Shoulda seen this one coming. What was I thinking? This wasn’t Jake Browning versus Mason Rudolph – this was Jake Browning versus T.J. Watt. And of course, Watt won, although the Steelers’ offense did their part too with nearly 400 yards of offense in a 34 - 11 laugher against the Bengals on Saturday afternoon.
I’d love to tell you about how the defense was horrendous and how the bubble has finally burst for Jake “Burrow” Browning. I could bemoan the conservative play calling in the first half, but then I remember Browning heaving three awful interceptions and I’m like, “Yeah, I kinda get the conservative play calling.” I should put blame on the Bengals inability to stop the run and their inability to prevent big plays and their inability to consistently take good angles or their inability to get pressure on mediocre offensive lines and yada yada yada.
The point is, it really wasn’t the Bengals fault they got dusted last night. They aren’t on the Steelers’ level this year. Or the Browns. Certainly not the Ravens.
The Bengals aren’t top dogs in the AFC North. They were in ‘21 and ‘22. But this year? With a hobbled – and now absent – Joe Burrow? And a defense that hemorrhages yards like a burst dam? And an offensive line that can’t handle elite competition? Suddenly, that 0 - 5 record in the division starts to make a lot more sense.
Truthfully, this game was a lot more about the Steelers than it was about the Bengals, as much as I’d like to tell you about how the Bengals blew it, and if one or two bounces broke their way this could have been a much different game. I just don’t believe it. The Steelers had their backs against the wall, they were at home, and they came out of the gates swinging like prime Mike Tyson. They went for the early knockout, and the Bengals were no match.
Consider everything that’s been going on in Pittsburgh this week. They were on a three-game losing streak. Everybody and their mother in Pittsburgh has been calling for Mike Tomlin’s job. Every aspect of the team was in question: their toughness, their focus, their commitment to the game. Second-year receiver George Pickens was being openly questioned by the entire sports media landscape for his lack of effort – and for one game, he silenced the doubters. For this week, consider all Steelers’ doubters silenced. That’s how thorough of a beating this was.
Rudolph now leads all Steelers’ quarterbacks this season with single-game-high 290 passing yards. Both of the Steelers top-passing yardage totals this season have come against the Bengals. The 34 points they put up last night was also a season high. And it wasn’t just by the numbers the Bengals were dominated – it showed up on the broadcast just as obviously.
Watt abused Jonah Williams all game, although Alex Highsmith certainly did a number on Orlando Brown Jr. on the other side of the line as well. The Bengals running game was nonexistent, managing just 30 yards on 10 carries entering the fourth quarter. The defense allowed Pickens to grab four passes for an incredible 195 yards and two touchdowns on a mind-blowing average of 48.8 yards per reception. Who knew Pickens was Randy Moss 2.0? He isn’t, but against a hapless Bengals secondary, he might as well be.
The Bengals might not be completely dead yet, but next week could be the final nail in the coffin. Up next is a trip to the stadium very briefly known as “Burrow”head. The Kansas City Chiefs are on the horizon – and this year, the Bengals don’t have the horses to play spoiler. Burrow won’t be there to save the day. Ja’Marr Chase probably won’t be either. And, if you’re still waiting for the defense to turn around, you can stop now.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. The Bengals have done some good things this year. Outside of the division, they’re 8 - 2. They went on the road and beat the NFL’s prohibitive Super Bowl favorites, the San Francisco 49ers, in Levi's Stadium. But their 0 - 5 record in the division looms large. It can’t be ignored. The Bengals were once the class of the AFC North – today, they’re the ass.