Well, another year and another two crushing losses at the hands of the Steelers. While the Bengals played well throughout most of the game, the team just has a way to tease a fan just enough before pulling the rug out from under them.
In truth, Cincinnati did a lot of things well that should have propelled them to a win. Other major aspects went against them, and they still haven’t found a way to beat “big brother” yet.
Here are the best and worst from the Bengals in their 23-20 loss to the Steelers.
The running backs and the line: Joe Mixon was looking good early on with seven carries for 34 yards and an eight-yard reception, but he left with an injury. It would have appeared that the Bengals’ running game would have mightily suffered afterward, right? Nope.
Giovani Bernard may have had one of the best all-around games of his Bengals career on Monday night. Though he was tagged with a huge holding call that was ticky-tack at best, he also picked up a number of blitzers effectively all evening. He also had 77 yards on 13 carries, as well as two catches for 19 yards.
Andy Dalton and the offensive game plan: Running backs aside, Bill Lazor concocted a pretty solid game plan throughout most of the game. Dalton was getting the ball out quickly to negate the Steelers’ pass rush and clearly looked comfortable throughout the game—even in the driving rain.
Yes, the offense only scored three points in the second half, but that’s not totally on Dalton and Lazor. Three big drops and a called back A.J. Green touchdown bomb on a phantom holding call would have easily changed things. Cincinnati led in time of possession, did a decent job on third down, while Dalton distributed passes to eight different receivers.
No turnovers: You play the Steelers’ defense and don’t give up a turnover? I don’t care how good your offense is, that’s a feat in itself. Again, kudos to Lazor, Dalton and the running backs for not giving free opportunities to the Steelers.
Playing just as physical as Pittsburgh: Yes, Le’Veon Bell had a 100-yard rushing day, but this series has been marked with superior physicality shown by the Steelers over the Bengals. That wasn’t so much the case on Monday night.
Sure, the big image in everyone’s mid is Vontaze Burfict getting shellacked by JuJu Smith-Schuster, but he was dealing big hits of his own to Bell, while Antonio Brown took a couple of big (although one illegal) shots in the game. Cincinnati wasn’t backing down from a dogfight and that was at least a moral victory to take from this loss.
The guys with the big legs: It was a pretty good night from Kevin Huber and Randy Bullock. In bad elements, both guys did their jobs extremely well and it was a big reason the Bengals were in good shape for almost the entire game.
Bullock was 2-of-2 on field goals, including a 41-yard conversion, and was perfect on his two extra points. Of Huber’s five punts, three were inside the Steelers’ 20-yard line, as he boomed to a 47.8 yard per punt average.
Third down efficiencies: When the defense holds Pittsburgh’s “Killer B’s” to just 4-of-12 attempts on third down (33%), while your offense converts 50% of their tries (7-of-14), that’s a big recipe towards a win. The scoreboard didn’t end up that way, but it was a big reason for Cincinnati’s success—particularly early in the match.
Three critical drops by the top two wideouts in critical moments: A.J. Green had two great touchdown catches and five other critical grabs, but a couple of second-half drops cost the team as they were desperately looking to sustain drives. Brandon LaFell had another ugly one that appeared to be a “concentration drop”. These could have been major momentum-changers for the Bengals.
Dre Kirkpatrick’s play: Cincinnati often struggles with Ben Roethlisberger’s ad-lib style of play, as he can break free from linemen’s grasps (and did a couple of times on Monday), but Kirkpatrick was totally victimized on Monday night. It wasn’t just against the pass, either.
He had two egregious pass interference penalty and almost had a third, while also being on the coverage of Brown for the game-tying touchdown. We also saw Bell absolutely truck him as the momentum was swinging Pittsburgh’s way. Aside from having the most defensive penalties called against him since 2015 (when he first became a full-time starter), one could make the argument that he’s playing like the fourth or fifth-best corner on the Bengals’ roster right now.
Penalties: While the Bengals tipped the statistical scales in their favor in a number of aspects, they had a franchise-worst night in penalties. Now, a couple of the calls were ones that were iffy, and you heard the old coach Jon Gruden get steamed about them in the booth, but you aren’t going to win when you give up almost two football field lengths of yards from yellow hankies.
Cincinnati was flagged 13 times for an franchise record 173 yards. Kirkpatrick accounted for a lot of the yardage on deep pass interference plays, but few players were immune to getting penalized.
The intangibles: One of the things that makes Roethlisberger and the Steelers great is their ability to find another gear, make plays in crunch time, just find ways to win, or whatever cliche you would like to use. They are well-coached, know their identity and don’t shrink whether they’re way ahead or way behind.
Unfortunately for Bengals fans, this appears to be an organizational culture type of thing. Until the team can draft transcendent players, get a coach who can get the most out of their players and will them to gigantic wins, we will probably see this series continue down this route.
The injuries: Unfortunately, social media has a very ugly side to its platforms. Unfortunately, there were quite a few trolls celebrating the horrific-looking injuries to Burfict and Ryan Shazier (far more celebrated No.55 getting carried off of the field), but to those who actually have rational heads on their shoulders, they were both scary to witness.
Aside from those, Mixon and Kirkpatrick were treated with concussions, while Adam Jones left with a groin issue right after his interception on the first drive. Pittsburgh dealt with Tyler Matekevich needing to leave the game, while Bell looked to have an in-game hand injury.
Second half adjustments: We lauded Lazor for his game plan throughout most of the night and while some of the factors leading to the offense generating just three points weren’t his fault, you still can’t deny the fact that the Steelers outscored the Bengals 20-3 in the final two quarters.
Marvin Lewis has publicly stated that he doesn’t believe in halftime adjustments, but the best coaches do and work tweaks in throughout the game. This has never been a strength of Lewis, as you can see a track record of good teams in huge games throttling Cincinnati because they’ve stuck to their original plans. The question is if Lewis is unwilling or incapable of making said adjustments to win games like the one this past Monday night.
A season-ending loss and sticking to familiar narratives: This was it. This was the game that could change the Bengals’ season around and bring some sense of solace to the 2015 Wild Card loss. Cincinnati looked confident and in full control of the game for the first half and it appeared that the tide was changing, if just a little bit.
Lewis’ team couldn’t handle early success, did not make proper in-game changes and once again allowed their most-hated rival to squash their postseason hopes. One would hope that Cincinnati’s offseason goals are to not only grab quality players, but obsess over finding ways to beat the Steelers, as that’s often the path through the AFC North, but also for vengeance.
Two seconds. That’s how long the Steelers held the lead for the entire game on Monday night and they were the most important ticks on the clock.