Cincinnati gave up just one touchdown but struggled to stop Pittsburgh’s running game and was hurt by a few explosive plays that led to points, and the offense couldn’t find the consistency to overcome that. Here are five takeaways from the loss:
1. Running game falls short
Browning completed 19 of 26 passes for 227 yards and one touchdown to Drew Sample, but struggled to consistently operate the offense while the running game was producing just 2.3 yards per carry. Joe Mixon finished with eight carries for 16 yards, and the only other player to run the ball was Browning, whose three carries for nine yards put the Bengals at 11 carries for 25 total rushing yards.
Cincinnati’s running game has been among the worst in the league this season, but it was unusually bad Sunday. It was Mixon’s lowest rushing total since Week 7 of 2019 when he had two yards.
“That’s life versus Pittsburgh, you know that’s what’s going to happen,” Bengals coach Zac Taylor said. “It’s going to be tough sledding when you’re running the ball, and we need to get more production out of that. It takes pressure off the pass game. ... So, we’ve got to do a better job managing the drives as we go and put ourselves in more advantageous situations.”
Taylor said “this has nothing to do with Joe Mixon” because it’s on the entire unit.
2. Browning mistake was game-changer
The Bengals had some confidence Browning could lead them to a victory when they came out of halftime with a 7-3 lead and moved into the redzone the opening drive of the second half, but Browning misread the defense and threw an interception that changed the game.
On third-and-7 from the Pittsburgh 18-yard line, Browning threw a pass intended for Ja’Marr Chase and Trenton Thompson stepped in front of it, and the Steelers scored on the ensuing drive to take the lead for good.
“I knew we had points, so we called basically just a slot curl concept,” Browning said. “I felt like it was cover three, but it ended up being two-invert. I was just trying to get the ball to Ja’Marr (Chase) quickly and not go backwards, get an easy field goal. The guy just kept buzzing out there, and I made a bad read.”
A field goal would have put the Bengals up 16-7, and that might have been enough to win the game, but it was still early enough even without those points, Cincinnati should have been able to overcome the lone turnover for the offense.
3. Run defense and explosive plays
The Steelers rushed for 153 yards on 33 carries, including 99 yards and a touchdown for Najee Harris, and Pittsburgh had six plays of 20 yards or more – starting with a 24-yard pass from Kenny Pickett to tight end Pat Freiermuth on the first play from scrimmage.
Four of those explosives were on scoring drives.
Harris rushed for 20 yards on the Steelers’ second drive and that play was followed by Kenny Pickett’s 39-yard pass to Diontae Johnson on third-and-3 to get to the Bengals’ 23-yard line. Pittsburgh didn’t get any further than that, but Chris Boswell made the first of his three field goals to get the Steelers on the board first, up 3-0 with 12:39 left in the second quarter.
Pickett also connected with George Pickens on a 43-yard pass to set up the second field goal that made it 13-7 with a little more than eight minutes left. Harris’ 22-yard run later in the fourth quarter led to the final field goal to make it 16-7 with 2:51 remaining.
“Obviously, we gave up too many explosive plays,” defensive tackle Zach Carter said. “We could have been better containing in some areas, but overall, I saw the fight in the guys. We were on the field a lot, but guys were fighting and going to war.”
4. Plug-and-play offense
The Bengals said they weren’t going to change their offense with the switch from Burrow to Browning, and that apparently wasn’t just coach speak. They still ran the same plays, and it very much looked like they were just plugging in a new quarterback.
Browning said that was important to him to have the entire playbook available to him, and he thought there were some good things he did, as well as things he needs to work on, but the performance wasn’t what he would expect it to be.
Part of that was the defense he faced with a tough front five that included outside linebackers TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith and disruptive defensive tackles like Cam Heyward. Browning was sacked four times, including twice by Watt, but especially early in the game, he was holding onto the ball too long.
“The more he gets to play, the more comfortable he’s going to be,” Taylor said. “That’s one of the better defensive lines in the NFL. They pose a lot of issues. When you get behind and they get to really play to their strengths, that becomes a challenge. We’ve got to do a better job of taking that pressure off of him and finding a way to play through.”
5. Playoff hopes disappearing
Cincinnati (5-6) still doesn’t have an AFC North win, has dropped three straight games and is relying on a backup quarterback to lead it through the final six games while Joe Burrow is scheduled to undergo wrist surgery Monday.
But Sunday’s loss especially stung considering it was such a low-scoring and winnable game that could have put Cincinnati back above .500. Instead, the Bengals are falling further and further out of the playoff picture, while all three other AFC North teams remain in the top 7 of the AFC. They next play Jacksonville (8-3), which is currently in the top position, on Dec. 4.
“We just have to move our focus forward,” Taylor said. “There’s nothing we can do to change this one. It’s important that these guys just continue to step up, these guys are going to remain close. Our attention to detail is going to continue to be sharp, and we will find ways to win in December.”
Monday, Dec. 4
Bengals at Jaguars, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7