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No Surprise as Steelers Smack Bengals in Cincy

Okay, are we ready to punt on the Jake Browning experiment?  Is it time for A.J. McCarron?  Drew Plitt?  Cam Newton?

Today felt like a forgone conclusion.  Jake Browning was making his first start against a dangerous Steelers defense that had plenty to play for.  A big-play prone Bengals defense was facing a Steelers offense that had just cast off the weights of former offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s risk-averse game plans when it sent him packing on Tuesday.  It went…about how you might have expected – with the Steelers walking away from Paycor Stadium with a convincing 16 - 10 win over the Bengals.

Make no mistake: this was not a pretty football game.  The Steelers may have managed 400 yards of offense for the first time in the Biden Administration, but between a fumble in the red zone and several drives that stalled out with field goals, they hardly made moving the football look easy.  In comparison to the Bengals offense though, the Steelers were the 2018 Chiefs.

No wonder the Steelers fired Canada the week before they faced the Bengals.  Without Joe Burrow under center, the Bengals offense is about as threatening as a gerbill.  The best drive the Bengals could muster was keyed by a fluke-y tipped pass that fell into Ja’Marr Chase’s hands.  Outside of that, it was a lot of nothing.  Even when the Steelers’ offense struggled, the Bengals didn't make them pay for it.

Of course, the Steelers defense had more than a hand in the Bengals’ offensive futility.  T.J. Watt, to no one’s surprise, obliterated whomever was unlucky enough to be lined up opposite him.  The Steelers were in Browning’s face for much of the day, and even when they weren’t, their defensive backs did a good job breaking up passes and making life hard for the Bengals’ receivers.  Even with Burrow in the lineup, moving the ball was never going to be an easy task, but with Browning it was like digging their own grave.

But of course, the expectations for the offense were low in the first place.  If the Bengals were going to beat the Steelers, the defense was going to be the catalyst.  Sadly, the Bengals D wasn’t up to the task.  They needed to be the best unit on the field today – instead, Kenny Pickett and a struggling Steelers offense used the afternoon to exercise some demons.

True Bengals fans will be unsurprised to learn that a tight end killed them in the passing game.  Yup, Pat Freiermuth, after being held to a single catch last week against the Cleveland Browns, erupted for nine catches for 120 yards.  The Steelers ran for 153 yards too.  It was a balanced day for one of the worst offensive attacks in the league.  The Bengals needed more today, and they didn’t get it.

It’s tough to find silver linings from a game like this.  It was nice to see rookie defensive end Myles Murphy get his second sack of the season, and Trey Hendrickson continued his monster season, collecting another sack and bringing his season total to 10.5.  Rookie Jordan Battle was competent in his first start at safety.  Even Chase found a way to make plays – even if it took two of the luckiest tipped passes you’ll see in a football game.  But that’s where the silver linings end.

Now, the Bengals will go on the road against the AFC South-leading Jacksonville Jaguars.  That game too, already feels like a foregone conclusion.  Without Burrow, the Bengals offense is toothless, and it’s hard to see where improvement comes from this late in the season.  We can stop waiting on the run game to become efficient – it won’t.  We don’t have to worry about the pass blocking to improve – it won’t.  And we don’t have to wonder how good the defense could be if they stopped allowing big plays – they won’t.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that this won’t be the last time we sit through a Bengals loss like this one.  It’s hard to shake the feeling that the Bengals could be on the precipice of an ugly stretch of losing.  Without Burrow, the Bengals just aren’t the same.  They don’t have that swagger, that unshakable resolve.  Without Burrow, the Bengals have no bite.

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