Nothing has changed in the Cincinnati Bengals' rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers still dominate.
The Bengals fell behind early and never led Sunday, as the Steelers rolled to a 36-10 win at Heinz Field for their 11th straight victory in the series.
Pittsburgh led 12-0 in the first quarter, 22-7 at halftime, and Cincinnati didn’t even threaten a comeback in the second half, as Joe Burrow struggled. The Bengals seek to bounce back next week at Washington, as they still are looking for their first road win under second-year coach Zac Taylor.
Here are five takeaways from Sunday’s loss:
1. Roethlisberger delivers
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t practice all week after he was determined to be in close contact with Vance McDonald, who tested positive for COVID-19. Big Ben was cleared Saturday and appeared unfazed by the limited reps with his receivers, as he spent the week at home in quarantine and only able to participate in virtual meetings.
Roethlisberger threw for 333 yards and four touchdowns, both season highs, and finished with a 110.1 passer rating. The 38-year-old former Miami University standout is now 26-7 all-time against the Bengals.
“We were prepared for it I felt like, but it was really hard,” said safety Jessie Bates, who nearly had an interception that might have gone for a pick-6. “I was seeing it before the play and Big Ben was kind of just ... they weren’t even calling calls he was just like, ‘Hey you guys do this here.’ I felt like we had a good feel for it, but those explosive plays hurt us for sure.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson each had first-half touchdowns, and Chase Claypool recorded two touchdown receptions in the second half, as the trio accounted for 19 catches and 249 yards receiving.
2. Depleted secondary
Pittsburgh went away from its running game to take advantage of a depleted Bengals' secondary, which started the game without three of its top four cornerbacks and then lost nickel corner Mackensie Alexander to a concussion in the first quarter.
William Jackson was the lone cornerback with starting experience, and even he had trouble at times, allowing Johnson to grab a 46-yard pass in the first quarter to set up his touchdown a few plays later. Tony Brown and practice squad callup Jalen Davis also struggled with Pittsburgh’s receivers.
The Bengals also were missing three assistants on defense because of COVID-related reasons. In addition to wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell, linebackers coach Al Golden, secondary/cornerbacks coach Steve Jackson and senior defensive assistant Mark Duffner were unable to attend the game.
“We had three corners at one point and Rob (Livingston) is telling me I’m the next corner up,” Bates said. “It’s frustrating, it’s hard, but it’s just something you have to deal with these days with COVID and all that stuff going on. It’s opportunities and plays to be made and we need to do that.”
3. Burrow’s ‘terrible second half’
Joe Burrow overcame a slow start to go into halftime with 189 yards passing, but he threw for just 24 yards the rest of the way as he struggled to connect with receivers while trying to get the ball out quickly against the best pass rush in the league.
Burrow and the offense went three-and-out the first three drives before finally moving the chains, but the offense found some life when Tee Higgins, who had fumbled in the first quarter, caught a 54-yard pass. Burrow connected with Higgins again on a fourth-down pass to cap the drive with an 11-yard touchdown, putting the Bengals on the board, down 12-7 with 10:37 left in the second quarter.
On the last drive of the half, he got as far as the Pittsburgh 35-yard line but got pushed back on his second of four sacks and then he rolled his ankle when Bud Dupree pushed him out of bounds with 12 seconds left.
“We were moving the ball in the first half after we were three-and-out three straight times, and then I thought we hit our groove, and then I just played terrible in the second half,” Burrow said.
Burrow said his ankle was fine but he limped off again late in the fourth quarter before coming back for the final drive. Burrow never had any thought about not finishing the game, even with it already out of hand.
4. Third-down struggles
The Bengals have converted on 19 of 21 fourth-down plays this season after going 2-for-3 on Sunday, but they were 0-for-13 on third downs against Pittsburgh.
Burrow took the blame, saying he just missed throws he normally makes, but the offense as a whole just seemed out of rhythm against one of the best defenses in the league. Higgins was a lone bright spot among the receivers, finishing with 115 yards on seven catches.
“I missed throws,” Burrow said. “That’s all it came down to. You’re not going to be able to win football games against a team like the Steelers as good as they are when your quarterback plays like I did in the second half.”
Cincinnati had more changes on the offensive line Sunday, as well. Backup right tackle Fred Johnson remained on the COVID list and was unavailable Sunday, which meant guard Quinton Spain needed to fill in at his spot with starter Bobby Hart still out with a knee injury. The Bengals also were without left tackle Jonah Williams, who was active but not ready to come back from his stinger suffered in Week 7, so rookie Hakeem Adeniji got his second start.
5. Poor in all phases
Taylor didn’t think the Bengals played well in any phase of the game , as even special teams had some unusual mistakes. Alex Erickson fumbled the first punt return, there was a delay of game penalty called on special teams later in the first quarter and Brandon Wilson had trouble fielding the first return. Field position was in Pittsburgh’s favor most of the game.
“We were not good enough in any area today, offense, defense, special teams, and we really weren’t good enough coaching, and that is with me 100 percent,” Taylor said. “I feel like I let these guys down today, so it all starts with me.”
The Bengals had been looking to build on momentum from a 31-20 win over AFC South-leading Tennessee in Week 8, before a bye, and now have to find a way to bounce back from another bad loss to an AFC North opponent. The 26-point margin of defeat against Pittsburgh is a season-worst, topping the 27-3 loss to Baltimore in Week 5.
“I think we’re still creating momentum,” Taylor said. “We felt good these last couple weeks about the direction we were heading but we’ve got to turn them into wins, and you’ve got to beat good football teams on the road ultimately to get where we want to be, so today was an opportunity to do that, and we didn’t get it done. But again, I don’t sit there on the sidelines looking at the score the way it was and think, man, we’re a terrible football team. They’re this much better than us. That’s not how we feel. That’s not how we feel in the locker room. We feel like we didn’t do the things that we need to do to win a road divisional game like that, and we’ve just got to make those corrections and focus forward and move on.”