The Bengals just could not get out of their own way during the first half of play. Special teams allowed an easy two scores for the Steelers early in the contest. To make matters worse, Cincinnati could not get its offense or defense on track.
In the second half, the Bengals were able to mount a slight comeback, but it inevitably fell short due to their early struggles.
Cincinnati still controls its own destiny in the AFC North, but they must right the ship next week against the visiting Minnesota Vikings.
Let's take a position-by-position look to determine exactly where the Bengals went wrong on Sunday night.
Quarterback Andy Dalton was inefficient—to put it kindly—in the first half of the game on Sunday night. He remained hesitant in the pocket, and when he did release the football, errant passes ensued.
However, Dalton was able to right the ship somewhat in the second half. He connected nine times with A.J. Green to move the ball nicely through the air and was able to toss two touchdown passes to Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert.
Overall, Dalton's numbers were not terrible. He completed 25 of his 44 pass attempts for 230 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions for a passer rating of 86.4.
Dalton's inconsistent play must be straightened out, or it could doom this team come January.
Game Grade: C
Cincinnati failed miserably to get its ground game going on Sunday night. This created a one-dimensional offense and was a contributing factor in Andy Dalton's inconsistent play.
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis could not get anything going—even in short-yardage situations—so the coaching staff decided to leave him on the sideline for most of the second half. He finished the game with four carries for just four yards.
Rookie Giovani Bernard was unable to find room to maneuver as well. He rushed 13 times for 33 yards on the game. Bernard was used at the goal line and was able to produce a touchdown on a one-yard run.
Even with the 20 yards that Dalton gained on Sunday, the Bengals still only managed 57 yards on 22 carries for an average of 2.6 yards per rush.
Game Grade: D
Despite posting nine catches for 92 yards on Sunday, A.J. Green struggled for most of the contest. He was unable to break free from coverage at times and did not fare well catching contested passes. This resulted in a couple drops from the All-Pro receiver.
Marvin Jones put together a fine game, recording five receptions for 48 yards and a touchdown. However, his 13-yard touchdown reception was a direct result of blown coverage by Pittsburgh's secondary.
Mohamed Sanu played his usual role as a possession receiver. He was able to reel in three receptions for 20 yards against the Steelers.
Overall, these wide receivers could have performed at a higher level on Sunday—especially in the first half. Inability to separate from defensive backs and multiple drops severely hurt the passing game.
Game Grade: C-
It was certainly a tale of two tight ends for the Bengals on Sunday night.
Veteran Jermaine Gresham continued to struggle, as he lost a crucial fumble in the second half during a Bengals drive. Gresham left the game early with a hip injury and was held to three receptions for 23 yards.
However, this paved the way for rookie tight end Tyler Eifert to get into the game. Eifert started off with a bang, as he was on the receiving end of a one-yard touchdown pass from Dalton early in the fourth quarter.
Eifert continued to show his strength and bully his way for yardage. He ended the game with three fourth-quarter receptions for 33 yards and a touchdown.
Game Grade: C-
The Bengals did some experimenting with the offensive line against the Steelers. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth slid to the inside to play guard while Anthony Collins took over at the tackle position.
This line has been shuffled around in recent weeks due to a rash of injuries.
They remained solid in pass protection, as the line only allowed one sack on Dalton through the contest. However, they simply could not clear any space for running backs, as Green-Ellis averaged 1 yard per carry and Bernard averaged 2.5 yards per carry.
The big men in the trenches must begin to pull their weight in the running game soon with more cold-weather games ahead.
Game Grade: C
It was certainly a roller-coaster game for the Bengals defensive line. At times they looked foolish—rookie running back Le'Veon Bell swatted defensive end Michael Johnson away easily to avoid a tackle for a loss.
Other times, they were on point and closed down any gaps to avoid allowing the running back to get into space. The Steelers did gain 106 rushing yards on Sunday, but they also rushed 36 times, accumulating an average of just 2.9 yards per carry.
Cincinnati's Wallace Gilberry was able to bring Ben Roethlisberger down for a huge sack late in the game; however, for most of the contest they were unable to pressure the veteran.
Roethlisberger was allowed plenty of time in the pocket which allowed coverage to break down. This lack of a rush resulted in easy completions.
Game Grade: C-
Once again, linebacker Vontaze Burfict led the team in tackles. Burfict was able to come away with 12 total on the contest, including some very impressive open-field tackles.
Unfortunately, after Burfict, production severely dropped off.
Rey Maualuga has been having a fine season; however, he regressed against the Steelers on Sunday. He missed several open-field tackles which resulted in first downs for Pittsburgh.
James Harrison left the game early due to a concussion and only recorded three tackles. Vincent Rey and Jayson DiManche stepped in and recorded three and two tackles, respectively.
Aside from another solid game from Burfict, the linebacker corps must shore up their tackling going forward.
Game Grade: C-
It was a tale of two halves for the Bengals secondary on Sunday night. The allowed Ben Roethlisberger to complete his first 11 passes of the game, as the Steelers got off to a hot start through the air.
During the second half, they were able to clamp down and give Roethlisberger and Co. fits.
Adam Jones had a fine game and was able to intercept an underthrown deep ball at the Bengals one-yard line. Jones was all over the field, compiling five-total tackles including two for a loss.
Safety Reggie Nelson was able to come away with a solid performance as well, despite being flagged for a taunting penalty. Nelson accumulated seven total tackles, including one for a loss and a quarterback hit on a blitz.
Even though Dre Kirkpatrick was able to come away with four tackles, he was torched by Antonio Brown throughout the contest. Kirkpatrick also struggles with open-field tackling and whiffed on a couple would-be easy stops.
George Iloka was able to start this week after suffering an injury in Week 14. He came away with six tackles and a pass defensed in the end zone on the game.
Game Grade: C+
This is where it all went wrong for the Bengals.
Early in the game, punter Kevin Huber mishandled a snap and was tackled at the Bengals' one-yard line. That led to a quick Steelers touchdown.
Shortly after, the Bengals punt-coverage unit broke down and allowed a 67-yard punt return to Antonio Brown. Huber was injured on the play and would not return for the remainder of the game.
Kicker Mike Nugent stepped in for punting responsibilities and provided an admirable effort. He punted twice for an average of 40 yards—not bad, considering the circumstances.
The lone special-teams highlight for the Bengals was the kick-returning ability of Brandon Tate. Tate was electric on Sunday night and averaged 32.8 yards per return including a long of 52 yards.
However, Cincinnati's special teams unit could be considered the biggest reason for the upset loss on Sunday night.
Game Grade: F
The Bengals coaching staff did what they could with the resources they had against the Steelers on Sunday night.
Unfortunately, their efforts fell short due to lackluster performances and an abundance of penalties.
Cincinnati ended the game with six penalties for 50 yards. That's not a terrible final tally; however, most of those transgressions came early in the game and allowed the Steelers to build an early lead.
The offensive game plan did not take hold over the first half. It took Jay Gruden well into the third quarter to properly make necessary adjustments to combat the Steelers defense.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer did what he could with a decimated unit. Multiple injuries in the secondary and along the defensive line did not allow the Bengals to apply the pressure needed on Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense.
Zimmer did adjust quickly, bringing in different blitz packages; however, the damage had already been done.
The coaching staff certainly learned a lot about what this team is capable of in its current state. Expect a week of adjustments before the Bengals face off against the Vikings in Week 16.
Game Grade: C-