Photo Credit: Cincinnati Bengals, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
I guess if you're going to have a stinker like that, it might as well be in Week 1, right? The Cincinnati Bengals looked like a team that had overslept their alarm clocks - at least, that’s how the offense played. It might be the worst game of Joe Burrow’s career. Maybe the emergency appendectomy had some lingering effects after all. And yet, despite playing like a drunk Charlie Brown in the first half, Burrow gave his team a chance to win in the end, even if the Bengals ultimately fell short.
On an overcast Sunday in Cincinnati, the Bengals slipped up against their division rival Pittsburgh Steelers in the first-ever Week 1 matchup between the two teams. The Steelers played like their collective lives depended on it. The Bengals…not so much.
It looked like a completely different team offensively than the one that reached the Super Bowl last year - except, of course, for the abysmal play from the offensive line. It felt like every time they audibled, the play was a bust. The play calling was conservative, the receivers weren’t separating downfield, and Burrow looked rusty and inaccurate. It was a maelstrom of offensive ineptitude, but the defense continually bailed them out, despite being left to dry on numerous occasions. As it turns out, special teams are special for a reason.
It was punter Kevin Huber’s franchise record 208th career start, but a more obscure specialist would be the difference in the outcome. Clark Harris, who’s been the Bengals long snapper for the last fourteen years, left the game in the fourth quarter with a bicep injury, leaving backup tight end Mitchell Wilcox to handle the long snapping duties. It did not go well. Turns out, the 59-yard field goal kicker Evan McPherson drilled in the first half was not positive foreshadowing. McPherson’s go-ahead extra point with seconds remaining in the fourth quarter was blocked, and then the game winning field goal attempt in overtime went wide left after a high snap from Wilcox.
But to be perfectly honest, the Bengals shouldn’t have even been in a position to win this game at any point. They were thoroughly outplayed. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and defensive assistant Brian Flores had an outstanding game plan that limited the Bengals explosive plays and generated a monstrous pass rush, even with their players dropping like flies near the end of the game due to injury.
The primary culprit, though, was Burrow. It feels impossible, after seeing him make so many incredible throws and lead the Bengals in so many desperate moments, but the star QB was a disaster this afternoon. He was responsible for five turnovers. He took seven sacks. He was plain bad.
The rebuilt offensive line was utterly helpless. The tackles were whipped over and over by T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, and Cam Heyward collapsed the Bengals interior. It was a total meltdown. The lack of preseason and training camp playing time was apparent.
Still, there’s reason to believe that this was a fluke-ish performance from the Bengals in 2022. First, remember that last year the Steelers defeated a Bills team that went on to be postseason darlings. The Steelers, as an organization, come to play in Week 1. Second, the Bengals were able to overcome a fourteen-point deficit again. At this point, it seems no lead is safe when you’re the Bengals, even when the offense is self-sabotaging every five plays. It was like Christmas in Pittsburgh the way their defense was being gifted the football, in the way the Bengals were Santa and the Steelers were the little children who ambushed and beat the crap out of him as he slid down the chimney.
The defense, too, looked like the same unit that made life miserable for opponents in the playoffs. They stifled the Steelers run game and, aside from a handful of moderate gains, held up in the passing game. It would have been nice to see the pass rush get home more consistently (and second-year edge rusher Joseph Ossai was almost invisible), but that’s a small quibble with an otherwise excellent defensive performance. They weren’t the reason the Bengals lost this game.
The only part of the offense that looked like it hadn’t missed a beat was Burrow to Chase. Their connection is uncanny. Aside from one dropped pass, Chase continued to look like one of the NFL’s best receivers. The way he shrugs off defenders is unique. He has such uncommon strength for the position, and he combines that with excellent acceleration and agility to be almost impossible for any defensive back to take down one-on-one after the catch.
Credit has to go to the Steelers, though. They wanted this game more, they looked crisper, and they threw the kitchen sink at the Bengals with several receiver-runs and a flea-flicker, to boot. They were the less talented team, but their defense set the tone from the Bengals first offensive snap, which was, of course, a sack.
The Bengals lost a game they should have won. It happens. It happened a few times last year, too. Consider this preseason game #4 (except one that counts in the standings). But this means the Bengals won’t be able to afford many more missteps. They’re already proving the naysayers right when they argue that the Bengals had a flukey run to the Super Bowl and are due for an epic brain-melting Super-hangover. The Bengals proved today that they still have the talent to get back to the big game, but they looked asleep. Better wake up.