You had to know that a record-breaking afternoon for a franchise that has struggled for so long wouldn't come easy. The Cincinnati Bengals, seeking their first 7-0 start in club history, stayed true to the "play 60 minutes" cliche. It was a tough day at the office for the offensive and special teams units, but the defense stayed strong and, as good teams tend to do, the orange and black found a way to grind out a win for an early stranglehold over the AFC North.
As much as those associated with the Bengals despise all things Pittsburgh, credit is due to the Steelers on multiple fronts. They marched out to an early lead and stayed in the game after losing star running back, Le'Veon Bell. And, as they've done so many times in the past, they found a way to frustrate a potent Bengals offense and rattle them to the core.
All that being said, the Cincinnati Bengals are an unprecedented 7-0 through eight weeks of the 2015 NFL season. Euphoria is hitting Bengaldom that such a a record was broken while beating the Steelers, a team that has largely dominated the Bengals throughout the Marvin Lewis renaissance.
Here are some of the best and worst from the Bengals in their 16-10 win over the Steelers on Sunday.
The Running Game: On just 23 total carries in the game, the Bengals amassed 72 yards. Jeremy Hill, a guy who has found the end zone in 2015, but hasn't had a high yards-per-carry average, ground out four yards a tote against an inspired Steelers defense. Giovani Bernard inexplicably had one carry on the day and had 12 yards on the lone carry. It's not flashy, but that's saying something against a proud Steelers defense, regardless of their previous performances. The question really is, why did they get so few opportunities.
Adriel Jeremiah Green: There was one deep ball that bounced off of A.J. Green's shoulders late in the game, but some of the blame could be negated because of the physical double-coverage he saw and the fact that the play basically equated to a punt. However, Green had another stellar day against an AFC North opponent with 11 catches for 118 yards and the game-clinching touchdown grab.
The Legs of the Specialists: Mike Nugent missed a field goal, but it was only after a false start pushed him back five yards after making the initial attempt. The Bengals had 16 points on the afternoon and the veteran kicker was responsible for ten of them. Meanwhile, Kevin Huber continued to flip the field position once again with three boots inside the Steelers' 20-yard line and zero return yards from Antonio Brown.
Burfict is back: Initially, the Bengals wanted to ease the former Pro Bowl linebacker back into the lineup against the Steelers. A calf injury to Rey Maualuga and Burfict proving he is close to being back to the active player he once was gave him extensive playing time in an important game a year after he last saw the field. Even though the Steelers marched for a touchdown on their opening drive, Burfict had the first two tackles in the game for the Bengals, ending with five overall.
Returners on the loose: While it wasn't the momentum-swinging plays we'e become accustomed to, Adam Jones and Brandon Tate both had good days on returns. Tate had a 27-yard average on kickoffs, while Jones averaged 16 yards per return on punts.
Playing 60 Minutes: It's never easy against the Steelers, no matter their record or the one of their opponent. The Bengals didn't have a lead in the game until there were about three minutes left in the game, yet that didn't stop them from scratching and clawing the entire game. Not even when Martavis Bryant took a Ben Roethlisberger pass to the Cincinnati 16-yard line to put them in position to win with four seconds left, did the Bengals' defense falter. Playing until the whistle is part of the 2015 Bengals' DNA.
The Defense: An effective pass rush and turnovers often go hand-in-hand, and both were on display on Sunday against Pittsburgh. Cincinnati's leading pass-rusher, Carlos Dunlap, was rendered useless, but Geno Atkins, Wallace Gilberry and Michael Johnson all got to Roethlisberger for sacks. The safeties chimed in with their own contributions to the tune of three interceptions on Big Ben, all of which came to the conclusion of an allowance of ten total points.
The Offensive Game Plan: We can't classify it as "ugly" because the Bengals won the game, especially with some late game offensive heroics, but Hue Jackson's blueprint was off-kilter. Giovani Bernard had just one carry on the afternoon, while entering the weekend ranked No. 4 in the NFL in yards-per-carry. Many of the quick-hitting passes from Andy Dalton to Green worked, but Jackson stayed with passes while the Bengals' offensive line struggled to contain pressure and Dalton was clearly rattled. Jeremy Hill was gouging the Steelers defense for four yards per carry, yet he only had 15 carries. Just an odd approach on the day, although the biggest offensive weapon had 11 catches on the day.
An Ugly Winning of the Turnover Ratio: Dalton had two critical interceptions, with one coming in the red zone to take points off the board and another acting as an ad-hoc punt. The safeties claimed three interceptions on Roethlisberger to take the momentum in this category, but the five turnovers overall made for a offensive-phobic game.
The Run Defense: It didn't pave the way for disaster as it was in the days of Jerome Bettis, but 19 carries for 116 yards against the Steelers usually is a recipe for a long day. Le'Veon Bell was having a decent day before he left with a knee injury, while DeAngelo Williams had a huge 55-yard scamper late in the game. Still, both were largely kept in check, aside from a couple of big runs.
Penalties and the Refs: There were 20 total penalties by both teams--10 per team. The Bengals were deserving of most, if not all, of the yellow laundry thrown their way. False starts, holds and other hair-pulling gaffes cost the team points on numerous occasions. However, many push-offs from Steelers receivers and an egregious illegal contact non-call on Green in the end zone, which led to a Dalton interception, where inexcusable. There was also a major mix-up by the officiating crew at the end of the game when the Steelers were trying to get the go-ahead touchdown. It's just another example of poor officiating that has plagued the NFL this season.
The Offensive Line: There have been a number of strengths leading the Bengals to a 6-0 start before Sunday, but one of the biggest was the play of the big uglies up front. True to so many other matchups against the Bengals, the Steelers made one of the best lines look silly. Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith accounted for multiple false starts, while Eric Winston had another inexcusable one one a Nugent field goal attempt to push it back five yards and helped to force a miss. Beyond that, Dalton never looked comfortable all afternoon and was constantly harassed by a Pittsburgh defensive line that was missing Stephon Tuitt.
An Inability To Cover a Tight End: For years, the bengals failed to find a solution to guard the position, but it's been shored up over the last half-decade or so. In exposing a bit of a weakness at the linebacker position, Heath Miller had a career day against the Cincinnati defense. While the defense did a superb job containing both Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant on the afternoon, Miller had 10 catches for 105 yards and continuously moved the sticks. It was frustrating to see such a seasoned veteran carve up a defense, but perhaps the Bengals conceded his contributions to make sure the wideouts didn't burn them.
A Woeful Showing After a Bye: I don't get it. I just don't. After having two weeks to prepare for the Steelers and remaining amazingly healthy, the Bengals went into Pittsburgh and still looked rattled in a big game. As we mentioned before, it's never easy to go up against the Steelers at Heinz Field, but 10 penalties, two turnovers and a deer-in-the-headlights kind of look at times has skeptics of the Bengals still yammering.