The Bengals went into Pittsburgh with their playoff dreams on the table. With New England’s loss to Miami earlier in the afternoon, they had the chance to leapfrog them in the standings and seize control of the #2 seed with the final two games of their season being played in The Jungle, a place where they have not lost all year long. However, as things turned out, the trip to the Steel City was a forgettable as the Cardiac Cats dropped a tough one to the desperate Steelers.
This was one of those games where you could not afford to take a bathroom break during special teams plays. A lot went on during kickoffs and punts in this one. Let’s hit the checklist: we saw a botched snap from the longsnapper, Clark Harris. Punter Kevin Huber was unable to field the ball cleanly and he had to eat it at his own one yard line. This lead to a one yard Le’Veon Bell touchdown run. Later on, Huber punted the ball down the field towards Antonio Brown. Brown returned the punt 67 punts to the house. On the play Huber was laid out by a Steeler player. As it turned out, he fractured his jaw on the play and was going to miss the rest of the game. Since most teams do not carry two punters on their 53-man roster, booting the ball away was going to be a problem for Cincy. Place-kicker Mike Nugent would do the honors, which made for some more interesting television. Finally, on a play that nobody really talked about, Nugent kicked the ball off (with the team down 30-14 with 14:09 left in the game) to Felix Jones. Jones deflected the ball backwards at the five yard line. It rolled into the end zone where he was able to go and retrieve it. He then kneeled on the ball which should have been ruled a safety. Last I checked, you cannot touch a ball in the field of play and then kneel it in the end zone. Someone should correct me if I’m wrong, but I am pretty sure that play was illegal. But then again, who am I to argue with Ed Hochuli. He is one of the best refs and has one of the best crews in the business.
Outside of the adventure that was special teams play, we saw some solid quarterback play from Ben Roethlisberger. He was very accurate early on in this game and played turnover-free football until the third quarter. At the 12:32 mark, he tossed a pass up the left sideline in the direction of Emmanuel Sanders. However, the wind caught hold of the ball and held it up in the air for a bit longer than Big Ben would have liked it to have been. This allowed Adam Jones, the Cincinnati corner, to make a play on it and come down with the interception. Other than that one play, I thought that Roethlisberger did a nice job throwing the ball on target to his open receivers. It was nice to see him getting the ball out of his hands quickly. The Bengals have a fierce pass rush, and they were not able to put much pressure on the QB in this game. Utilization of quick screens and hitch routes really helped in this situation, but when the team wanted to pass the ball down field, the Steeler front did a great job in five-man protection. I thought it was one of the more impressive outings from this O-line all year long.
For the Bengals, they really were not able to do much on offense outside of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Green managed nine catches for 93 yards, but he didn’t get behind the Pittsburgh defense. His longest catch went for 19 yards, and 16 of his 18 targets were all of the short variety (under 15 yards). In fact, Dalton only threw the ball further than 15 yards away from the line of scrimmage those two times, completing only one of them for 19 yards. The Steelers threw it deep only twice as well, but they had a 27-7 halftime lead to play with, so they did not have to force the ball down the field. Also, Cincy was unable to run the ball. The team combined for 22 carries for just 57 yards (2.6 yards per carry). The front four from Pittsburgh showed great gap integrity and did not allow any major holes open up. It was a solid performance from them in that area as well.
After seeing this game, I can say that the Bengals are far from a finished product. Their offense is too inconsistent, and the team as a whole just does not play very well away from home. They are 3-5 on the road this season, so earning the #2 seed is paramount for them. The team has a chance to redeem itself next week against the Vikings, a team that has been playing good football lately. The Patriots, who they are currently competing with for that #2 seed and first round BYE, head to Baltimore to face the playoff-hopeful Ravens. Thanks to their head-to-head win over New England earlier this season, the Bengals do have a legitimate shot at this first round BYE. They just need to take care of business at home. Pittsburgh’s feint playoff hopes stay alive with this win, and they will now have to head to Green Bay to face the Packers. Aaron Rodgers figures to be a go in that game, but even if he is not, Matt Flynn has proven that he is capable of leading the team (minus one ugly performance against the Lions). It is a major uphill battle for the black and yellow, but at least they have a chance to finish this season on a hot streak.