The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Paul Brown Stadium hoping to keep themselves in the thick of the AFC North division title race. Instead, they found themselves devoured 41-10 by the Cincinnati Bengals.
- Don’t be fooled: This contest wasn’t even as “close” as the score suggests.
While the Steelers have owned the Bengals in Cincinnati while playing at Paul Brown Stadium, this wasn’t their first loss. But there was something different about this one, different because it signaled something deeper.
Yes, This Game Was Competitive. For a While
The Cincinnati Bengals are a better football team than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Moreover, looking beyond the frame of this game or this season, the Bengals are a team on the rise. The Steelers are not.
But this is the NFL. If Washington can beat the Patriots, the Jets can beat the Bengals, and the Dolphins can beat the Ravens then the Steelers could have beaten the Bengals.
- And there were times in the first half when this seemed like it might be possible.
The Bengals scored on their first possession and made it look easy, with Joe Mixon accounting for 54 yards on that first drive and Joe Burrow running in untouched for a touchdown. Three plays later Ben Roethlisberger would throw inside while Chase Claypool broke outside and Eli Apple snapped Big Ben’s interceptionless streak – and returned it 50 yards to the Steelers 5 for good measure.
Oddly enough, the next sequence proves that the Steelers, with a few plays could have made something of this game.
- The Steelers stuffed Mixon on 2nd and 3rd and then Chris Wormley dropped Burrow on 3rd down.
Defenses that respond to a dramatic turnover by forcing an offense to settle for 3 typically find ways to win football games. The offense took note, as Ben Roethlisberger went right back to Chase Claypool; this time the sophomore from Notre Dame flipped the field.
- The Steelers converted another third down, but alas had to settle for a field goal.
The Bengals scored on their next two possessions, which each touchdown coming easier than the first. Things were beginning to look bleak before the half, when Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted Burrow with just under a minute left to go and returned it 19 yards.
- Yes, a little bit of Minkah had given the Steelers a lease on life.
37 seconds isn’t a lot of time, but Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool have proven field flipping ability. And once you get in the Red Zone, Pat Freiermuth isn’t quite “money” but he’s getting there. So if the Steelers could get a touchdown, get the ball back at the half and find the end zone again, the 2nd half could be quite interesting….
…Instead Ben Roethlisberger threw to James Washington but couldn’t step into his throw and former Steeler Mike Hilton was only to happy to make him pay, returning a pick six 24 yards and improving the score to 31-3.
And that ladies and gentleman, was the game.
Little Analysis Necessary
When it was all over, the Steelers lost the game 41-10. Really, a second half comeback wasn’t feasible. (No, Alex Highsmith’s could have been pick six wouldn’t have moved the needle).
This Steelers squad simply isn’t talented enough or healthy enough. While James Pierre has looked sharp at times this year, he’s got a long way to go to show he’s the next Joe Haden. T.J. Watt was in uniform, but his best play was his post interception scuffle with Joe Burrow. Either Devin Bush‘s heart or his ACL recovery is lagging or perhaps a little of both, but he’s not getting the job done.
- The Steelers tried moving Cam Heyward to nose tackle, but that proved to be a mistake.
On the offensive, Najee Harris showed he was capable of being truly a special back, but he hath no line to block for him. Fourth string guard B.J. Finney helped remind everyone why the Steelers let him go in free agency, two teams parted with him during 2020 and the Steelers waited until November to dress him.
- This is a Pittsburgh Steelers team that can’t run and can’t stop the run.
Everyone knew that Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t carry this team on his back in 2021 and yesterday proved that. Claypool, Johnson and Freiermuth made some nice plays, but Ben clearly failed to make some throw’s he’d have made as recently as 2018.
Tomlin Promises Changes, but Some Changes Are Beyond His Control
Since he arrived in the NFL during the Steelers 2004 season, commentators have seldom tired of reminding us of how well Ben Roethlisberger has played in his native Ohio. He did it again this fall in Cleveland, but this streak skidded out Sunday in Cincinnati.
- Fortunately, this wasn’t his worst performance, for that came last December when he looked like Ali going up against Larry Holmes.
That’s an interesting factoid, but the story of this game goes beyond Ben losing what is likely his last game in Ohio. When asked change was coming after the game, Mike Tomlin admitted “You know, we’re open to doing whatever is required to change what’s trending.”
While there are some changes Tomlin can make, perhaps even ones that will bear fruit next week against Baltimore, the Steelers loss at Paul Brown Stadium signals that the guard has changed in the AFC North.
And there’s no decision Mike Tomlin can make this season to alter that reality.