The Bengals Pillage Pittsburgh, and All Is Well

Cincinnati needs to avoid a post-Steeler letdown as winless Jacksonville comes to town for a Thursday night game.

You know, I almost pitied Pittsburgh. At some point near the end of Cincinnati’s comprehensive 24-10 throttling of the hated Steelers on Sunday, as Ben Roethlisberger stumbled around like a drunken sailor while his receivers let balls drop like they were the Venus de Milo, his offensive line making the Bengals look like the Seven Blocks of Granite, the Steelers defense mainly infirm and watching in street clothes … I felt a rising well of sympathy for this once elite group reduced to such a sorry state.

I kid, of course. Not having won a Super Bowl—or many playoff games for that matter—Bengals Nation takes outsized pride in defeating Pittsburgh, another accomplishment that comes all too rarely around here. This one was an even rarer beast: a thorough ass-kicking on both sides of the ball, in both trenches, and even on the sideline, where Zac Taylor’s ball control scheme and first half aggression wrong-footed Mike Tomlin. The 14-point final margin felt small; although it was the largest margin of victory over the black and gold since 1995, it sure felt more like a 30-3 whipping.

I mean, who else had the Bengals ending Pittsburgh’s 75-game sack streak? Joe Burrow threw for three touchdowns, and the protection was exemplary on each, culminating in a fifth-read strike to Ja’Marr Chase that was the quarterback equivalent of chilling in a recliner and sipping on fine Tennessee whiskey. He threw it just 18 times (dropping back 22 times), always a good recipe when the other team is struggling offensively. That allowed fewer chances for the O-line to miscommunicate and for rookie Jackson Carman, making his first start, to settle in just fine.

Meanwhile, Burrow showed he was his pre-injury self on a pair of plays, one a magic act scramble, the other an audible to a quarterback draw and a dive for a key first down. The first three games have seen a clear protective game plan, with plenty of early down runs and quick hitters designed to ease Burrow back into action. The good news is they’ve managed to sprinkle in a few deep shots to Chase as well.

The Bengals have definitively reignited the explosive element the offense hasn’t possessed since A.J. Green was fully healthy. Chase’s touchdown at the end of the first half Sunday displayed every reason he was a top-five pick. He fought through tight one-on-one coverage, accelerated past the corner, and made a sensational catch of the back half the ball in the end zone. Plus, his Griddy move was tight. Even with the usual Bengals-Steelers history stuff hanging over all of us, it sure felt in that moment like something had changed.

Meanwhile, the defense is reaching heights not seen since the Mike Zimmer era. The gobs of money the team spent on that side of the ball over the past two seasons looks well spent at the moment. The tackle rotation continues to be dominant, especially Larry Ogunjobi, who was spectacular at three-tech against a neophyte interior on the Steelers line. Logan Wilson has emerged as a top-flight linebacker, especially in the pass game, as evidenced by his three picks in over the last five quarters. The secondary clamped down on Pittsburgh’s receivers, giving Roethlisberger nowhere to go but endless checkdowns to Najee Harris.

After three games (warning: small sample size!) Cincinnati ranks fourth in defensive DVOA, with the NFL’s second-best run defense and eighth-best pass defense. This is rarefied air for the much-overrun unit and a very pleasant development, especially while the offense tiptoes back into the deep end of the pool.

The next test comes a little quicker this week—indeed, tonight! It’s the Bengals’ annual trip to Thursday Night Football, with the winless Jaguars coming in for what should be a special night at Paul Brown Stadium. The long-awaited and debated Ring of Honor at last gets its reveal, and there should be a great feeling in the air as Paul Brown, Anthony Munoz, Ken Anderson, and Ken Riley get their names permanently emblazoned atop the stadium. It helps the overall vibe that the team has looked mostly good and the opponent hasn’t.

Jacksonville is in a complete rebuild under Urban Meyer. It’s easy to mock the Jags, who are 31st in DVOA, while only the Jets and Falcons have a worse point differential. But they looked fairly competent against Arizona last Sunday before coming apart in the fourth quarter. Jax can run it a bit—only five teams have a positive rush DVOA in the entire NFL, and the Jags are one of them—and the special teams are pretty good, highlighted by that long missed field goal return Sunday that caused Gus Johnson to lose his mind. And, of course, they have Trevor Lawrence at quarterback.

Lawrence has been pretty bad through three games (seven picks) as he learns just how hard the NFL can be without the extreme talent advantage he worked with at Clemson. Burrow learned those same lessons, if somewhat quicker. Nevertheless, two or three times a game he unleashes special plays that display the traits that made him the slam dunk top overall pick in the draft.

In other words, dismiss this game as an easy win at your peril. These are the Bengals, still: High expectations and chalked-up victories often blow up in our collective faces. The week after the emotional Steelers games are often letdowns, and the injury list is long from the bruising encounter. It’s a tricky short week at the best of times. I’m not looking for style points here, just get off the field with a victory, any victory, and it’s all good.

Should that happen, Cincinnati would be 3-1 at the quarter pole, about the best-case scenario when looking at the schedule pre-season. The next quartet of games is tricky. Aaron Rodgers and the mercurial Packers come to town in 10 days, followed by a three-game roadie whose brutality is softened by the fact that two of them are against the winless Lions and the hapless Jets. Lamar and the purple-clad boys from Baltimore are sandwiched between those two.

Looking farther ahead than that is folly in the week-to-week anarchy of the NFL, but this much is certain: Heading into that stretch at 3-1, with a road win over Pittsburgh under their belt, would be as good a start to the “New Dey” as possible.

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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