When this year’s NFL schedule was released, this week was circled on many calendars in Cincinnati. Joe Burrow’s first home game against the Steelers, late in the playoff race, and in primetime. What a better time to make a statement.
Ryan Finley and the rest of the team agreed.
Burrow watched his Bengals take down the dreaded Steelers on TV in southern California, presumably after filling his day with rehab. He doesn’t usually tweet very much, but he sent off a couple thoughts as the game progressed.
Confirmed: watching is not as fun as playing.— Joey Burrow (@JoeyB) December 22, 2020
YESSIR— Joey Burrow (@JoeyB) December 22, 2020
Burrow has been out for some time now, but the Bengals were also without rookie linebacker Logan Wilson, who suffered an ankle injury during their loss to the Cowboys. They also benched rookie left tackle Hakeem Adeniji 10 snaps into that Cowboys game and Adeniji rode the bench in this game as well.
How did the four rookies who did play in this miraculous upset look? Let’s go over them all.
First things first: 27 points? With Ryan freaking Finley? How?
Well, as our own Matt Minich eloquently reminded me: lots of short fields.
The Bengals offense moved the ball a total of 157 yards on their 5 scoring drives— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 22, 2020
80 of those yards were on 1 TD drive
The other 4 drives were after turnovers (2 fumbles, an INT, and downs)
Those 4 scoring drives they averaged < 20 yards https://t.co/uBUGHeY0PF
But still, 27 points? With Finley under center?? The passing game couldn’t have been the forefront of their offensive success—and it wasn’t. Because of this, Tee Higgins and the receiving corps were largely afterthoughts after the first half concluded.
Higgins saw six of Finley’s 13 passes thrown his way and he caught three of them. All three of them moved the chains and two of them came on the same drive that ended in the game’s first touchdown.
Finley couldn’t connect with Higgins on a couple of short in-breaking routes, but the miss that most will remember had Higgins stacked on top of Cameron Sutton and Finley not being able to get the ball to him.
By the way, this is not an under-throw from Finley. He put 136% of his arm capacity into that toss.
Ultimately, the Bengals found success taking advantage of short fields and using Finley’s legs to supplement their run game with their tailbacks. Higgins didn’t see a pass come his way after that last incompletion, and this is about the game you would’ve expected with Finley—the thrower—leading the offense.
No Logan Wilson meant Akeem Davis-Gaither was going to see the field more, and he did, but not as often as you would’ve expected. Davis-Gaither was on the field for the Steelers’ first two third-down attempts, but he didn’t play a snap until the second quarter because the defense took advantage of Brandon Wilson’s first game back from injury. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was featuring Wilson in dime packages on passing downs as the sixth defensive back before his injury, and they went back to that personnel grouping early and often in this game with Wilson available again.
It was actually Markus Bailey that got into the game before Davis-Gaither went back out there. Bailey was next to Josh Bynes when the veteran made an impressive third down stop on Steelers running back Benny Snell in the second quarter. Davis-Gaither then came back in and helped allow the Steelers’ longest play of the first half.
Just a few plays later, Davis-Gaither came back out and was a part of the coverage unit that forced Ben Roethlisberger to throw maybe the worst interception of his career. He was the MIKE linebacker and dropped back into the middle of a Cover 2 zone and took away Chase Claypool’s seam route between the two deep shells of the coverage.
Davis-Gaither finished with 17 total defensive snaps and played all four downs of the Steelers’ last possession. Considering how well Germaine Pratt played (he earned a 90.3 defense grade from Pro Football Focus!), Davis-Gaither and Bailey—who finished with nine snaps—didn’t have to be overused.
The same can be said for Khalid Kareem, who only played eight snaps while Carl Lawson was having the game of his life and Sam Hubbard was playing well too.
Wilson may or may not be coming back for next Sunday’s road game against the Texans, but even if he’s out, Anarumo seems to have found a good rotation with his linebackers. If Pratt and Bynes can play that well every week, things are obviously much easier.