At 3-3, the Cincinnati Bengals were perfectly poised to take over what seems to be rapidly becoming a wide-open AFC North division. Instead, they were completely outplayed by the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, losing 24-17 on Sunday night.
Aside from a strong first quarter, which featured good rushes by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, there were few bright spots for the Bengals on either offense or defense.
On the day, the Bengals offense held the ball for just 22:30 (compared to 37:20 for Pittsburgh), had just 185 total yards (to Pittsburgh's 431) and couldn't contain either Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or fill-in running back Jonathan Dwyer.
It was a third straight disappointing performance for second-year Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. After starting the season strong, with no signs of a sophomore slump, things have been getting worse and worse for him over the past three games. This time, he completed just 14 of his 28 pass attempts for 105 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
In the past two weeks, defensive pressure had much to do with Dalton's struggles. This week, Dalton wasn't sacked once, but he was stymied by the Steelers secondary's blanket coverage. His top receiver was Ryan Whalen, who saw his first action of the season thanks to injuries to both Armon Binns and Marvin Jones (the latter hurt on the game's opening kickoff)—but he caught just four passes for 31 yards.
A.J. Green, who has proved a matchup nightmare for even the best cornerbacks he's seen, was effectively nonexistent. He had only one catch on six targets for a mere eight yards—his team's second and final touchdown. The other score came on a five-yard run by Cedric Peerman, again, his only carry on the day.
On defense, the Bengals were overtaken by both Pittsburgh's running and passing games. They gave up 10 third-down conversions on 16 attempts and couldn't do much off of the two Ben Roethlisberger turnovers they forced (a Chris Crocker interception and Wallace Gilberry sack-fumble).
Most disturbingly, they allowed a total of 167 Steelers rushing yards, 122 of which belonged to Dwyer on 17 carries. This was the league's 31st-ranked rushing offense headed into this game, and though the Bengals defense hasn't been particularly impressive against the run, there was no indication they'd be trampled in this manner by Dwyer or any running back this week.
What's most troubling about this Bengals loss is how it further continues the slide the team has been in since their loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 5.
What seemed like a brief stumble now appears to be a legitimate downward spiral, with Dalton leading the way and the rest of the team following suit—save, I will note, rookie linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who led the team with 15 total tackles and made up for many of the failings on his side of the ball.
In the second quarter, the Bengals were up 14-3; the Steelers then scored 10 more points to the Bengals' three. It was a collapse of both sides of the ball: The Bengals offense couldn't stay on the field long enough to make the necessary plays, and their defense couldn't stop the Steelers from making plays of their own.
Dating back to last season, the Bengals have yet to beat a playoff team. If they want to see the postseason for a second consecutive season, playing games in this manner is not the way to do it. Luckily, the Bengals have a bye in Week 8; they sorely need the time off to stop the bleeding and reverse the trend of losing they haven't been able to shake on the playing field.