Outside of some issues defensively, the first half of the Bengals’ first match-up with the Steelers in 2017 was encouraging. If not for some issues on the last drive for each team (more on that later) the Bengals would have gone into the locker room with a three point deficit and the knowledge that they would receive the ball to start the second half. The AFC North Championship has always gone through Pittsburgh, so this game creates a great opportunity to see where the Bengals really stand.
Joe Mixon looked great in the first half, but in the second half he was just looking for touches. Despite running for 6.9 yards per carry in the first half, the Bengals did not continue to feed him the ball in the second. This offense has looked much better in recent weeks, but it has lacked a serious run game. Why would they not continue to ride the hot hand once they finally managed to figure out a thing or two on the ground? Jeremy Hill has his merits in short yardage situations and Giovani Bernard certainly has a skill set that needs to be utilized, but Joe Mixon is the future of this offense. Coupled with AJ Green, he is one of the two biggest play makers in this offense and they must continue to get him the ball particularly when they are having so much success with it.
The Pass Game
The offense actually had some trouble getting the ball to AJ Green in this one. While it was good to see targets to guys like Alex Erickson, CJ Uzomah, and Cody Core it came with limited success. Andy Dalton threw two picks in this game, and while one was tipped, they were both off target throws. Dalton is still forcing balls to receivers who are not open, and on one key first down he completely missed the fact he had AJ Green in a one-on-one match-up. However, most of the blame for the poor pass game performance falls with the pass protection. The Bengals had some success throwing out of two-back sets, which provided help for both tackles, but protection overall was very inconsistent. Andy Dalton is taking a beating, and will not be able to last the entire season if this issue isn’t addressed.
A Late 1st Half Debacle
The Bengals got lucky at the end of the first half when suspect play calling and clock management by the Steelers forced Pittsburgh to kick a field goal to end the half. The Bengals however should not have been in that position in the first place. The Bengals received a kickoff with 1:50 left in the second quarter and only managed a three play, zero yard drive that took a mere 22 seconds off the clock. They left way too much time for the Ben Roethlisberger Steelers to make something happen. Then the Bengals’ defense allowed them to move swiftly down the field due in large part due to a coverage error by William Jackson III (not continuing to sink in cover two on 2nd and 17) and an unnecessary pass interference penalty by Dre Kirkpatrick.
Overall the defense seemed uninspired. The aforementioned play aside, William Jackson III looked very good stepping in for Adam Jones. In fact he looked like the best player in the secondary. Jones however, seems to bring a certain attitude and dare I say leadership to the defense that they lack when he is not on the field. Upfront the Bengals were held without a sack and were ineffective containing the Le’Veon Bell in the run game.
The Long and Short
Despite not performing at their top level, the Bengals hung in there with the Steelers for much of this game. They have a lot of work to do, but they are not as far off as you might think. Their biggest enemy is time. They really can’t afford to waste any more of it. If they have any hope of salvaging this season, they need to start stringing together some wins right now.