The Cincinnati Bengals couldn’t hold on to a late lead against the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers – again – and they lost their seventh in a row in the series in familiar fashion.
Joe Mixon’s 4-yard touchdown run put the Bengals up by one with 1:18 left, but the defense couldn’t make it hold, as Pittsburgh answered on Ben Roethlisberger’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown with 10 seconds on the clock for a 28-21 win Sunday in front of 60,594 fans at Paul Brown Stadium.
Cincinnati has given up fourth-quarter leads in the last four games against Pittsburgh.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
1. Game-winning drive came too easily
After Chris Boswell extended Pittsburgh’s lead to 20-14 with 3:32 left, the Bengals responded with a 75-yard scoring drive, but when Mixon ran it in for his third touchdown of the season, there was still plenty of time remaining for the Steelers to answer, especially with three timeouts in their pocket.
The Bengals had Pittsburgh on the ropes when Roethlisberger’s deep pass on third-and-10 from his own 41-yard line fell incomplete, but Dre Kirkpatrick was called for a holding penalty for an automatic first down.
Roethlisberger connected with JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 23-yard gain the next play, and then he found Brown wide open on a short pass up the middle for the game-winning touchdown.
“It feels like we should have won today, and it feels like we’re going to win the next time we play them,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “We shoot ourselves in the foot. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot on offense, whether it’s assignment based today or whether it’s penalties in the past. We have to correct that. It’s all on us. It’s not something they are doing that’s mind-boggling or taking us back. We just have to get that fixed.”
Safety Clayton Fejedelem said it wasn’t a matter of the offense leaving too much time on the clock, either, because the defense just needed to do its job.
2. Possible pick opened Brown up
Many of the Bengals players thought Steelers wide receiver Justin Hunter should have been called for offensive pass interference for a pick he set on cornerback Tony McRae to open up Brown on the game-winning touchdown.
“It was clear as day so what are you going to do,” Fejedelem said of the play. “Hopefully you back him up and get them out of field goal range and make a stop there, but that’s all in hindsight.”
The Bengals were blitzing up the middle to leave a gap in coverage, which Brown ran right into with help from Hunter’s block, but no there were no flags thrown, to Cincinnati’s dismay. Fejedelem said those plays just depend on who is officiating because it can be called unintentional.
3. Defense struggled all day
The Bengals were fortunate to even have a chance at this game with the way the defense was giving up big chunks of yards .
Pittsburgh had its way with the Cincinnati defense all day between the 20s, as James Conner rushed for 111 yards and two touchdown on 19 carries in the final game before Le’Veon Bell is expected to return from a contract holdout, and Roethlisberger finished with 368 yards and one touchdown.
The Steelers totaled 481 yards of offense, and it didn’t matter who was on the field for them, as they took advantage of a depleted Bengals defense. Darqueze Dennard (right shoulder) and Shawn Williams (concussion) both left the game with injuries in the second and third quarters, respectively, and at one point corners Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson were both out getting looked at. When the Steelers weren’t testing what was left of the defensive backs, they pounded the middle of the field with runs by Conner.
“When we get depleted, we have to step up and get to the next guy, and the next guy has to make a play,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.
4. Offense fell into a lull
The game was tied 14-14 at halftime, but the Bengals managed just four yards of offense in the third quarter and didn’t really have anything going until Mixon’s go-ahead touchdown.
The Bengals had 119 yards in the fourth quarter, including 75 on that drive, which was helped by a 16-yard interference penalty and two long passes to Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green.
The offense hasn’t been the same since Tyler Eifert’s season-ending injury at Atlanta in Week 4 and with John Ross not on the field taking double teams away from Green and Boyd. The Bengals haven’t had Mixon and Giovani Bernard playing together since the home opener win against Baltimore.
Dalton, who was sacked three times, finished with 229 yards passing and two first-half touchdowns to Boyd, and Mixon had 64 yards on just 11 carries. Green caught seven passes for 85 yards and had two drops, Boyd added 62 yards on seven catches and Uzomah caught six passes for 54 yards.
5. Frustrating loss
Cincinnati accomplished its task of staying poised for the most part but still couldn’t finish off a win.
There were just 15 penalties for less than 100 yards combined between the teams, and there was only one obvious questionable hit that the league could decide to revisit – a possible helmet-to-helmet hit Vontaze Burfict made on Brown in the third quarter. Brown left for two plays but returned after getting checked out on the sideline.
After the game, there was a scuffle at midfield near the Bengals sideline, but it broke up quickly.
Uzomah and Vinny Rey both said the frustration over the loss was more about losing an advantage in the division, rather than about it coming against the Steelers.
“It’s mainly because they are a team in our division and we were playing at home,” Uzomah said. “That’s what hurts the most because we want to go undefeated in our division and we want to be undefeated at home. That gives us a great opportunity, and it sets us up nice and pretty for the playoffs. I think that’s what stings the most right now, not necessarily for me that it’s the Steelers. Obviously, I want to beat them but it’s more those two factors that are gut-wrenching.”