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The good, the bad and the ugly in the Bengals’ Week 1 loss to Steelers

We take a look at the best and worst facets of the Bengals’ crushing Week 1 loss to their divisional rivals.

That’s going to be a hard one to shake off. Cincinnati played largely awful in their opener against the Steelers, yet somehow they had an opportunity to win at the end.

Last year, Cincinnati pulled out a number of wins with late-game heroics, but came up short this week. They’ll need to rebound quickly to get things back on track in an effort to repeat as AFC champs.

Here are the best and worst facets of the Bengals’ 20-23 loss to Pittsburgh in Week 1.

The good

Cincinnati’s defense:

With the Bengals’ offense gifting the Steelers five turnovers, one of which being a pick-six, and allowing seven sacks, Lou Anarumo’s group was placed in precarious positions all afternoon.

Yet, despite only notching one sack themselves and creating zero turnovers, they constantly had the game in reach. With Pittsburgh in the driver’s seat for much of the game, they still only allowed 75 total rushing yards and a pedestrian 3.4 yards per carry. Mitch Trubisky was also completely unimpressive.

We all would have liked to have seen more big plays from the unit, but given the struggles on offense, it’s about as good of an effort possible, given the circumstances.

Hayden Hurst

Hurst had some nice grabs at the end of the game, finishing with five catches for 46 yards. It was great to see him step up as a weapon when, at one point, Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins were all out of the game with injury issues.

The veteran tight end had a good camp and is starting to parlay that into the regular season. Hopefully he’ll be a remedy for the team’s continuing red zone issues.

The running backs:

Mixon brought his usual effort and attitude—which also seems to get kicked up even further when he’s going against the Steelers. He finished with 82 tough yards on the ground and another 63 through the air.

Samaje Perine also brought his own blend of contributions which included a great blitz pickup late in the game, along with 37 all-purpose yards. No small feat given the offensive line and turnover issues the team had plaguing them all day.

Ja’Marr Chase:

Despite one egregious drop that may have been a touchdown, Chase had a day. It also had to have been one of the most frustrating games ever for the second-year star.

He was robbed of another touchdown late in the contest because of a combination of bad officiating and the maddening decision by the Bengals’ brain trust to not challenge the call. Chase also had what should have been the game-winning score, only to see the extra point get blocked.

Chase finished with 10 catches for 129 yards and the score against Pittsburgh.

A historically bad performance was very nearly a win:

Let’s try for a silver lining here. Essentially, the Bengals nearly pulled off an NFL impossibility with nearly grabbing a win, despite being minus-five in the turnover category, missing kicks and allowing seven sacks.

If not for an injury to long snapper Clark Harris, we would be singing a completely different tune about the result. Basically, the Bengals played one of the worst games possible against their divisional foe and still nearly had the victory.

We’re not into moral victories around here, but that is saying something.

The bad

Joe Burrow:

It pains me to put the star quarterback in this category, but it’s necessitated. His late-game heroics were awesome, but some of the early throws of his were...yikes.

One could chalk up these throws to a number of factors: rust from not taking any real-game snaps this summer, sensing pressure or worse yet, feeling heat that wasn’t really there. Burrow looked uncharacteristically skittish early in the contest and forced throws that were part of his four interceptions. Some of the seven sacks were from Burrow playing his brand of football wherein he tried to create something out of nothing.

This was his worst game as a Bengal and likely since he was playing Pop Warner football. Yet, even still, he put the Bengals in a position to win the game more than once.

The offensive line:

A lack of cohesion could be the culprit here, but some don’t agree with that notion. Check out “The Coach” Matt Minich’s take on Sunday’s performance by the big guys up front.

Rookie Cordell Volson had a tough first pro task of going up against Cam Heyward and the veteran defensive lineman dominated the game. Volson was credited with seven pressures given up, while T.J Watt was a game-wrecker in a number of different ways.

Jonah Williams also had trouble with Alex Highsmith who had three of Pittsburgh’s sacks on the afternoon. The most distressing part of their performance was that the team invested so heavily in retooling the unit.

Seven sacks and 11 quarterback hits sound familiar? That was the Rams’ output in their win in Super Bowl LVI.

Strategic decisions (or lack thereof):

Aside from some play-calling queries, two major instances of in-game management came to be questioned. The first instance was in the fourth quarter when Ja’Marr Chase’s not-a-touchdown-heard-’round-the-world wasn’t challenged by those in charge of taking more looks at questionable calls by the officials.

The other was when the Bengals seemed to opt for the tie, given the time and situation in overtime. Cincinnati’s punting unit snapped the ball with about 15 seconds left on the play clock in a situation that necessitated a “drain time” strategy.

The ugly

Where was Chris Evans?

The offense needed sizzle. Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd were injured late and Cincinnati’s offense could have used a dynamic weapon who provides mismatches. Why not use Evans in some scenarios when things weren’t working well?

Yes, we know Zac Taylor and Brian Callahan value Perine and his versatility, but Evans would potentially be that extra jolt to the offense. If it didn’t work, then we would have been happy to eat crow, but at least try some things to see if a spark could be lit with the second-year back.

Shades of 2021 Week 5 special teams:

Remember that bizarre day last year where neither the Bengals and Packers could convert a kick? It was kind of that way for Cincinnati and Pittsburgh once again at Paul Brown Paycor Stadium this Sunday.

Harris’ injury totally changed things for the Bengals (P.S. can we stop blaming Mitchell Wilcox? It’s not like the Bengals were asking him to step up for a guy like Hurst—it’s a totally different role and not one he likely thought he’d have to step into), with Evan McPherson missing gimme kicks in the form of a field goal and an extra point at the end of regulation.

Of course, the cliché of “good teams find a way to overcome” applies, but this was just wacky to deal with—even for Week 1 standards. Regardless, it was so frustrating that the game wasn’t clinched from the jaws of defeat because of snapping and kicking issues (yes—we’re aware of the sacks and turnovers playing huge roles as well).

Do we need to have a conversation about playing starters in the preseason?

When you look at how the Bengals and Rams both performed in Week 1, at home no less, maybe this uber-careful approach needs to be thought through a bit more. Both teams sat basically all of their starters throughout the entire preseason, for good reason, but rust and a lack of cohesion seemed to have played a factor for both teams’ tough losses.

Of course, losing star players and other heavy contributors in meaningless preseason games would be devastating, but finding some semblance of balance here might need to be discussed internally.

Narratives continue:

Many outlets have been lukewarm on the Bengals this year, thinking they were lucky last year and will have trouble sustaining long-term success. Cincinnati’s coaches and players have been spending all summer trying to debunk those narratives, only to see the “I told you so’s” start to come out after an ugly, season-opening divisional loss.

How will they rebound? Was this week a fluke, or was 2021 the fluke? These are the talking points that come from a loss like this and the Bengals will need to get back to work to quiet the critics—oh, and to get back to the playoffs.