaze Burfict or the offensive ingenuity of Hue Jackson remains to be seen. What we do know is that Pittsburgh, as the game progressed, did what they needed and in the process, the Bengals lost.

Was this just a bad game and does everyone moves on?

Let’s hope.

Yet, I harbor a sense of worry — call it the byproduct of another era that’s bleeding through. Cincinnati faltered against a division opponent (these things tend to come back during postseason scenarios in mid-December), came a blocked field goal (or missed PAT) away from losing to New York and hosts Denver this weekend in the home opener.

There is a legitimate concern on offense, with no running game to speak of and Dalton yet to find a rhythm with a second option when opposing defenses are floating toward A.J. Green’s side. Assuming he returns after Week 4, Tyler Eifert will have presumably missed two critical games against conference opponents (again, the impact of postseason scenarios) with one loss in the pocket and another scheduled next week against Denver.

It’s only Week 2 so the pitchforks are returned to the shed... for now. Admittedly, there is a slight overreaction on my part. It’s the Steelers, and everything, for me at least, escalates during these games. Botched replays, KneeGate, holding, all are obvious contributors but not the totality of what we watched on Sunday.

***

Questionable “Bullshit” Call (aka, “KneeGate”)

Three narratives developed during Cincinnati’s loss: the Bengals historic inability to beat the Steelers, poor offensive productivity (specifically the running game and downfield passing), and questionable calls by the officiating crew (a seemingly “go to” subject with frustrated fans, yet legitimate this week).

If it’s not the holding calls...

... then it’s confusing reviews with the game on the line.

Well, that review.

With less than two minutes remaining, the Bengals, down by eight, were threatening. Wide receiver Tyler Boyd hauled in a six-yard pass at the Steelers 33-yard line. However, the football popped out and the Steelers returned the game-winning gift 21 yards to the Bengals 46-yard line.

Since reviews of questionable calls inside two minutes are mandatory, the officials stopped the game to review the fumble. It was quickly apparent that Boyd’s knee was down and Cincinnati would have the football at the Steelers 33-yard line with 1:50 remaining. When the official returned, the football would be placed at the 33 and Cincinnati needs to figure out two things... 1) How they’re going to sco...

“Ruling on the field stands,” Pete Morelli announced.

You’re fucking kidding.

Head coach Marvin Lewis looks incredulous on the sidelines.

“I was told it was down even by the officials on our sidelines,” Marvin Lewis said via the Cincinnati Enquirer. “They didn’t see it that way overall so that’s all that matters.” Twitter loses their mind. Everyone’s shocked and for good reason.

“I should have done a better job with ball security,” Boyd admitted but added that “I still believe I was down but the call didn’t say so.”

Even the most biased viewers were hard-pressed to make an argument for Morelli’s announcement.

They called this bullshit a fumble.

A photo posted by Josh Kirkendall (@joshkirkendall) on

Former Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira believes the call was botched, but added a caveat that there were no good angles.

The Bengals were screwed. Screwed! This isn’t some drama-queen ramblings from a fan with self-described homerism. Listen to commentaries and reactions from around the league, many of which have little impact on the daily narrative of Cincinnati football. It’s a chorus sung in unison: “The Bengals were screwed.”

Was this the reason Cincinnati lost?

No. Nothing suggests that the Bengals would score on this drive, successfully convert a two-point play, hold the Steelers to a punt and score at the end of regulation or in overtime. None of that was certain — though the opportunity/chance would have been there.

Cincinnati simply didn’t do enough to earn the win, yes; they were awful on third downs, couldn’t find anything downfield and the rushing offense was piss poor. That being said, they were screwed... and some would say they were screwed on a possible touchdown by C.J. Uzomah (Marvin Lewis said after the game that he was told that he fell out of bounds).

Poor play. Bad officiating. These themes are becoming too familiar with Bengals-Steelers games.

***

We were close. I think that’s one thing you can say about this team. We fought until the very end. We had an opportunity at the end to go down and tie it. We’re playing all the way until the very end. That’s something that you can’t take away from this team. I feel like our guys have done a very good job of that. Sometimes calls don’t go your way, and you have to do whatever you can to overcome it. We were unable to do it today.
-A.J. Green

***

Quick Exchange of Scores and then Crickets

It was a methodical start with each team prodding the other with a series of runs under a steady rain. Pittsburgh called DeAngelo’s number on five consecutive runs before a 16-yard completion to Antonio Brown converted third-and-six. Pittsburgh added a pair of 11-yard plays before stalling at the Bengals 37-yard line with Adam Jones intercepting a poorly thrown fourth down throw at the Bengals 23-yard line. Yes, yes. Jones should have dropped the football but the instinct of “see football, intercept football” tend to overwhelm math.

Cincinnati was unable to capitalize on the turnover after going three-and-out, capped by a poor C.J. Uzomah drop (yes he had to adjust, but if he can’t make those receptions with adversity then he won’t last long in the NFL).

The Steelers quickly drew first blood.

With 4:47 remaining in the first, the Steelers have third-and-nine from their own 35-yard line. Margus Hunt began pulling away from pass protection when Roethlisberger spun away. With a quick glimpse behind him, tracking oncoming traffic, the Steelers quarterback lofted the football over cornerback Darqueze Dennard where Sammie Coates hauled in the 44-yard pass to the Bengals 21-yard line.

