Bengals vs. Steelers: Takeaways from Cincinnati's 30-20 Loss to Pittsburgh
The results were not pretty for the team that calls the Queen City home.
Cincinnati put together a woeful performance in a 30-20 loss and had the look of an inexperienced team in its first big game.
Coach Marvin Lewis and the Bengals entered the game with a shot to claim the No. 2 seed in the AFC and sit in the driver's seat for home-field advantage in the playoffs. Instead, the loss places Cincinnati's playoff hopes seeding-wise in jeopardy and opens the door for the Baltimore Ravens to steal the AFC North crown.
Here are the biggest takeaways from the stunning loss.
Special Teams Are Suddenly a Major Issue
The Cincinnati Bengals special teams unit had performed at a high level all season before the team's Week 15 contest, but that came crashing down in the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
First, it was a bad snap on a punt deep in their own territory. Punter Kevin Huber bobbled it and was downed just outside of the end zone, which allowed the Steelers to take an early lead via a Le'Veon Bell rushing touchdown shortly after.
Later in the first, Huber was blindsided on a Pittsburgh return and suffered a fractured jaw, per ESPN:
Best wishes on a speedy recovery to Bengals punter Kevin Huber who suffered a fractured jaw tonight vs. Pittsburgh.— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) December 16, 2013
As David Chao, a former NFL head team physician, illustrates, the outlook for that type of injury is not good:
Fractured jaw in NFL player often means IR. Many times requires surgery and/or jaw wired shut. Best wishes to @Bengals punter Kevin Huber.— David J. Chao, MD (@ProFootballDoc) December 16, 2013
Kicker Mike Nugent handled punting issues the rest of the game, but now the Bengals have some work to do when it comes to fixing the special teams unit with just two games to go before the playoffs.
Cincinnati Desperately Needs to Play at Home in the Postseason
If there is one major takeaway from Cincinnati's loss to Pittsburgh, it is that the Bengals must be at Paul Brown Stadium by the time the postseason rolls around.
Cincinnati remains undefeated at home this year with a 6-0 mark, but it is now 3-5 on the road in 2013.
The road losses came to tough teams, too. A 24-21 loss to playoff-bound Chicago in Week 1 was more telling than most could have originally thought. Cincinnati has now lost on the road to two scrappy AFC North teams in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, as well as Miami and Baltimore teams that have been in the playoff race all season.
None of the above bodes well for the Bengals if they are to hit the road in the playoffs. Close road wins over Buffalo, Detroit and San Diego this year are great, but clearly the young Bengals prefer a friendly environment.
Lack of Terence Newman Is a Big Problem
The Cincinnati Bengals went without starting cornerback Terence Newman Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers, meaning the team's top two corners were out when taking into account Leon Hall's season-ending injury early in the year.
The results were ugly.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dissected the normally stout Cincinnati secondary with a 20-of-25 line for 191 yards and one touchdown and interception.
Second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick was routinely picked on by the Pittsburgh offense, but Adam Jones held up his end of the deal for the most part.
The woes without Newman should not have been difficult to see coming. Newman ranked as the No. 29 corner in the NFL coming into the game per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which was a great mark for a list that measures 111 players.
One thing is for sure—the Bengals are in trouble if Newman cannot get healthy by the postseason.
Dre Kirkpatrick Remains a Liability
In recent weeks, Cincinnati Bengals second-year cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had shown flashes of ability as his playing time received an uptick.
On Sunday Night Football against Pittsburgh, Kirkpatrick took countless steps backward in his major stab at quality playing time as he got the start for the injured Newman.
The issues started from the opening gun as ESPN's Coley Harvey illustrates:
First play of the game and Dre Kirkpatrick flagged for a Facemask. Not a good start for the youngster making his first start. #Bengals— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) December 16, 2013
But Bleacher Report's Andrea Hangst put it best:
Going to be a long rough one for Dre Kirkpatrick. But he needs this. First round pick, after all.— Andrea Hangst (@FBALL_Andrea) December 16, 2013
It sure was. The Alabama product was targeted all night long by Pittsburgh, regardless of who he was covering. It is a strategy the Steelers used to great success, and other teams will too, should Kirkpatrick remain in a starting role.
