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The good, the concerning and the “what the’s...?” in Bengals’ 41-10 throttling of the Steelers

There wasn’t much to complain about in Cincinnati’s huge win over Pittsburgh in Week 12.

What a performance by the Cincinnati Bengals. So many things went right for them and it’s truly difficult to point out “bad” and “ugly” facets to their showing.

In that vein, we’re changing it up a bit this week. Because so few things they put on tape were actually bad, we’re tweaking “bad” and “ugly” to “concerning” and “what the...?”

The good

Effort:

One of the tentpoles Zac Taylor wanted to plant when taking over the Bengals was in bringing in high-character guys—both in the draft and free agency. Ostensibly, his belief was that the work ethic coupled with talent and football I.Q. would undoubtedly pay dividends. And, oddly enough, it’s a bit of a building block on top of the preference of Marvin Lewis and Duke Tobin to tap the stars from “big football schools” at the college ranks.

In the first two years filled with losing, Taylor’s notion and continued pointing to the character level in his locker room rang hollow because of just six wins and a tie in which the fan base had to cling. But, now we’re seeing the benefits in both big and small samples.

Last week against the Raiders, Stanley Morgan quietly had a massive block to spring a Joe Mixon run. This week, we witnessed Ja’Marr Chase (who was only targeted three times in the passing game) hustle down the right sideline to help spring Mixon’s long run of 32 yards on Sunday.

We often hear about “the little things” being executed from some of the best coaches and players as keys to a successful season. With the right guys seemingly in place, this is coming to fruition for the 2021 Bengals.

The disparity in rushing offenses:

How many times have we seen the Steelers grind out clock to strangle out a victory over the Bengals in slow-bleed type of fashion. Visions of Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker and others dancing after fourth quarter first downs painted many of the stories in this rivalry throughout the late 1990s and 2000s.

Najee Harris is one of the front-runners for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he had his worst performance of the year against the Bengals. He had just eight carries for 23 yards and just a 2.9 yards-per-carry average.

In fact, Harris was largely a non-factor on the ground against the Bengals this year. He combined for 22 carries for just 60 yards—again a 2.9 average overall.

The Bengals completely flipped the script in this one, as they ran for 198 yards—including a career-high 165 by Mixon—while the Steelers plodded to just 51 rushing yards. It’s completely uncharacteristic to have such a lopsided result by the Steelers and it simply points to the Bengals’ domination in this game.

Beating up the bully...twice:

During the Marvin Lewis era many folks pleaded with the team to fight back and punch the bully in the mouth after so many cases of the Steelers “out-physical-ing” the Bengals. There were the occasional spot wins wherein the Bengals showed up (Week 7 of 2015, anyone?), but Pittsburgh largely manhandled Cincinnati and often let them know about it in the form of jubilant celebrations, questionable hits and much more.

Still, in this year, the Bengals absolutely took it to the Steelers—with or without T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith. By the time the third quarter hit in both contests, Cincinnati was in cruise control mode and many of their starters were able to rest in the fourth quarter.

In the first contest, Tyler Boyd boldly proclaimed that the Steelers “quit”. And, instead of marching into Paul Brown Stadium with a chip on their shoulder, the Bengals essentially sent them packing early, heads down and shoulders slumped.

It was this matchup that defined Lewis’ tenure, despite the overall successes he had against the Browns and the Ravens. It’s now defining Taylor’s era for a much different and more welcomed reason.

The metaphorical passing of the divisional power torch:

For the first time in 31 years, the Cincinnati Bengals have won three straight against the Steelers under Taylor. For context, that’s getting close to half as many total wins Lewis had against Pittsburgh in 16 years as Cincinnati’s head coach.

Pittsburgh is facing the end of Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career, while also constructing a team of flash (talented and verbose skill position players), over substance (stout defenses and punishing offensive lines we’ve become accustomed to). The Steelers are one of the best-run organizations in professional sports and while they are trending down right now, they won’t be there long.

However, the hard truth is that they are facing a transitional period within their organization. With the Bengals appearing to find that oh-so-elusive right coach/right quarterback combination and their roster being largely loaded with young talent on manageable contracts, these two teams are flip-flopping divisional positions of power. This Sunday was evidence of such.

Previous issues starting to get cleaned up:

Going into the bye week at 5-4, questions were aplenty about this Bengals team. How good are they, exactly? How can you throttle the Ravens and Steelers on the road and then lose to the lowly Jets with a backup quarterback? Will they right issues plaguing them after the bye?

Well, they seem to be answering at least the last of those questions with a resounding “yes”. Tackling is far more stout, the run game has improved greatly, as has the offensive line and players are showing individual improvements.

Case in point: Tee Higgins. The second-year receiver had a couple of nice games for the Bengals this year leading up to this contest, but it still wasn’t quite living up to the preseason hype. Aside from a couple of injuries, Higgins was having trouble securing contested catches—a forte of his that made him a coveted wide receiver in the draft and was a constant on his rookie season tape.

