It was Trey Hendrickson’s strip-sack that made me think it.
The play wasn’t anything too special. Ben Roethlisberger did what he normally does and held onto the ball too long thanks to an emphatic pump fake. Hendrickson looped around overwhelmed left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and hit the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands when he finally decided to get rid of it.
Hendrickson’s forced fumble and Sam Hubbard’s fumble recovery gave the Bengals a 100% win probability at that point in the game—6:31 left in the third quarter. They began that play with a 100% WP, and they began that quarter with it as well. The moment did not impact the result of the game, other than giving the Bengals a field goal on the ensuing drive, but it was the play that sparked a thought.
man, they waited decades to do free agency. DECADES.— John Sheeran (@John__Sheeran) November 28, 2021
Free agency as we know it has existed nearly as long as the Bengals’ playoff win drought. You can ask Mike Brown even now, and he’ll tell you he’s still not a fan of the concept. And you have to think a lot of owners back then felt the same way. I was today years old when I learned free agency only came to be because of a court case, wherein the NFL’s attorney believed the proposed evolution of free agency would destroy the NFL. (oops!)
Brown stuck to those beliefs for a quarter of a century. Is it a complete coincidence that his team is being lauded as a legit contender again following two years of serious interest and involvement in the free agent market?
This club has found itself in the playoff picture before under Brown, who, by the way, isn’t exactly running the team anymore. 2005 and 2015 come to mind as previous seasons where optimism was around the current level. Those teams had quarterbacks playing at a high level, like the 2021 team has in Joe Burrow, but practically all of their high quality players were drafted by the team. Soon after those seasons, plenty of their core contributors moved on to other clubs for higher pay, and regression hit Cincinnati hard both times.
You could make the case that having Burrow to elevate rosters dealing with major turnover is significantly better than Andy Dalton and even Carson Palmer. The complete package at quarterback is the most critical component to the equation. But isn’t it luxurious to have that quarterback—capable of putting the team on his back when he needs too—while also having a roster that can win without him having to do it all by himself?
Now, at 7-4 with a bright future on the horizon, they have a balanced combination of young studs with years left on their rookie deals, and veterans from other franchises playing on second contracts in their prime. It’s a plan that produced one of the most balanced rosters in recent franchise history, and the contractual continuity baked into it provides hope that this success is sustainable for the next few years. Projecting anything beyond that in this league is simply nonsensical.
But let’s zoom back into this game—this matchup—and away from the macro of it all. How long has this rivalry been a one-sided affair? Surprisingly, the 90s weren’t all bad as Cincinnati managed five wins in the series from 1995-1999. The turn of the century was when it really took on a new life. When the Bengals beat the Steelers under Marvin Lewis, it was like Michigan beating Ohio State; to call it a big deal is an understatement. Beating them three times in less than a full year would be nearly as satisfying as getting that elusive playoff victory.
The Bengals don’t look better than the Steelers, they look light years better. And they wouldn’t have gotten here this quickly had they been bystanders in March like they’ve always been.
In this game alone, they received huge contributions from free agents/veteran additions of all kinds. There was Eli Apple and his near-pick-six, Mike Hilton with his actual pick-six, and that new-look defensive line controlled the game whenever the Steelers’ offense took the field. Enter Hendrickson and B.J. Hill.
Hendrickson has been the star of Cincinnati’s pass rush and had another fantastic game on Sunday. The numbers back both points up. This piece and video breakdown was originally going to focus on him and him alone with the whole preamble about free agency, but I couldn’t ignore how excellent B.J. Hill played as well. And while Hill wasn’t some high-priced acquisition brought in during the heart of the offseason, he represents the overarching point.
The Bengals are where they are not only from developing homegrown talent, but from complementing those pieces with difference-makers outside of the organization. Great teams need both, and that’s why this team can aspire to be greater than the rosters that came before them.
Let’s break down the best plays from two of those outsiders-turned-allies, Hendrickson and Hill: