Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said his team’s failure to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010 is on him.
“I’m always responsible whenever we don’t win,” he said. “It’s always my job. I feel like I’ve not found the right buttons to push to get us where we need to be.
“I always take credit for that,” he continued. “I’m never going to blame somebody else. It’s my job to figure out why we don’t get it to where it needs to be. We’ve been short.”
Bengals cornerback Adam Jones had a sharp rebuttal when told of Lewis’ comments:
“Not true,” he said. “As a player, it’s all on us. Coaches coach, players play. Marvin can’t go out there and guard (Antonio Brown). He can’t tackle Le’Veon Bell. He can put us in great positions to make plays. Not one point today where we weren’t in good position.”
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Rookie kick returner Alex Erickson appeared to be on his way giving the Bengals a 24-6 lead in the second quarter when Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell drove and got just enough his right to bring down Erickson at the Steelers 26.
“I thought I was in the clear,” Erickson said. “I ran by him, and it’s like when you’re tripping somebody, he grabbed at my heel and it just clipped my leg.”
The Bengals drove for a first and goal at the 7 and got as deep as the 3, but they couldn’t punch the ball in from there and had to settle for a Randy Bullock 22-yard field goal that upped their lead to 20-6 with 2:51 left in the first half.
The 72-yard kick return was the second longest of the season for Erickson, who had an 84-yarder at New York against the Giants on Nov. 14 and entered the game ranked second in the league in that category.
“It was one of those plays, it’s positive but at the same time there’s more meat on the bone,” Erickson said. “I’d like to get it in the end zone. You never want to take those points for granted.”
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (26) looks for room to run during their game against the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2016. GREG LYNCH / STAFF
Clinging to the a 20-15 lead with 10 seconds left in the third quarter, the Bengals had the ball at their own 41 after Jeremy Hill converted a third-and-1 with a 2-yard gain.
But Dalton’s first-down pass intended for Tyler Boyd was intercepted by Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons while he was battling Bengals center Russell Bodine, who was inexplicably 9 yards down the field.
“It was a little miscommunication on that one,” Dalton said. “I have to make sure everyone is on the same page with it. But if I throw a better ball, that ball is complete for a big gain, so I should have thrown a better ball.”
It was the only turnover of the game, and the Steelers converted the short field into their sixth field goal to get within 20-18 with 12:25 to go.
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Boswell tied a Pittsburgh franchise record with six field goals and came within one of tying the mark for most by a Bengals opponent.
Boswell tied the team record shared by Gary Anderson, who kicked six in a 39-21 win vs. Denver in 1988, and Jeff Reed, who had six in a 25-23 victory at Jacksonville in 2002.
Kansas City’s Cairo Santos made seven against the Bengals last year in a 36-21 Cincinnati win.
Boswell made kicks of 49, 49, 49, 45, 40 and 30 yards to produce Pittsburgh’s first 18 points of the game as he became the first kicker in the league to make six in a game this year.
“Six for six,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. “He needs no endorsement from me. Shoot, I just gave him the game ball.”
Jake Fisher’s rise continued as he made his first true start since the Bengals drafted him in the second round out of Oregon last year.
Fisher made one official start as a rookie last year when he was in as an extra lineman for the first play of the Monday night loss to Houston on Nov. 16, but was used sparingly the rest of the season and the first 11 games this year.
But when the team benched Cedric Ogbuehi, last year’s first-round pick, two weeks ago, they began platooning Fisher and Eric Winston, with the 11-year veteran starting the rotation.
Instead of simply flipping the rotation, Fisher played the majority of the game and did a solid job against Bud Dupree (three tackles, no quarterback hits), while Winston only got a handful of snaps.
“When you can go out there right away and play and kind of manipulate the situation you’re in, and you get the chance to start and go right now instead of sitting on the bench and waiting for your time to come, it’s just a different mindset,” he said. “I think I’ve got a lot to improve on and I’ve got a lot to add.”
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins got credit for a sack in the third quarter when Ben Roethlisberger came up a yard shy of the line of scrimmage on a scramble in the third quarter.
It was Atkins’ third sack in the last two games – the two he had in Cleveland earned him the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award – and gave him 7.5 for the season, moving him ahead of defensive end Carlos Dunlap’s 7.0.
The last time Atkins led the Bengals in sacks was 2012 when he recorded a career-high 12.5. He also had a team-high 7.5 in 2011.