You knew at some point it would come to an end.
That sounds too final.
Cincinnati’s comeback ability against adversity, a storyline that’s fueled the Bengals this year, stalled on Sunday. That’s all we mean. The season is clearly alive and the Bengals hold a significant piece of the division pie through six weeks — though even that silver-lining offers minimal comfort against an opponent like Pittsburgh. It’s just a game. Why are you pacing in the living room, or tepidly chomping your fingernails in the stands?
This isn’t just any game.
We’re not talking about Atlanta or Miami here. This is Steelers week. Sure, the game counts the same as any other. But there’s so much emotional subtext. We’re eating a spoonful of emotions during these meetings. When the Bengals do something great against Pittsburgh, there’s always the potential for our exuberant reactions to be recorded and go viral. And cursing. There’s a lot of that too.
Our emotions against the Steelers have lingered for far too long. We can cite “the injury” in 2005. We could probably stretch further into the Chin and Jerome Bettis years. Cincinnati needs a way to purge these lingering feelings of inferiority against Pittsburgh if they want something more. Exorcise your demons, if you will. Will the Bengals win another playoff game? Will they return to the Super Bowl? Will they ever beat Pittsburgh again?
Sunday’s game was the type of contest you expect out of the AFC North; a slugfest between two titans vying to write competing narrative. It wasn’t a must-win, but both teams needed a win — the Bengals want to beat an unbeatable nemesis (to them), and the Steelers are trying to expel mounting adversity of their own.
It wasn’t pretty.
Rain spat all afternoon, from a drizzle to something more steady at times. There was the endless curtain of grey clouds and dreariness. Questionable penalties and missing holding calls emphasized an apocalyptic atmosphere.
Pittsburgh punished Cincinnati’s defense, sending Darqueze Dennard (arm in a sling after the game) and Nick Vigil (on crutches) to the locker room, with William Jackson, Carlos Dunlap, Dre Kirkpatrick, Jessie Bates, and Vontaze Burfict randomly exiting with bangs and bruises. Darius Phillips (the only man capable of stopping Vance McDonald), Clayton Fejedelem, and Vincent Rey filled in. Jordan Evans spelled Burfict, who may need to answer questions regarding his conditioning.
The Steelers generated 481 yards on offense, with running back James Conner posting 111 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Ben Roethlisberger passed for 369 yards and the Steelers had two receivers with 100+ yards — Antonio Brown (105 yards receiving) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (111 yards receiving). It’s the third time this season Cincinnati’s defense allowed 425 yards or more to their opponent. Coaches may need to answer questions about Cincinnati’s devolving defense. Are we premature in judgement? Are they still getting used to Teryl Austin’s philosophy?
Despite everything, Cincinnati nearly pulled out the win. Those cardiac cats. The Bengals took a 21-20 lead with 1:21 remaining, their first lead since the 14:37 mark in the second quarter. Their improbable comeback, capped by a four-yard Joe Mixon run, was the result of a C.J. Uzomah third down conversion, two A.J. Green snags (for 23 and seven yards respectively), and a Tyler Boyd catch for 16 yards.
Fans inside Paul Brown Stadium lost their collective minds. Gray and dreariness gave way to sunshine and cotton candy. Two scenarios emerged:
- Continue to establish a narrative that Cincinnati fights until the end, despite facing significant deficits and adversity;
- The Bengals left far too much time for the Steelers to mount their own comeback.
“You can look at it now and say we could have taken up more time, but I don’t think teams will think about it in real time,” said Dalton after that game. “It’s unfortunate we left too much time. Ben’s been good in that situation for years, and we weren’t able to get it done.”
Pittsburgh had the ball with 1:18 remaining from their own 23-yard line. Within six plays, including a 23-yard pass to Smith-Schuster and a “trash” defensive hold on Dre Kirkpatrick, the Steelers had first down from Cincinnati’s 31-yard line. Antonio Brown navigated around an illegal pick on a quick slant for a game-winning touchdown with 10 ticks remaining on the clock. NOTE: Senior VP of Officiating Al Riveron says the pick is legal because the defense initiated contact — does it matter that Justin Hunter doesn’t even run the route and is clearly a blocker during the entire play? Sunday Night Football’s rules expert disagreed.
