2021 Steelers Season Recall: Bengals prove to be an AFC North force in Pittsburgh loss

Steel City Underground presents our 2021 Steelers Recall: a look back at Pittsburgh Steelers games and storylines from last season.

A collective failure.

That’s what could best describe the Steelers Week 3 loss at home to the Cincinnati Bengals. Looking back, it’s a microcosm of things to come, as injuries left both the defense and offense vulnerable. But don’t take my word for, just ask Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin:

“Let’s not sugar coat it: we played poorly today and we didn’t deserve to win.”

Pittsburgh’s offensive line was a liability, even before Kendrick Green (knee) and Chukwuma Okorafor (concussion) left the game. It was painful to watch Cincinnati’s defense set up shop in the Steelers’ offensive backfield.

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The near-constant pressure led Ben Roethlisberger to attempt to force plays – including two non-accurate throws that resulted in interceptions that Logan Wilson grabbed – and end up in the turf four times. That doesn’t even count the number of times Roethlisberger was hit or threw inaccurate passes. Injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool only compounded matters.

It was a comedy of errors that saw Steelers drives fall flat and Bengals drives continue: including what would’ve been a 3rd-and-long taken away by a Melvin Ingram roughing the passer call which then led to a Ja’Marr Chase touchdown catch moments later, with only half a minute remaining before halftime.

Those with a steel trap for a memory (pun intended) will recall that Okorafor suffered his concussion on a false start penalty… Not to poke fun at that, but how does that happen?

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Najee Harris struggled to run throughout the game with 40 yards rushing on 14 attempts: mostly due to the umpteen penalties. (Clete Blakeman’s crew called ten penalties on each team throughout this miserable game.)

Somehow though, Najee was the leading receiver for the Steelers with 14 receptions for 102 yards. That’s after Ben Roethlisberger attempted 58 passes for 318 yards, but finished with a 70.9 quarterback rating due to the aforementioned picks.

Surprisingly, the Steelers corralled Joe Burrow to only 172 yards. The Bengals quarterback only attempted 18 passes – but completed 14 of them – including three for touchdowns. Cincy WR Ja’Marr Chase, who would win the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, would catch four of those 14, with two of them going for TDs.

It’s all the Bengals needed, behind Joe Mixon’s 90 rushing yards, to secure the win, as their offense often found themselves in short field situations.

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The game hadn’t started that way, however, with Terrell Edmunds scooping up a Minkah Fitzpatrick tipped pass which saw the Bengals exit second drive on an interception – their first was a three-and-out.

Their third drive would be the first salvo in the game, following a Big Ben interception that gave Cincinnati the ball on the Steelers 42 and led to a short touchdown drive.

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Rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth grabbed a four-yard toss, his career first, to give the Steelers a tie game before halftime. (That notched Roethlisberger his 399th touchdown pass) but the Bengals would score again on a three-play, 60-yard series that lasted all of 27 seconds on the game clock.

Burrow connected with Chase for the first of his two TDs, as the Bengals embarrassed the Steelers by doing so with only 1:04 remaining before halftime.

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It would be tough sledding for Pittsburgh the remainder of the game. Defensively, the Steelers could not get enough pressure on Joe Burrow or the Bengals’ offensive line.

The absence of T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith was a concern and became a nightmare. The result was the streak of 75 consecutive games with a sack (beginning Week 9 of the 2016 season) ending abruptly.

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Offensively the Steelers would struggle mightily, as Roethlisberger threw an interception on their opening drive of the second half and then Chris Boswell would miss a 42-yard field goal attempt at a time where the Steelers needed points on the board.

A series of questionable decisions fell in the fourth quarter, as the Steelers 18-play 88-yard drive culminated with a Boswell 26-yard field goal as the Steelers were down 24-7. Two ugly fourth-down conversion attempts ensued to close out the Steelers portion of the game.

The boo birds came out at Heinz Field as Mike Tomlin decided to go for it on 4th-and-Goal. Afterward, the coach had no loss for words:

“We had fired all of our bullets at that juncture in terms of some of our play selection. It just wasn’t a good enough play to get in there. They had a picket fence, if you will, because of situations just like the conversation we were having over here.

They’re going to allow you to probably throw and catch the ball in front of them, but you’ve got to do some things after that. They had a bunch of guys running along the goal-line like happens whenever it’s fourth and goal from the eight or nine or whatever it was.”

The Steelers would drop to 1-2 on the season to the Bengals with a final score of 24-10 as the entire roster looked helpless on an otherwise nice football day in the Steel City. Things didn’t look very promising going forward either, with a trip to Green Bay on the calendar for the following Sunday.

Stay tuned as we revisit that game and more in our weekly 2021 Steelers Season Recall series.

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