Kirkpatrick did need the playing time after missing the majority of his rookie year, but a trial under the national microscope was simply asking too much.
Injuries Beginning to Catch Up to Offensive Line
The Cincinnati Bengals had done well in recent weeks to counteract the injury bug along the offensive line with scrappy play.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth kicked inside to guard, backup swing tackle Anthony Collins played left tackle and career-backup Mike Pollak started at right tackle. These moves were in response to an injury that has kept left guard Clint Boling from two games and right guard Kevin Zeitler from four.
As a whole, it was hard to tell replacements were even in the lineup the past few weeks. ESPN's Coley Harvey posted a telling stat:
Quarterback Andy Dalton was under constant fire on Sunday night against Pittsburgh and was sacked once.
Whitworth was hit with a penalty, Pollak was routinely run over and right tackle Andre Smith continued his erratic play.
The Steelers are known for their defense, but this was an unexpectedly poor showing from the Cincinnati front. Health and better production are a must in the final two games of the year.
Defense Has Some Soul Searching to Do
Fans in the Queen City have known for quite some time that the 2013 edition of the Cincinnati Bengals is very much like the squads of the last three or more years in that the team will go as far as the defense can carry the load.
In Week 15, the defense let the team down.
Part of the issue was the unit being placed in horrible scenarios, such as a goal-line stand early in the game after a special teams gaffe.
But the majority of the blame goes on defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. The unit inexplicably stopped blitzing consistently as ESPN's Coley Harvey details:
A couple things about #Bengals D tonight: not blitzing as regularly as usual, not getting any real pressure on Ben, DreK getting picked on— Coley Harvey (@ColeyHarvey) December 16, 2013
Not only that, Zimmer once again pulled a dumbfounding move he has attempted a few times this season, by only rushing two players against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the second quarter.
The result? A 12-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, which put the Bengals in a 14-0 hole.
It makes no sense to drop defensive tackles into coverage on any play, but especially not against Roethlisberger, who is known for picking apart secondaries when given time.
Zimmer also simply failed to adapt. Pittsburgh came out with a no-huddle, get-the-ball-out-fast approach to counter the Cincinnati pass rush. The Bengals simply never countered with an answer.
As Does an Anemic Offense
For weeks, the Cincinnati Bengals offense has been inconsistent.
In Week 14, the Bengals went out and were 50 percent on third downs and racked up 430 total yards and 42 points against the Indianapolis Colts.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati went just 4-of-14 on third down and mustered 279 total yards and 20 points—14 of which came in the fourth quarter with the game in hand.
The offensive strategy from coordinator Jay Gruden was once against head-scratching at times. A bevvy of dropped passes didn't help, but Gruden failed to incorporate his tight ends. Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert combined for six receptions and 56 yards and a touchdown for the rookie, which came in garbage time.
In turn, the running game was ineffective with just 57 total rushing yards. The unit was also once again handicapped by quarterback Andy Dalton's inability to throw the ball down the field—Gruden rarely attempted to do so.
A conservative, short attack does not always work, especially against units of Pittsburgh's stature—which the Bengals will surely encounter in the postseason.
The Bengals May Not Be Ready to Contend
It was an embarrassing trip to Heinz Field for the Cincinnati Bengals in a loss to a five-win team.
Perhaps NBC's Rodney Harrison, via Lance McAlister of 700 WLW, put it best at halftime:
"The #Bengals are not a mentally tough team, they don't win games like this,"-Rodney Harrison, NBC— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) December 16, 2013
There may be some merit to Harrison's claim. The Bengals are still a relatively young team, and it is mostly the same one most have grilled for struggling in prime-time games the past two years—including consecutive postseason losses.
The Bengals fell flat in Pittsburgh, and even worse is the fact the performance may very well cost them the AFC North crown. NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah has the details:
If the Bengals lose tonight, the Ravens will be in control of their destiny..,win out, win the division.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) December 16, 2013
That Week 17 bout with the Baltimore Ravens just got much more important after the Bengals laid an egg on Sunday night. Cincinnati already lost to Baltimore in Week 10.
If things do not change between now and then, we could once again be questioning Cincinnati's ability to show up in a high-pressure game it cannot afford to lose.