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NFL Week 2 Bengals at Steelers: Cincinnati’s secondary steps up in loss

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It wasn’t an absolutely perfect day from the Bengals’ defensive backs, but they achieved one major goal on Sunday afternoon and that was stopping Antonio Brown.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Given all of the elements the Cincinnati Bengals had to endure against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, once could call the one-possession, 24-16 loss a miracle. Elements both in and out of their control were on full display on Sunday, ranging from harsh weather, more-than-questionable officiating and maddening play on offense, but a handful of positions did their job well enough for the Bengals to have a chance for a win against the rival Steelers on Sunday.

One example resides in the high-flying Pittsburgh passing offense being held in check. Sure, Ben Roethlisberger had three critical touchdown passes and Cincinnati defensive backs dropped two sure interceptions, but the group did enough to aid the Bengals in a redemptive type of win.

When you look at Big Ben’s stat line (19/37, 259 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions), cornerback play doesn’t readily jump to mind as a strength for the Bengals, but Cincinnati’s starters showed up in a big way. Adam Jones, one of the nation’s whipping boys, was one of the players under the microscope and he played some of his best football in his 10-year career.

Sunday’s matchup at Heinz Field featured two of the NFL’s best receivers in Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, but both defenses used a combination of the rain, sound schemes and quality defensive back play to keep both star receivers in check. Green finished with just two catches for 38 yards, while Brown had four grabs for 39 yards, after both had outstanding 2016 season debuts.

Highlights: Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones

The two starting corners for the Bengals had an interception apiece, making Roethlisberger’s first half a miserable one. The future Hall of Fame Steelers quarterback had a 9-of-21, 128-yard, 1 touchdown, 2 interception stat line as the teams hit the halfway mark.

Jones and his safeties were blanketing Brown and frustrated him for most of the day. Brown did have an egregious drop on a trademark Roethlisberger ad-lib, but all in all, the Bengals limited big plays from No. 84, which had to be one of the keys to defensive coordinator Paul Guenther’s game plan.

Kirkpatrick was tasked with the supplemental Steelers receiving options, including Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers. He grabbed an interception, something he failed to do in 2015, and had another go through his hands in the rain.

Allowing the ancillary Steelers weapons to make some plays while shutting down Brown was something that had to play into the Bengals’ hands. And while Roethlisberger did pop a couple of big passes, his high-flying offense didn’t have the gigantic plays that have been their trademark in recent seasons.

Good and Bad: Roethlisberger having to hit unexpected options

The play of the Steelers’ tight ends displays both the positives and negatives of the Bengals’ defense on Sunday. With Brown basically shut down on the day, Roethlisberger threw his three touchdowns to a combination of tight ends and a running back.

Xavier Grimble, a tight end who sparingly played for the USC Trojans, came up huge for the Steelers. After going undrafted and being signed by the Giants in 2014, Grimble bounced around multiple rosters before landing in Pittsburgh last year. His first career NFL catch was a gigantic 20-yarder from Big Ben, putting the Steelers up 7-3 early in the contest.

Midway through the third quarter, Roethlisberger also hit Jesse James for a touchdown, which was both crushing and unexpected by the Bengals, given Heath Miller’s retirement this offseason. The devastating aspect of this touchdown was George Iloka’s drop of an interception earlier in the drive, which would have stopped Pittsburgh, partially marring the secondary’s day.

Additionally, there seemed to be some major miscommunication between Jones and Shawn Williams on the DeAngelo Williams fourth quarter touchdown catch. On a third-and-4 on the Bengals’ 4-yard line, Cincinnati desperately needed to force a field goal attempt. Williams was all alone in the flat and Jones was visibly upset with the lack of coverage on the play, likely expecting Williams to be there.

While the defense took Brown out of the equation, credit Roethlisberger for getting creative. When he needed points, Big Ben found receiving options who were way down the totem pole.

Negatives: High-profile defensive backs struggle

Both Iloka and Williams signed lucrative deals to remain with the Bengals this offseason, but a huge dropped interception from Iloka and a chase-and-tackle type of day from Williams brought frustration. Throw in former first round pick Darqueze Dennard allowing all of Coates’ production on the afternoon (two catches, 97 yards), and concern has to be arising.

Hope from coaches and fans on Dennard are high, but with injury concerns and Josh Shaw stepping up over the past two weeks, there needs to be some thought regarding the long-term outlook of the three-year pro. He predictably manned the slot on Sunday, but was burned badly twice, which was something we’ve seen in previous games when healthy.

Even though Jones and Kirkpatrick largely held up their ends of the bargain, complementary help wasn’t always there. While it’s to be expected to a certain extent because of the amount of talent on the Steelers’ roster, it was one of the major contributing factors to the team’s critical Week 2 loss.