The Bengals Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Cincinnati had at least five chances to put away the Steelers, but instead open the season with a heartbreaking loss.
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For a team that went to the Super Bowl, the Bengals had an awful lot of things to improve upon during the offseason. To their credit, they appeared to have addressed those weaknesses. But you sure wouldn’t have known that after Sunday’s indescribable 23-20 overtime loss to Pittsburgh.

You name a Bengals bugaboo, it was all there. Poor O-line play? After all the talk during the offseason, Burrow was sacked on the game’s very first play. He went down seven times overall and frequently had a blocker pushed into his face. Turnovers? Burrow revisited his loose play from the first half of 2021 by throwing four picks, plus losing a fumble. Bad red zone execution? Coming up short inside the 5 twice prevented the team from winning comfortably in regulation time. Sloppy coaching decisions? Zac Taylor blew a chance to challenge a clear Ja’Marr Chase TD, forgot to take a delay of game penalty when punting in the dying seconds of overtime, and continued to trot out an enormously predictable offensive scheme—notably the fact that when Burrow is under center the team runs virtually every time (16 of 18 snaps on Sunday).

For all of that, if long snapper Clark Harris didn’t get injured late in the game, forcing Mitchell Wilcox to play emergency snapper, Cincinnati wins anyway.

Instead, Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, and Cam Heyward get to feel great all week. Had this performance come against any team but the Steelers, it would be far easier to shrug off. I worry not so much about losing a game to a division rival as I do the fact that this current group of Bengals was refreshingly devoid of “Pittsburghitis,” the dread feeling that no matter what happens the Bengals will find a way to lose to their most hated rival. Cincinnati had won three in a row, all convincingly, and the best part of last year’s games was how boring they were. The Steelers never were in either game, and Burrow mostly savaged them through the air. Vonn Bell crushing JuJu Smith-Schuster appeared to have swapped the team’s identities for the immediate future.

Had the Bengals taken advantage of any of their multiple opportunities to steal Sunday’s game, the roles would have been reversed, with Pittsburgh suffering a bit of “Bengalsitis.” They’d be left feeling that no matter how well they played (or, more accurately, how poorly Cincinnati played) Burrow and Chase et al would find a way to snag the W. It was all there for the taking. Instead, not only are the Bengals 0-1 and alone in last place in the AFC North, the Steelers have dented the invincibility Burrow & Co. were hoping to build upon after last season. Ugh.

Still, it wasn’t all as bad as it seemed. Look deeper, and the offensive line actually played fairly well. The key is the snap count. The Bengals offense was on the field for an incredible 100 plays, counting ones called back by penalty. In that context, seven sacks (of which at least a couple if not more were coverage sacks) isn’t that bad. The new guys, especially Ted Karras and Alex Cappa, were solid. The lack of push in the red zone run game remains troubling, but Joe Mixon didn’t do much beyond his one long fourth down burst. He wasn’t making anyone miss, even when the plays were blocked well. Part of that was due to Fitzpatrick, who had an incredible game even beyond the splash pick-six and blocked PAT. On a number of occasions he stopped sizable gains by getting Mixon down one-on-one. But Joe hasn’t been especially elusive since the midpoint of last season. He needs to regain his mojo when it comes to swivel.

Evan McPherson may have botched the last two potential game-winning kicks, but even though he took the blame postgame (“I could have made the 29-yarder with my left foot”) it was obvious the lack of cohesion without Harris was a factor. Plus it’s hard to get down on a guy when he makes a franchise-record 59-yarder earlier on in the game. Shooter will be fine.

Lost in the game’s ending madness was the fact that the defense basically prevented Pittsburgh from doing anything. Frankly, that’s as it should be against an offense that limited. Take away the points handed the Steelers by short fields and the pick-six, and the game is a rout. Even their sole offensive TD was a gift, the result of a highly dubious pass interference called on Chidobe Awuzie on third and goal. The dominance made the final game-winning drive so hard to stomach. A tie would have been bitter, but giving up two big plays after shutting down the Steelers for so long was plain toxic.

As for Joey B., clearly we brushed off his emergency appendectomy this summer a bit too cavalierly. Not only was he rusty with no preseason game action and a lot of missed practice time, but he lacked zip on his throws and the masterful pocket presence he usually displays. Matters obviously improved as the game went along, and he made several big time throws as he brought Cincinnati back, none bigger of course than the (should woulda coulda) game-winner to Chase.

Much like the first half of last season was inconsistent as Burrow worked his way back into pre-knee surgery shape, he clearly needs that this year as well. This surgery wasn’t as traumatic and the recovery easier, so he probably won’t require nearly as long to get to his normal fantabulousness. Fingers crossed, anyway.

Next up for the Bengals is a trip to Dallas, a place Cincinnati seldom plays well. I happened to be in JerryWorld the last time the teams clashed in Texas, in 2016, Dak Prescott and Zeke Elliott’s rookie season. The Cowboys destroyed the Bengals that afternoon, in a game I always think of as the beginning of the end of the Marvin Lewis era.

Of course, things are a bit different now. For starters, Prescott is injured and will miss the game, leaving Cincinnati to deal with Cooper Rush. Fortunately, Rush had his “wow” game last season, leading Dallas to a shocking win at Minnesota on Halloween night. Given the Bengals’ sorry history against backup quarterbacks, they’re hardly a sure thing, especially with Menacing Micah Parsons ready to set up camp in the Cincinnati backfield. Still, man for man the Bengals are largely better than the Pokes and should win the game without requiring a miracle finish.

Of course, that’s what we thought about the Steelers, too.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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