“That is a disappointing way to lose a football game, (after) we get back and get the lead and so forth,” Marvin Lewis said after the game. “We had some good things throughout the day, but not enough to win the football game throughout. When we get depleted, we have to step up and get to the next guy, and the next guy has to make a play. That was a great job by the offense of going down the field and giving us the lead after the field goal. But we have to figure out a way to stop the (Steelers’) offense and win the football game.”
Brown’s touchdown may have been the winning-score, but it wasn’t what beat Cincinnati. Those season-long vulnerabilities surfaced throughout Sunday’s game; the 5-10 yard gap in coverage; the pass rush disappearing for long periods; huge chunk of yards allowed; missed tackling, especially against the bulldozer Vance McDonald. Pittsburgh had three players with more than 100 yards (either receiving or rushing).
However, there were positives.
Pittsburgh compiled a 12-play drive early in the third quarter that spanned 85 yards, reaching the Bengals one-yard line. This scenario had an interesting setup; Jesse Bates slammed into James Conner forcing the running back out at the one. Had the Steelers demanded a review, most likely it’s called a touchdown. They didn’t and it wasn’t.
Cincinnati’s Swiss cheese defense became a block of Grade A awesome after that. First they held Conner to nothing and then forced an incompletion to Jesse James. Cincinnati concluded the drive with a two-yard loss, starting with Sam Hubbard making initial contact in the backfield and Vontaze Burfict clearing the plate for a two-yard loss. Chris Boswell chipped the 21-yarder to give Pittsburgh a 17-14 lead.
On the flip side of the ball, Cincinnati’s offense lacked identity. They relied entirely too much on the pass against one of the league’s worst pass defenses. Granted, the logic is sound. However, going with a pass-heavy game-plan has rarely worked for Cincinnati. Since 2011, the Bengals have only won eight of 27 games when Andy Dalton passes 40 times or more — two of those have come this season.
Mixon was underutilized. Sunday’s game featured a season-low 64 rushing . yards, but a career-high (during games with 10 carries or more) 5.8 yards/rush. Explosive runs of 17, 16, and 13 yards were peppered throughout the game. Momentum was building for Mixon during the team’s third possession, as he touched the ball four times for 37 yards. Then Mark Walton entered the game, lost a yard, and Cincinnati punted after a quality Matt Hinton defensive effort on Tyler Boyd. Is Mixon still feeling his way back? Will he become a bell-cow player (he only had 11 carries) soon — does he need more periodic rest until he’s fully healed? Bengals running backs have enjoyed relative success this season.
There were also too many third down drops, from the reliable A.J. Green to the unknown Cody Core. They looked uneasy early. Dalton’s confidence in the pocket is arguably worse against Pittsburgh than any team, with happy feet focusing more on scrambling away from pressure. However, in fairness to Dalton, he was better than most of his offensive teammates.
There were question marks on their decision making process. The Bengals have third-and-one from the Steelers 40-yard line with 14:04 remaining in the third. Cincinnati called run and Joe Mixon didn’t have a shot. With Cincinnati showing jumbo formation (minus a lead blocker), an unblocked defender collides with Mixon in the backfield. Cincinnati elects to punt it from the Steelers 40-yard line, with Kevin Huber’s 28-yard pooch, to Pittsburgh’s 12-yard line. The Steelers went 80 yards on their next possession, kicking a field goal to take a 17-14 lead. Why be predictable on third down? Why punt? Clock management at the end of the game — should they have milked the clock or just ignored that and found a way to score?
Don’t get me wrong. There were positive moments on offense, too. Their first touchdown drive included three significant third down conversions, with the reliable C.J. Uzomah converting a third-and-seven and A.J. Green making up for one drop by hauling in a 19-yard reception on third-and-10. Boyd capped the drive with a two-yard touchdown reception on third-and-goal. Cincinnati tied the game 14-14 with a high-speed offense late in the second, enabled by one of Alex Erickson’s great kickoff returns (had a 47 and 51-yarder and now leads the league in kickoff return average). Dalton, completing all five passes on that drive, found a wide-open Boyd near the front left pylon for the Bengals’ second touchdown of the afternoon.
Regardless, Cincinnati’s narrative against Pittsburgh remains.
The Steelers hammered the Bengals on both sides of the ball, extending Cincinnati’s losing streak against Pittsburgh to seven. Games are close, and sometimes they’re not. Officials conveniently ignore obvious game-winning penalties, or sometimes they allow the emotions to carry the game.
Either way, it’s the same story.
Cincinnati measures their success against the Steelers, and while the story is told differently each time, it’s usually the same frustrating conclusion.