This is probably one of the hardest articles I have had to write. I really thought the Bengals had a chance to turn their season around. But, unfortunately, some things just don’t change.
When Cincinnati jumped out to a 17-0 lead with 31 seconds left in the second quarter, I turned to a friend and reminded him that five of the Bengals’ last six opponents had scored in the last 35 seconds of the first half. Make that six of seven.
As Cincinnati went into halftime with a 17-3 lead, I told this same friend that the other constant for the Bengals in 2017 (and every year under Marvin Lewis) was their failure to make any adjustments at halftime. Sure enough, Pittsburgh ran all over Cincinnati in the second half, outscoring the Bengals 20-3 and confirming everything I knew I knew.
It is official. The NFL wants to see either Pittsburgh or New England in the Super Bowl, and the officials are going to do whatever is necessary to make certain that one of those two teams gets there.
And, if you don’t believe that, if you think it is just sour grapes on the part of a dyed-in-the-wool Bengals fan, just turn on the tape. The most egregious example of biased officiating came late in the third quarter when a phantom holding call against Giovani Bernard took an Andy Dalton-to-A.J. Green touchdown off the board and forced Cincinnati to settle for a Randy Bullock field goal.
Instead of a 14-point lead, the Bengals were relegated to a 10-point advantage that opened the door to another vintage Pittsburgh comeback.
And, speaking of penalties, Cincinnati was flagged for 13 infractions for a team-record 173 yards. Some of the blame for that continues to fall on the coaches, but a lot of those penalties were like the one against Bernard and reflected a clear bias on the part of the officials. Meanwhile, the Steelers racked up 66 penalty yards, many of which came on just one play.
In a game where you are pitted against one of the better football teams in the National Football League, and have to overcome biased officiating, to boot, it will take pretty much a perfect performance to overcome. The Bengals came close to doing that in the first half, but just could not sustain it.
The biggest reason why was Cincinnati’s stars let the team down when it needed them the most. The Bengals had five possessions in the second half. Three of those possessions ended on dropped third-down passes that would have extended the drive. Green dropped two passes when it was absolutely imperative that he make those catches, and Brandon LaFell dropped another one.
Never mind the fact that Green finished with seven catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns and LaFell had four catches for 55 yards. Most of that work came in the first half. In the second half, with the game on the line, Green and LaFell dropped the ball. Literally.
Five possessions, three points. End of story.
Dalton’s final numbers looked pretty impressive – 21 of 36, 234 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and an overall rating of 96.3. He was deadly accurate in short and intermediate passes. And he should have and would have had an even higher rating, if not for the drops and poor officiating.
The one area where Dalton continues to struggle is the deep ball. I counted at least three occasions where Dalton attempted to throw deep. Each time, the ball sailed out of bounds without even giving the intended receiver an opportunity to make a play. On at least one occasion, Green was open. But Dalton is having an issue hooking up on anything over about 25 yards.
It is certainly not like Dalton is incapable of throwing the deep ball. In 2015, when Dalton had an MVP-caliber season prior to his thumb injury, he was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL when it came to completing deep passes. But something happened since then and he has lost that ability. Hopefully, he can figure it out.
Injuries played a big role in Monday night’s loss, and the cornerback position was hit as hard as any. Adam Jones went down early with a groin injury after recording the only interception of the game, and Darqueze Dennard suffered a knee injury in the second quarter.
William Jackson, III continued to show why the Bengals made him their first-round draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson finished as one of Cincinnati’s highest-graded players Monday night with an overall mark of 82.7.
Even Josh Shaw filled in satisfactorily when he was called into action in place of Dennard. Dre Kirkpatrick, dissimilarly, was unable to rise to the challenge. He was hit with two interference penalties against Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, both of which led to scores. Brown finished with eight receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown, and most of his success came against Kirkpatrick.
A star is (re)born
Everyone knew that Bernard was an outstanding change-of-pace back. But he reminded everyone that he can carry the load, as well. Bernard came up big against the Steelers as he rushed 13 times for 77 yards, an average of 5.9 yards per carry, and added 19 yards on two receptions.
In addition to his success with the ball in his hand, Bernard more than held his own in pass protection. Time and again, Bernard inserted himself between a Pittsburgh rusher and his quarterback, and helped to keep Dalton clean throughout much of the game. He did everything in his power to put Cincinnati in position to win the game. But it was not to be.