That facet started to change on Sunday, as Higgins was a monster. Aside from securing nice passes across the middle—including one wherein he had to reach behind and snag it—he “Moss’d” James Pierre in a jump ball situation.

On defense, the Bengals were getting after the quarterback and forcing punts, but not so much those game-breaking turnovers. After forcing just eight fumbles and recovering two in their first nine games, the Bengals have one of each in both of the last two games.

To boot, the Bengals had just seven interceptions (four by linebacker Logan Wilson) in the first nine games. They’ve secured three in the past two games, including a pick-six.

Playing their best ball when they need it:

Coming out of a bye and facing a daunting stretch on the schedule where every team remaining on it was either in the playoff bracket or right in the hunt forced the Bengals to be at the top of their game. And, while we’re just looking at a two-game sample size, these two contests are some of the most complete team victories we’ve seen from Cincinnati in some time.

With six games remaining on the schedule, each of their opponents are all still deeply entrenched in the playoff hunt. Things could change and they could have a familiar stumble like those we have witnessed earlier this year, but it just feels less likely, based on Weeks 11 and 12.

Beating teams in a variety of ways and adapting their play:

Early in the season, it seems as if the Bengals’ formula was to pop the big play to Chase and largely rely on Burrow’s arm to win games. Weathering the hits on their second-year quarterback and leaning on a revamped defense were variables in the equation.

However, after the bye, the Bengals have morphed into a true AFC North squad. Timely passing, with a ground-and-pound offensive attack have been part-and-parcel of things, as Mixon has rolled up 288 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns the past two games.

It seems as if the coaching staff used the bye to tweak approaches in the forms of starting Hakeem Adeniji at right guard, while using the run game to sustain drives on offense. The latter both wears out a defense and keeps your own defensive unit more fresh when used effectively.

Credit the staff for their flexibility and truly digesting what teams were showing them in that two-game skid. Instead of more forcing that ball to a bracketed Chase when it just wasn’t there, Cincinnati turned into a physical, balanced team—seemingly on a dime.

The concerning

Darius Phillips in bigger roles:

When writing up the “Winners and Losers” lists here on Cincy Jungle, I loathe using the title “Losers” for a variety of reasons. And, this week, we didn’t have any losers because of the feel-good win, but the backup corner would have otherwise been a nominee.

Now, Phillips appears to be improving as a punt return man, even if marginally. He had a nice 17-yard punt return against the Steelers, using his blockers nicely.

However, he made an inexplicable decision on a kickoff return and was victimized in coverage a couple of times. We saw an interception go through his hands on one occasion and then the allowance of a touchdown reception late.

He does get a bit of a pass because of suddenly being thrust into a bigger role than he may have expected and is still growing into his first full-time stint as a special teams regular. Still, that’s life in the NFL and it was a stark reminder how critical it is that this Bengals team remains healthy.

Accrued injuries:

Trey Hopkins, Riley Reiff and Chris Evans were injured during the contest, while Thaddeus Moss hurt his hamstring in pregame warm-ups. It was especially tough news for Moss, who was getting his first game day activation on the heels of witnessing a “proud dad moment” from his father Randy, on ESPN’s pregame show.

While it sounds like none are overly-serious, it’s not the time of year you want guys potentially missing time. On Tuesday, Taylor said Moss’s injury was the most serious and he may miss a week or two. Again, a shame, given that some heard Moss was going to have a role in the offensive game plan.

As of Wednesday, Hopkins wasn’t suited up for practice. That’s kind of been a regular thing for him this year coming back from 2020’s knee injury, but it’s especially concerning this week after his being rolled up on by a Pittsburgh defender.

What the...?

The Ja’Marr Chase offensive pass interference call:

The close of the second half bought about a wild sequence of events. Cincinnati was up 24-3 towards the midway break and were close to scoring again. Burrow hit Boyd for a beautiful, diving reception, but it was negated by an offensive pass interference call on Chase.

Upon looking at the replay, the call was weak, at best, confirmed as such by CBS’ Kevin Harlan and Trent Green. The next play, Burrow floated an interception and the game suddenly had a very different feel to it—especially when thinking back to the miraculous comeback the Steelers nearly pulled off against the Chargers the week prior.

Fortunately, Mike Hilton came to the rescue and it didn’t amount to anything, but in a year where officiating has been criticized, this was another moment that could have proved pivotal.

Joe Mixon’s saves a pick:

Going back to how we kicked this post off with “effort”, no examples were more prevalent than Mixon’s snatch of a bobbling interception attempt by Highsmith. Burrow threw what should have been a safe screen to Mixon, only to have the Steelers defender jolt in front of it to try and give Pittsburgh life.

Instead, Mixon was Johnny-on-the-spot, while diving and taking the football away. It was an odd play, all-around, but it worked out in the Bengals’ favor.