It seemed like Week 7 between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers would end up being a classic, but a second-half implosion by Cincinnati led to a disappointing 29-14 loss. The team is reeling and can ill-afford more losses—particularly within the AFC North.
The first half of the game looked promising for the Bengals, but familiar struggles surfaced against a team they just can’t seem to beat. Here are the best and worst from the Bengals’ loss to Pittsburgh.
William Jackson III: While we might be overstating Marvin Lewis’ prowess as a draft analyst, particularly with recent classes, but the 2016 first-round pick is starting to look like a viable corner. After having a pick-six against Aaron Rodgers a few weeks ago, Jackson stepped up against the rival Steelers.
Yes, Antonio Brown found the end zone and Roethlisberger didn’t throw a pick, but Big Ben completed just 58 percent of his passes (14-of-24), and no Steelers receivers cracked 65 yards on the day. In fact, Jackson utterly shut down Brown when the two were matched up one-on-one, per Pro Football Focus. Jackson had two passes defended and a tackle and filled in nicely for the injured Adam Jones.
Joe Mixon: The rookie running back had a solid first half, rushing for 48 yards on seven carries (6.9 yards per carry), as well as adding three overall catches for 20 yards. He seemed to look across the sideline to Le’Veon Bell, as he showed great patience.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Mixon wasn’t used in the second half. Yes, two of his receptions came after halftime, but he didn’t have a carry in the final two quarters.
First-half Andy: The Bengals’ signal-caller was extremely sharp throughout the first two quarters, throwing for 115 yards and two scores. Bill Lazor had a quality game plan for the early portion of the game, as Dalton looked very comfortable against one of the NFL’s top-ranked passing defenses.
What was also impressive was Dalton’s distribution of the football in the first half. Brandon LaFell and Tyler Kroft each caught touchdown passes, with the latter coming on an uber-important fourth-and-goal play in the second quarter.
Kevin Huber, Randy Bullock and kick coverage: Though he didn’t attempt a field goal, Bullock converted two field goals and largely kept the Steelers’ kickoff returners at bay, only allowing one return for 16 yards. While it was at the hands of an old friend, Terrell Watson, Bullock mostly kicked the ball out of the end zone.
Meanwhile, Huber has continued his special teams prowess, as he kicked two of his five punts inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard line. Lethal return man Antonio Brown was only held to one punt return for seven yards, pointing to the solid play of Huber and the coverage unit.
Alex Erickson: Aside from making a huge 22-yard reception to convert yet another third down, Erickson also had a couple of nice returns on special teams. He had a 19-yard punt return to aid Cincinnati’s offense, as well as a 30-yard kickoff return.
Another Burfict incident: The Cincinnati Bengals made the decision to give their star-crossed linebacker a major contract extension this offseason, in hopes that he would continue to lift the defensive unit. While that has been the case since his return from a three-game suspension this year, a familiar issue popped up on Sunday.
It’s likely that Mike Tomlin and Todd Haley told the Steelers offense to goad Burfict into making these kinds of mistakes. Luckily, Burfict didn’t get flagged here, but he has to have a cooler head if he wants to remain on the field for the rest of the season.
The fake punt: The Bengals were clinging to a little bit of hope in the fourth quarter, down by 12 points with just under seven minutes to play. Pittsburgh lined up to punt and noticed that Darrius Heyward-Bey was uncovered as a gunner on the right side.
The Bengals attempted to sell out on blocking the punt, but, as usual, the Steelers out-coached Cincinnati at a critical point in the game. Heyward-Bey grabbed a 44-yard reception, which set up the killer field goal with just over five minutes to play.
The John Ross/JuJu Smith-Schuster hindsight: When it came to the former USC Trojan standout, draft experts—both professional and novice—were mixed. Meanwhile, most agreed that Ross seemed to have a lot of tools to be an explosive NFL player.
Fast-forward to Sunday and Ross was sidelined for the fifth time, while Smith-Schuster had his third touchdown reception of the season and was seen blocking the heck out of Darqueze Dennard on a long Bell run. For now, it would appear as if the Bengals may have been better-served to move back in the first round, grab an offensive lineman and an extra pick and then grab Smith-Schuster. This could obviously change going forward, but Sunday was a painful reminder of how different the fortunes seem to fall between these two franchises.
The defense: Yes, the stout Bengals’ defense kept the game within reach by stifling the Steelers’ offense on short-yardage situations, but they also allowed many critical plays. And, unless you’re a Steelers fan, seeing Le’Veon Bell rush for 134 yards wasn’t a pretty sight.
Additionally, the team’s ability to get to the quarterback this year was completely neutralized by the Steelers’ offensive line. Making it even more frustrating was Carlos Dunlap’s pedestrian day against a backup right tackle, Jerald Hawkins. They didn’t force a turnover, and they didn’t sack Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday—you simply can’t beat the Steelers without numbers in those statistical categories.
Second half offense: After keeping the game close at halftime, Bill Lazor’s unit completely collapsed in the final two quarters. They gave up four sacks, committed two turnovers, only netted 19 yards and didn’t score a point in a game that once seemed close.
After gaining 6.9 yards per carry in the first half, the Bengals inexplicably took Joe Mixon out of the equation, as he didn’t have a second-half carry. A.J. Green was also kept in check in the final two quarters, as he didn’t log a reception in crunch time.
Getting out-coached...again: Whether it was the allowing of a fake punt, a second-half collapse by the offense, the line’s inability to block anyone at critical times, Mike Tomlin and the Steelers continue to own Marvin Lewis’ Bengals.
We talked about the offense’s issues, but all three units experienced issues as the game wore on. To be honest, this felt like one of those painful games in the early 2000s where the Steelers would use Jerome Bettis and other groin-kick plays to bleed the clock to an eventual dominating win.
Crunch-time Andy: There are a lot of Dalton supporters in Bengals nation, and deservedly so. "The Red Rifle" has some big wins in his pro career and has set some franchise-best numbers.
Still, after a pretty outstanding first half, Dalton and the rest of the offense completely crumbled in the final two quarters. When the Bengals needed their quarterback to step up the most, he went 7-for-13 for 31 yards and two interceptions. He was also sacked four times and threw the ball away on a critical 4th-and-3 situation.
Marvin Lewis’ postgame antics: Do you have a relative who is kind of a screw-up who you’re tired of defending? If so, you might have an eerily similar feeling if you’re a Lewis supporter.
After yet another loss to their bitter rivals, Lewis couldn’t handle questions from the media. He was asked about certain in-game decisions on Sunday and left his postgame presser prematurely. After 15 years, an 0-7 record in the postseason and an 8-22 line against Pittsburgh, one is inclined to think he owes the fans better than that type of behavior.
Cincy Jungle friend, Joe Goodberry, provided a sound breakdown, of, well, the emotional breakdowns of various coaches after the loss. You can check it out over at Bengals Wire from USA Today.
The offensive line: The team’s embattled unit did a decent job in the first half, paving the way for a 25-yard run by Mixon and not allowing a sack, but they completely fell apart in the second half. The unit allowed four sacks and couldn’t pave any holes for backs, as the Bengals attempted to play catch-up.