Can the Bengals Rebound from Another Ugly Steelers Loss?

Nothing went right in Pittsburgh, as usual. Now it’s on to the nation’s capital and a winnable game against the Washington Football Team.

I am quite tempted to say absolutely nothing about Sunday’s embarrassing loss to Pittsburgh, one of a series of such defeats that spans the last, oh, half-century or so. I was really hoping that the dawn of the Joe Burrow Era would bring at least a glimpse of a reset into the bully/punk dynamic that exists between the two franchises, but that will have to wait—at least until the rematch next month at PBS.

Let’s face it: There wasn’t really much doubt this was going to happen, given the way the injury and COVID-19 lists for the respective teams played out during the week. At one stage it appeared Ben Roethlisberger might be forced to miss the game, either to injury or quarantine; but of course he played. At one stage it appeared Cincinnati would be relatively healthy for the game; but of course they were anything but.

Instead, the Steelers QB was gifted an opposing defense short of a couple of healthy corners and no pass rush, not to mention missing several coaches who were put in the COVID protocol. No-name Bengals players like Jalen Davis and Xavier Williams were forced into large roles. The pickings were predictably easy in what turned into a 36-10 rout, the 11th straight loss to the thugs from western PA.

Meanwhile, the explosive offense that had cruised up and down the field for a month got sidetracked during the bye week. It’s hardly unusual for a strong Bengals offense to sputter when facing a Pittsburgh defense, but this was an atrocious display, especially going 0-for-13, a big doughnut hole for a baker’s dozen, on third down. Since most of them were third and long—only twice were fewer than six yards needed to convert, and seven of them needed nine or more yards—the low conversion percentage was hardly surprising, if incredibly ugly to watch.

The worst part was seeing Burrow get indoctrinated into the shadowy aspect of the Bengals-Steelers rivalry. Pittsburgh has been taking cheap shots at Cincinnati players for decades now; you no doubt know the list by heart. Sunday saw a typical version as linebacker Bud Dupree sent a scrambling Burrow sprawling into the bench area, an unnecessary shove that resulted in a rolled ankle that doubtless affected Burrow’s play, even if he soft-pedaled the play and the injury after the game.

Burrow was also left needlessly in the game to absorb more useless punishment after the result was no longer in doubt. “I’m not a quitter,” the valiant rookie QB said after the game, and there is merit in his attitude. But Zac Taylor needs to take the long view—nothing will be gained by playing the franchise quarterback in that scenario, and plenty can be lost.

Bengals Twitter made a mountain out of the dropped interceptions by Sam Hubbard and Jessie Bates, but to me they were molehills. Hubbard would have had to apply a Fred Biletnikoff-level of stickum to his hands to catch a Roethlisberger bullet from just a couple of yards away (though it was similar to the play J.J. Watt made back in the 2011 wild-card game to seal the first playoff loss of the Andy Dalton Era). Bates clearly should have had a pick-six, which would have burnished his All-Pro candidacy, but failing to make it a 29-14 game early in the fourth quarter doesn’t exactly reek of a comeback-killing play. Cincinnati lost a glimmer of respectability with Bates’ drop, that’s all.

Similarly, Alex Erickson’s first quarter fumbled punt was bad, but I’ve seen too many games in this series where the Bengals hit the Steelers with several early roundhouse rights only to be reined in and lose going away anyway. The turnover certainly didn’t help, and as Erickson provides little breakaway threat, catching and holding on to the ball on punts is about all he’s on the team to do. It was his 12th fumble as a Bengal (albeit only his fifth lost one), but it wasn’t the backbreaker it was made out to be.

Overall, though, it was a horrendous team effort. Meanwhile, the Miami Dolphins have rebounded from a disastrous 2019 to become one of the AFC’s half-dozen best teams, with a similar paucity of big names (save their rookie quarterback) but a pugnacious style and brilliant coaching from Brian Flores. It’s hard not to be jealous.

Let’s move on to this weekend’s date with the Washington No Nicknames, who at 2-7 actually have a worse record than Cincinnati. COVID is casting a large shadow over this one, as the NFL has placed all 32 teams in intensive protocol for the rest of the season. The four Bengals coaches who missed the Steelers game are conducting virtual meetings along with the other staff, plus increased distancing at practice. As last Sunday showed, the league is clearly determined to get these games in by hook or by crook, so at this point there’s no reason to assume a rescheduling; then again, things can change quickly this season.

Washington was considered an almost automatic win back in those glorious days after the Bengals beat Tennessee. Now, however, it looks much tougher, which is the more accurate take. The oddsmakers agree, installing Washington as an early 1.5-point favorite.

The incredible comeback story of Alex Smith has yet to produce a signature moment, though it seemed the script was prepared last Sunday, when he led his team back from a 24-3 hole to tie Detroit, only for the Lions to win on a last-second field goal. Smith, who many compared to Burrow in terms of underrated athleticism and innate traits, isn’t the player he once was—but he’s still capable of shredding a subpar defense, which is what the Bengals possess. Washington’s skill players are an unheralded but decent group, especially wideout Terry McLaurin, and are almost certain to put up some points and move the ball.

The Bengals are accustomed to playing the victims in the heroic stories of their opponents. They’ll have to play above themselves so that Smith doesn’t collect his first win since his horrifying leg injury and have the football world applaud his comeback at our expense.

Most worrying from a Cincinnati perspective is D.C.’s strong pass rush, led by rookie Chase Young, the second pick behind Burrow back in April. Overall, the Washington defense is a sturdy seventh in DVOA and just a hint behind the Steelers for the top spot in Adjusted Sack Rate (the Bengals allowed the two teams to flip this weekend). It will be another test for Cincinnati’s makeshift offensive line and for the bloodied but (hopefully) unbowed quarterback who’s reliant upon it.

It won’t be an easy trip to the nation’s capital, but there is one factor working in Cincinnati’s favor. At least they’re not playing Pittsburgh.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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