Okay, I lied. I thought the Steelers' defense did a good job of holding Cincinnati’s offense out of the end zone following cornerback Eli Apple’s interception of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and subsequent return to the five on Pittsburgh’s opening possession.
So I guess you can accuse me of clickbait. I realize that’s annoying when it comes to us journalists, but who am I going to complain to for being baited into thinking Pittsburgh would actually put up a fight at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday and not lie down and play dead in a 41-10 loss to the Bengals?
I mean, the defensive stop was nice and all, but the only problem was how easily the unit had just yielded yards and a touchdown to Joe Burrow and Co. on the Bengals’ opening drive of the game just moments earlier.
Despite the goal-line stand, it was still 10-0 nine minutes into the game.
It didn’t get any better. In fact, it got much worse. The Bengals scored on their first four possessions to take a 24-3 lead, and even after safety Minkah Fitzpatrick stymied Cincinnati’s fifth possession with an interception, former Steelers slot corner, Mike Hilton, “possessed” Roethlisberger’s very next pass and returned it for a score to make it 31-3.
Game over...at halftime.
What you were left with over the final 30 minutes of “action” was the realization that this defense isn’t really that great anymore even with T.J. Watt and Fitzpatrick back in action. If you want, you might be able to convince yourself that things will be better when cornerback Joe Haden, who missed his second-straight game, is healthy again. But that’s going to require a lot of convincing considering Haden doesn’t play on the defensive line.
In case you haven’t been paying attention to the defensive line, well, the standard really hasn’t been the standard without Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu starting alongside Cam Heyward. The Bengals tallied 198 yards on the ground—including 165 yards on 28 carries by running back Joe Mixon. Pittsburgh’s defense has now yielded 586 rushing yards over the past three games.
But at least the pass coverage was horrible, too. Young cornerback James Pierre, starting in place of Haden, had himself a little “staying in” party and was repeatedly victimized all afternoon.
In other news, the tackling was atrocious. Watt was invisible. Devin Bush again did nothing.
Just a horrible day for a defense that can’t be considered anything but that at this point—horrible.
As for the offense, Roethlisberger played like he did over the first month and seemed hellbent on getting rid of the football as fast as humanly possible on every throw. It didn’t matter if it was a bubble screen, a three-yard out or a 50-yard bomb—Big Ben was getting rid of that sucker like he didn’t trust his offensive line.
Of course, the middle of the field was barely exploited. Speaking of exploited, running back Najee Harris probably didn’t feel like he was being exploited. Why? Because in order to be exploited, you have to be used, and the rookie running back only toted the rock eight times.
Sure, Harris only gained 23 yards, but using him more on the ground couldn’t have produced worse results than what the 39-year old quarterback gave the offense through the air.
It was just an all-around pathetic performance by a football team that should have been playing with more urgency, especially on the road against an AFC North foe. But maybe urgency isn’t the problem with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers. Maybe it just comes down to talent.
Like I’ve been saying for months, this is a football team equipped with a roster that will finish anywhere between 7-10 and 10-7 depending on how a few critical moments play out over the course of the year (yes, I know the math is different with a tie). Had Pittsburgh been able to make some key plays in the previous two games, Sunday’s beatdown wouldn’t have seemed so discouraging when talking about the immediate future. Every team is on the wrong end of a shellacking every now and then—the Steelers lost to Carson Wentz and the Eagles, 34-3, in Week 3 of the same year that they made it to their last AFC title game—but it just feels different when that shellacking takes place on November 28 and pushes the winless streak to three games.
In their last three games, the Steelers have tied a winless team, lost a heartbreaker after trailing by 17 points and gotten blown out by a team they once owned.
In other words, things have gotten progressively worse at the wrong time of the year.
Not only can’t I find one good thing to say about Sunday’s loss to the Bengals—except for that early goal-line stand, of course—but I can’t think of one good reason why the Steelers will bounce back and do anything positive over their final six weeks.