"Not rust," Dennard said after the game, per Bengals.com. "I have to play better on game day." Dennard has been out since November with a shoulder injury

Pittsburgh took a 7-0 lead two plays later when tight end Xavier Grimble snagged the football over the middle, beating veteran safety George Iloka and reaching over the goalline.

Cincinnati’s response began with veritable lethality.

Andy Dalton swung a painfully slow 13-yarder to Brandon LaFell, followed by a quick five-yarder to A.J. Green, his first of the game, and then a 21-yard vertical to Tyler Kroft put the Bengals at the Steelers 15-yard line (this satisfies the “seam to a tight end” play of the day).

Then the drive stalled.

A limited four-yard run by Giovani Bernard, a lame-duck grounder to Brandon LaFell and a four-yarder to Bernard led to a Mike Nugent 25-yard conversion with 26 seconds remaining in the first.

***

The Game of Field Position

Cincinnati and Pittsburgh went into field position gamesmanship. Cincinnati’s offense suffered, and struggled, while the defense white-knuckled the quarter with everything in their armory. Cincinnati’s opening two possessions of the second quarter started at their own 10 and nine while the Steelers opened possessions from their own 37 and 49.

With 5:55 remaining in the second, Cincinnati was pinned against their goalline (thanks to a Clayton Fejedelem personal foul). The Bengals gained one yard, running the football on third-and-10, following two incomplete throws, before Kevin Huber’s shanked 32-yard punt.

Despite having premium field position from the Bengals 36-yard line, the Steelers were unable to generate a first down (thanks to Cincinnati’s defense) and were forced into a Chris Boswell 49-yard field goal to expand their lead 10-3.

***

The Halftime Score

Pittsburgh, enjoying a 10-3 lead with 1:30 remaining in the second quarter, threatened. again. Cincinnati’s defense was tasked with holding on until the the Bengals offense awakens.

They did.

After Pittsburgh picked up a first down, Ben Roethlisberger launched the football down the sidelines to Sammie Coates. Kirkpatrick, a few strides in front of Coates, paces himself into a glide as he secured the interception.

Cincinnati, with a first down from their own 32-yard line with 48 seconds remaining, had an opportunity. Dalton checks down to Bernard on a running back screen with Russell Bodine and Kevin Zeitler escorting the ball carrier for a 24-yard gain to the Steelers 44-yard line.

Timeout.

Following an incompletion, Dalton hit Tyler Kroft for seven yards but nearly threw an interception on a dump-off throw to Bernard that fell incomplete. With Heinz Field known for being an impossible venue for long-distance field goals, the Bengals went for and converted the fourth down.

Despite a 17-yarder to Green and an attempted endzone throw to LaFell, the Bengals, with only five seconds remaining and at the Steelers 15-yard line, elected to send Nugent out for the 33-yard conversion, reducing Pittsburgh’s lead to four points at halftime.

***

Pittsburgh Extends Their Lead

Two plays were all that Pittsburgh needed to extend their lead; a 53-yard bomb to Coates over Dennard (bro!) and a touchdown to tight end Jesse James, luxuriously expanding their lead to 11 points with more than six minutes remaining in the third.

However, it wasn’t as if the defense didn’t have an opportunity.

With 7:56 remaining in the third, Pittsburgh had third-and-one from their own 32-yard line. Despite having defenders hanging off of him, Roethlisberger offered a six-yard prayer to tight end Xavier Grimble for a first down. In most scenarios, you’re not expecting a reception in that situation, it’s become all too familiar for Bengals fans.

Regardless, the big play burned Cincinnati. It wasn’t the goofy trick plays that often defined the Bill Cowher era. It was straight speed, beating Dennard, a former first-round cornerback, down the middle of the field.

Cincinnati responded.

Despite an offensive hold and delay of game during Cincinnati’s ensuing possession with 5:44 remaining in the third, the Bengals threatened with another scoring opportunity. On first-and-25 during a possession that demanded a response, Andy Dalton hit Boyd on a vertical route, picking up 29 yards and an immediate first down. Following an incomplete and seven-yard flat to Tyler Kroft, Dalton targeted Alex Erickson down the middle for another 20 yard gain to the Steelers 34-yard line. It was the rookie’s first NFL catch.

Thanks to a pair of pass interference penalties, Cincinnati was rewarded with first-and-goal from the Steelers one-yard line.

Then they blew it.

Jeremy Hill lost two yards on first down and Dalton added a pair of throws that he’d rather forget, floating the football on second down to a wide open Uzomah, allowing the defender to push Cincinnati’s tight end out of bounds. Then, Dalton was late to respond to Uzomah on third down, initially open near the back of the endzone.

Cincinnati’s unwillingness to load the box, bringing Peko as a de facto fullback is either calculated or stupid; I’m going with the latter for now.

Nugent’s 21-yard field goal reduced Pittsburgh’s lead to one possession (eight points).

At the end of the game, familiar themes prevailed and the Bengals recorded their first loss of the 2016 season.