ANALYSIS: 5 things we learned from Bengals’ season-opening loss to Steelers

Credit: Jeff Dean

Credit: Jeff Dean

CINCINNATI -- Even after turning the ball over five times, Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals still had chances to win their opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bengals rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to tie the game as time expired in the fourth quarter, but the Steelers blocked the point-after attempt that would have won it. Then, Evan McPherson missed a chip-shot field goal in overtime after a bad snap from Mitchell Wilcox, who was replacing injured long snapper Clark Harris.

Pittsburgh went on to win the game 23-20 in overtime Sunday at Paycor Stadium on a 53-yard field goal from Chris Boswell as time expired.

Here are five things to know from the loss:

1. Burrow’s bad day

Burrow was sacked on the first play from scrimmage for the Bengals offense, and the next play, Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted a pass intended for Tyler Boyd and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown. It was the first of five turnovers for Burrow, including four picks.

The third-year quarterback has never thrown four interceptions in one game, and none of them came with pressure. He also lost a fumble after Cam Heyward sacked him and popped the ball loose, then recovered it.

Bengals coach Zac Taylor said Burrow’s delayed training camp because of an appendectomy had nothing to do with the slow start. He credited Pittsburgh’s defense for making good plays.

“We just had turnovers,” Taylor said. “We moved the ball. … I thought we had opportunities for guys to win and make plays, and they did, particularly there in the second half. I felt like we were really moving the ball quite a bit, we just weren’t capitalizing.”

Credit: Joshua A. Bickel

Credit: Joshua A. Bickel

2. Special teams woes

Harris, who entered 2022 with no unplayable snaps in 1,876 attempts over his first 12 seasons with the Bengals, injured his right biceps on a punt in the fourth quarter, and Wilcox had to step in as the emergency long snapper.

The operation on both the blocked PAT and missed field goal was impacted by Harris’ absence. Wilcox hasn’t snapped in a game since high school, though he was a backup in college and works on it “periodically,” he said, in practices.

Wilcox thought the PAT snap was fine, though it appeared to move slowly, but he needed to give holder Kevin Huber a better snap on the field goal. McPherson put the blame on himself, saying he could have made a 29-yarder with his left foot so he should have had that one.

The Bengals had tried the field goal on third down just in case there was an errant snap that Huber couldn’t get down.

“To have kick operations ruined on two kicks that both would have won the game is disheartening in that way because I thought we would have handled those situations better,” Taylor said. “But I thought our guys really fought back and gave us a chance.”

3. Defense carries momentum of 2021

Cincinnati’s defense, which had such a big impact in the team’s run to the Super Bowl last year, picked up right where it left off, keeping the game close while the offense struggled with turnovers.

The Steelers offense managed just 13 points and nine first downs in regulation, and they punted eight times, including five three-and-outs. Pittsburgh finished with 267 yards of offense, including 194 passing yards for Mitch Trubisky, and only one of the turnovers led to a touchdown drive.

The Bengals held the Steelers to a field goal after the fumble, and Pittsburgh punted after two of the interceptions. The only things missing for the defense were turnovers (none) and sacks (one).

“I thought the defense played solid all day,” Taylor said. “We would have liked to get a turnover, but really, they held them to 13 points until that last field goal. That’s a pretty good day’s work in the NFL.”

4. Second half improvement

The Bengals trailed 17-6 at halftime and lost Tee Higgins to a concussion in the second quarter but had just one of their turnovers in the second half and fought back to put themselves in position to win.

Pittsburgh extended its lead to 20-14 early in the fourth quarter, but Cincinnati got as far as the 1-yard line with less than three minutes left and ended up turning the ball over on downs. Ja’Marr Chase might have crossed the plane with his foot on the goal line on the play that got the Bengals to the 1 initially; however, Taylor said it was hard to tell from their angle and there wasn’t enough time to make the decision to challenge.

Cincinnati got another chance, thanks to a three-and-out from the defense, and this time Chase got his touchdown. The Bengals punted on their final drive of overtime after Burrow fumbled on third down and Samaje Perine tried to advance the recovery, which didn’t end up counting. Taylor said that led to some confusion as they were trying to figure out where the ball would be, and it was too far to go for it on fourth down.

Credit: Joshua A. Bickel

Credit: Joshua A. Bickel

5. Offensive line has work to do

Cincinnati spent the offseason overhauling the offensive line, but it still couldn’t keep Burrow from getting sacked seven times. There would have been an eighth one, but there was a penalty that negated it.

Not all those sacks were on the offensive line, but it’s not surprising to see a slow start up front considering the group hadn’t played a snap together in the preseason and only had three weeks of practice all together.

Rookie Cordell Volson also had a false start, but otherwise the penalties weren’t an issue.

“I think the number one thing today would be conditioning,” new center Ted Karras said. “Doing 100 plays, I mean, that’s pretty unheard of. First game last year against Pittsburgh, I think was 45 plays. So you know, I thought we moved the ball, turning it over five times, it’s not a recipe for success in this league. So we’re going to get back and get to work. There’s a lot of football still to be played. (Being) 0-1 doesn’t mean anything. We lost one game.”

About the Author