The Cincinnati Bengals' showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football was more than just a win—it showcased several things about the team that will have a lasting impact on the rest of the season.
Cincinnati successfully defended its home turf against Pittsburgh for only the third time since 2000, but it was a critical win giving the Bengals a head start in the AFC North.
Both sides of the ball had ups and downs, but at the end of the day Cincinnati was the clearly superior team—something many have said all offseason after another excellent draft.
The following slideshow will detail the biggest takeaways revealed about Cincinnati during the team's major win over the Steelers.
The popular consensus about the 2013 edition of the Cincinnati Bengals was the team would go as third-year quarterback Andy Dalton goes.
That was especially the case against Pittsburgh.
Dalton was horrific in the first two quarters, completing just 50 percent of his 32 attempts. In that time span the Bengals only mustered 10 points.
Things changed in the second half for Dalton as he looked more calm and was able to find big targets like Jermaine Gresham to finish the day with 280 yards for one touchdown and no interceptions.
Dalton ultimately thrives when he can find weapons such as Giovani Bernard, who can make plays after the catch. However, Dalton needs to be more consistent with his quality play when the Bengals encounter better opposition this season.
Another apparent issue area for the Cincinnati Bengals came by way of the coaching staff, particularly in the first half.
For some reason Marvin Lewis and Co. elected to take a pass-happy approach, at one point having a ratio of 23 passing attempts to just eight rushes despite finding success on the ground with the duo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.
Like Andy Dalton's play, things evened out in the second half as Dalton finished with 45 attempts and the team as a whole rushed 34 times.
Also of note was the waste of timeouts in the third quarter. Last week in Chicago saw this issue as the Bengals repeatedly had trouble getting the right players on the field.
While both minor issues against Pittsburgh, better teams will not allow Cincinnati to get away with such mistakes from the coaching staff. The good news is the issues are things that should be cleaned up as the season moves onward.
Much was made of the Cincinnati Bengals' first two draft selections this year, and for good reason—tight end Tyler Eifert and running back Giovani Bernard were special talents at the collegiate level.
Against Pittsburgh they proved to be special at the professional level as well.
Eifert proved to be one of Andy Dalton's favorite targets, catching three passes for 66 yards. One reception went for 61 and put the team in scoring position.
Bernard had an even bigger impact, scoring one touchdown on the ground on a seven-yard rush and scoring another through the air on a 27-yard reception and scamper. For a total of 65 yards and two scores, Bernard was effectively the MVP of the game.
All in all, the Bengals rookies have arrived in a big way. Credit to the coaching staff for using them properly, but most of all credit Eifert and Bernard for strong performances on a huge stage.
Surprise! The defense in Cincinnati is really good.
After laying a goose egg in the sack department last week, the Bengals came out and put constant pressure on Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Two sacks isn't an eye-popping number, but Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap had a massive impact on most snaps.
Much quieter was Geno Atkins, who for the second straight game has seen double-teams that effectively neutralized his impact from a pass-rush standpoint.
Outside of the spectacular rush, Cincinnati limited Roethlisberger to just over 250 yards passing and physically dominated the Steelers at the point of attack, holding the ground game to just 44 yards. That's especially impressive after the Bengals only had three healthy corners after Dre Kirkpatrick went down with an injury:
#Bengals down to three corners with Kirkpatrick out with a hamstring injury— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) September 17, 2013
Safety Reggie Nelson effectively ended the game with an interception, but overall the unit forced two turnovers. As expected, the defense carried the team as the offense struggled in the first half, but things had a way of working themselves out as the game wore on in the second half.
Interesting stories littered this heated rivalry, but two prominent factors to watch surrounded left tackle Andrew Whitworth and linebacker James Harrison.
Whitworth had missed most of the offseason while battling nagging injuries and missed the loss in Chicago last week. He made the start against Pittsburgh, but rotated in and out at times with backup Anthony Collins.
While Whitworth looked solid during his time in the game, including being in the middle of a fight near the end before being removed by the coaching staff, one has to wonder how healthy he is and if his substitutions were just a conditioning issue.
Of course there's Harrison, who finally got a shot of revenge at his old team. He responded by being a complete non-factor statistics wise. That's par for the course for the strong-side linebacker position in Cincinnati (Manny Lawson was that forgettable guy last year), but it is notable that Harrison is having little impact despite being a versatile pass-rushing option.
Both guys figure to see bigger roles and contributions in the coming weeks, but the game against Pittsburgh saw some interesting performances for these two to say the least.
The arrival of Tyler Eifert in Cincinnati via the draft all but spelled doom for Jermaine Gresham in the eyes of most.
After all, Gresham is in a contract year, bigger players such as A.J. Green need extensions and Gresham has struggled with drops in the past. A first-round rookie added to the mix suggested the writing was on the wall.
Except it's not—at all.
Against Pittsburgh, Gresham reeled in six receptions for 66 yards and was the second-highest-targeted player behind Green. Once again Gresham was a dominant force after the catch, bowling over defenders for extra yardage.
Multiple holding penalties need to be cleaned up, but Gresham is still stout as a blocker as well. In other words, Gresham's performance against Pittsburgh was business as usual and only reinforced the notion that he's a vital part of the offense.
What a day for rookie running back Giovani Bernard.
Bernard punched a touchdown in from seven yards out in the first half, but the Cincinnati coaching staff seemed intent on rolling with veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Until the second half hit.
Bernard was seen in the game much more in the second half until the last drive, where Green-Ellis was used to kill the clock. The highlight of his performance was the aforementioned 27-yard-touchdown in which he outran every player on the field after catching a simple reception over the middle.
Green-Ellis' 3.4 yards per carry compared with Bernard's 4.8 suggest a drastic shift in the carry distribution could be in the works. It certainly appeared that way in the second half.
Whether that's Bernard seeing even or more carries than Green-Ellis until the veteran comes in late in games to beat up defenses, or Bernard just seeing more time throughout, the writing is on the wall—one back is extremely effective in Cincinnati. The other has his uses, but the offense is less effective.
Bernard's performance against the Steelers may have earned him more playing time from here on out.
Is this the game the Cincinnati Bengals grew up before our eyes?
This particular squad of young Bengals is known for struggling when it matters most. Back-to-back playoff losses to the Houston Texans and only three victories against teams with winning records in the prior two years reinforce that notion.
Here on Monday Night Football, a passing of the torch may have just occurred. While the Bengals finally won a big game under the national spotlight, Pittsburgh isn't the toughest of opposition this year (as of now, at least).
While the win is absolutely huge for the franchise, tests against the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers in the next three weeks will tell us if this Cincinnati squad has finally taken the next step.
It's early, but the Bengals seem to have solved at least one issue that has prevented the team from excelling in recent years.
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