PITTSBURGH (AP) — His twisted ankle aching, his wide receivers blanketed and his protection breaking down, Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton decided discretion was the better part of valor. Or at least the safest way to get out of Pittsburgh.
So facing fourth down with a remote chance to get back in it against the relentless Steelers on Sunday, Dalton scrambled to his right, felt the rush coming ... and threw the ball away. No forcing it somewhere in an attempt to get a first down. No heave downfield to A.J. Green in hopes of getting a call.
Just a harmless fling to the sideline and an acknowledgement there is plenty to be done if the Bengals want to truly turn around their season.
"They did turn it up," Dalton said of Pittsburgh's second-half onslaught.
The Bengals, meanwhile, turned back the clock. And not in a good way. Cincinnati managed all of one first down over the final 30 minutes in a 29-14 loss to the Steelers on Sunday, blunting the momentum it gained after installing Bill Lazor as offensive coordinator two weeks into the season.
The offense that appeared to figure things out while beating Cleveland and Buffalo following an 0-3 start spent most of the second half in reverse. Dalton threw a pair of picks in the third quarter when the game was still close and was sacked four times in the fourth as the Bengals (2-4) lost for the eighth time in their last nine meetings with Pittsburgh (5-2).
"They're a good secondary, but they didn't do anything to stop us," Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green said. "I just feel like Andy didn't have enough time back there."
Not when it mattered anyway.
The Bengals fell behind by a touchdown twice in the first half but responded each time with Dalton scoring passes. Then the running game disappeared and any semblance of offensive balance went right along with it. Rookie Joe Mixon had seven carries for 48 yards in the first half but didn't get a carry on any of Cincinnati's seven second-half possessions.
"He was in there in the third quarter," Lewis said. "Whatever plays are called, are called."
Green caught three passes for 41 yards, all in the first half. Dalton finished 17 of 30 for 144 yards. The Bengals had just 19 yards of total offense in the second half, 20 if you take away a Dalton kneel down on the final snap.
"Anytime you lose a division game, especially to the Steelers, the way they're playing, every game counts," Green said. "It's tough. It sets us behind even more."
The Bengals arrived at Heinz Field hoping to send an emphatic message that the sluggish opening two weeks that cost offensive coordinator Ken Zampese his job was firmly behind them. Instead they headed home looking as listless as they did during opening losses to Baltimore and Houston and well out of the mix in the AFC North.
"The Steelers are just one team," Dalton said. "They're in our division, but they're not the only team we play. Obviously we've had some tough games against them, but they're not the only team that we go against. It's not about us against the Steelers. It's about us playing well and beating whoever we're playing. Unfortunately today we didn't do it."
The most alarming aspect for Cincinnati going forward may be the way the Steelers were able to get pressure on Dalton. Pittsburgh didn't do go full "Blitzburgh" with the lead. Instead, the Steelers dropped seven into coverage and relied on defensive linemen Cam Heyward and Tyson Alaualu and outside linebackers Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt to get to the quarterback. The Steelers did with remarkable ease in the fourth quarter.
Cincinnati did its best to prepare for the raucous crowd at Heinz Field, even blasting the rock song "Renegade" at practice. The song often blares over the stadium speakers before a pivotal possession for the Pittsburgh defense. It came on with the Steelers up 12 with 11:05 to play. Two sacks and an incompletion later, Dalton was walking off the field and the punting unit was coming back on.
"We got behind on first down and it played into their hands for the whole second half," LaFell said. "It's something we cannot do and we have to correct that right now."
Time is running out. The listless Colts are up next before at three-game road trip through Jacksonville, Tennessee and Denver.
"I feel like it's time for us to embrace it because at the end of the day you're accepting what's going on but you can also get over the hump," said Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. "You really don't embrace the loss and I feel like sometimes we need to embrace the loss. No matter who it is, we lost. We have to embrace it, fix it and move on."
KIRKPATRICK GETS BELL RUNG
A week after getting 35 touches against the Chiefs, Bell had 38 against the Bengals. He ran it 35 times for 134 yards and added three receptions for 58 yards, including a 42-yard catch-and-run that featured Bell stiff-arming Kirkpatrick to the ground.
"That was one of my better stiff-arms of my life," Bell said. "I don't know what happened or what came over me that play."
The Steelers are 12-0 all-time when Bell has at least 25 carries, including 3-0 this season. He's ready for more.
"How many more games do we have?" Bell said. "No, for real how many more games do we have? Nine? At least nine."
READY OR NOT
Bell and Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster took the NFL's relaxed celebration rules to another level with an inspired game of "Hide and Seek" after Smith-Schuster hauled in a 31-yard score in the second quarter.
Bell approached the 20-year-old Smith-Schuster with the idea a few minutes before the kickoff, and their impromptu re-enactment of a children's game quickly went viral.
"That was us just being dramatic, creative on what we were going to do," Bell said. "I know JuJu and he loves doing celebrations. I know he was going to be the guy to do it."