What happened on Monday night?
These “What we learned” pieces have become increasingly critical over the years, but we finally have something positive to talk about.
The Bengals improved to 3-10-1, which is still really bad. So even though the Bengals won an amazing game, they’re not immune from criticism.
This win may have had more to do with how badly the Steelers are spiraling right now than with how well the Bengals played.
But a win is a win. A win over the Steelers on Monday Night Football feels like even more of a win than normal.
We can enjoy this win while also recognizing that the Bengals still have a long ways to go before they can be competitive again. But let’s savor this one.
Here’s what we learned from the Bengals’ shocking upset over the Steelers.
Ryan Finley still isn’t a starter, but he played a heck of a game
Finley played his heart out on Monday, and he deserves all the accolades for the win and the effort he put into it.
That said, that will probably be his only win of the season.
We all know that Finley doesn’t have an NFL arm, and the Bengals know this. There’s a reason that Finley only had 13 pass attempts, while the Bengals ran over 40 times. Giovani Bernard had nearly twice as many carries (25) as Finley had pass attempts.
On most drives, Bernard carried the offense. In fact, Bernard had more yards from scrimmage (97) than Finley had passing yards (89).
So how does a quarterback with only seven completed passes score 27 points on the division-leading Steelers?
For one, 20 points came off of turnovers or turnovers on downs. On those drives, the average starting position was the Steelers’ 27-yard line. It makes it easier to score when you only have to drive on quarter of the field.
On the one scoring drive that actually started in Bengals’ territory, the Bengals called a two of designed quarterback runs. Finley ran the ball twice, but only passed once on that drive. While Finley gained 31 rushing yards and a touchdown a touchdown on that drive, the success came from the element of surprise, not Finley’s athleticism.
The Texans and Ravens will watch this game and see all of these designed runs with the Bengals pro-style quarterback. Both teams will have defenses used to practicing against mobile quarterbacks, so they will be able to stop the quarterback run and make Finley pass.
Does Finley have the arm to win either of the final two games? It’s highly doubtful.
Finley will compete, but he has too many physical deficiencies to overcome for lightning to strike more than once.
Defense played well again
This Bengals defense has dramatically improved over the course of the season. Pro Football Focus agrees and has been giving the Bengals glowing marks over the last four weeks.
Yes, you could argue that the Steelers’ offense hasn’t been playing well lately. But the eye test indicates that the Bengals defense had a huge part in the win.
First of all, as indicated above, four of the Bengals’ five scores were made possible by the defense. The Steelers fumbled twice, threw one interception, and on their last full drive, went four plays in a row without completing a pass.
Secondly, most of the players on defense had their best games of the season. The three cornerbacks, Mackenzie Alexander, William Jackson, and Darius Phillips, combined for six passes defended. The only knock on this group is that most of those passes defended should have actually been interceptions.
The linebackers produced all three turnovers. Josh Bynes fell on the botched snap to give the Bengals the early lead. Vonn Bell’s forced fumble on JuJu Smith-Schuster was originally ruled incomplete, so Jordan Evans’ clear and immediate recovery led to the Bengals getting the ball back again. And, of course, Germaine Pratt got an interception.
Carl Lawson had a great game, with six QB hits and the game’s only sack. On the other side, Sam Hubbard had two hits and a crucial pass batted at the line of scrimmage.
For most players on defense, this was their best game of the season. Players like Lawson, Jackson, and maybe even Jessie Bates made their case to get extensions in the offseason.
Coaching still bites
Zac Taylor gets credit for pulling out a win from a game the Bengals had no chance even competing in.
But how much of that was due to good coaching, and how much was player execution?
I will give him the long touchdown drive. That was a well-executed drive with some great playcalls to get the chains moving.
However that was just about the only well-coached drive of the night. Like most of the last four games, the offense had trouble manufacturing points without help from the defense.
The biggest indication that there was some ineffectual coaching was early in the second half. The Bengals had the momentum, they had the Steelers getting chippy, and they had a chance to expound on their 17-point lead when they got the ball to start the half.
Instead, the Bengals punted three times in the third quarter and nearly let their lead slip away.
Somehow, the defense stopped the Steelers, Finley ran the well-executed drive, and the Bengals extended their lead.
Did Taylor save his job? Possibly. Winning covers a multitude of sins.
If the Bengals play over the next two weeks like they played on Monday, then get ready for year three of Zac Taylor.
But the Texans and Ravens will adjust to the Bengals’ game plan. Will the offense be able to find another way to move the chains, or will they spin their wheels doing the same thing?