CINCINNATI – Did the Bengals leave Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers too much time on the clock to win the game after scoring the go-ahead touchdown?
Should the Steelers have been flagged for an illegal pick on Roethlisberger’s winning TD pass?
Once again, Pittsburgh celebrated the victory while the Bengals asked the questions.
For all the promise shown during the first five games of this season, Sunday’s game appeared all-too familiar. The extracurricular stuff that defined this matchup in recent years took a backseat on Sunday, but the result was the same old story for the Bengals.
Seven straight losses to Pittsburgh. In the past 11 meetings, the Bengals have beaten them once. In three of the last seven losses, the Steelers won the game in the final minute.
“It’s frustrating to lose games at home, especially division games,” said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
Especially to Pittsburgh, is what everyone else is thinking.
With the Steelers needing only a field goal to take the lead on Sunday, the Bengals were expecting them to run with a first down at the 31-yard line and 15 seconds left. So, the Bengals went Cover 0, a defensive alignment with no safeties and a heavy rush.
“I think (Roethlisberger) knew just how were lined up,” said Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem. “He’d seen it a couple times today already.”
The Steelers (3-2-1) opted for a quick pass to Antonio Brown, who ran untouched into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown to hand the Bengals a back-breaking 28-21 loss.
A closer look at the play, however, revealed that Steelers receiver Justin Hunter might have illegally picked Bengals cornerback Tony McRae prior to Brown’s catch.
“It was a great block,” Brown said.
But, NFL rules are fairly simplistic on the subject: offensive players are prohibited from blocking downfield prior to the ball being touched.
“Pretty sure we thought they were going to run it,” said Bengals safety Jessie Bates. “We were in cover zero so there was no guy to close the middle. They knew what we were doing with that stack. They picked the point guy. Not sure what the rule is on that. Good play call and they scored. It is what it is.”
A defensive holding penalty on Bengals corner Dre Kirkpatrick handed a first down to the Steelers, who would have been facing a fourth-and-10 with 22 seconds left.
“Trash,” Kirkpatrick said, of the flag. “I don’t care if they fine me. It was trash.”
For a moment, it appeared Andy Dalton and the Bengals might have exorcised Steelers demons with a nine-play, 75-yard drive capped off by Joe Mixon’s 4-yard TD run to put them ahead 21-20 with 1:18 left.
But, the Bengals had seen this movie before.
“That’s why that guy’s a Hall of Fame quarterback,” receiver A.J. Green said. “He’s been in those situations hundreds of times. Nothing’s too big for him.”
For Roethlisberger, beating the Bengals is old hat.
The Bengals (4-2) had two timeouts when their go-ahead scoring drive started. The only running play on the drive was the TD by Mixon, who rushed for 64 yards and averaged 5.8 yards on 11 carries, and arguably should have had more chances. At one point, the Bengals snapped the ball with 17 seconds still remaining on the play clock.
“You can look at it now and say we could have taken up more time,” said Dalton. “but I don’t think teams will think about it in real time. It’s unfortunate we left too much time.”
Roethlisberger drove 77 yards in seven plays, needing all but 10 seconds of the time he was allotted.
“When they scored, to look up and see three dots (timeouts) by our name and 1:22, if they’re going to score, score now so they can give us some time,” Roethlisberger said.Dalton played well but his receivers did him no favors in the first half with four dropped passes, including two by A.J. Green.
“I’ve got to play better,” said Green, who finished with seven receptions for 85 yards.
Dalton was 26 of 45 for 229 yards and two touchdowns, including a critical TD to Tyler Boyd just before halftime to tie the score 14-14. Boyd had seven catches for 62 yards and two TDs against his hometown Steelers.
Sunday’s game was typical of Bengals v. Steelers - physical with its share of chatter and a scrum during post-game handshakes. It also was a battle of attrition for the Bengals.
On the Steelers' winning drive, the Bengals were without linebacker Nick Vigil (knee), cornerback Darqueze Dennard (right shoulder), and safety Shawn Williams (concussion). Burfict was briefly on the bench with a right shoulder injury earlier in the game.
“When we get depleted, we have to go to the next guy and the next guy has got to make plays,” said Lewis. “I’m not going to second-guess anything. They made a play and we didn’t.”
The history runs deep in this rivalry, with big hits, big talk and plenty of memorable moments for both teams. Last December's game featured 20 penalties for 239 yards, including 173 for the Bengals,
That game was punctuated by Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s punishing block on Burfict, who suffered a concussion. Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 111 receiving yards on Sunday. Brown had 105.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a career-threatening spinal cord injury in last year's game. He returned to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday, fortunate to be walking.
Burfict’s 15-yard penalty for laying out Brown in the waning moments of a 2015 wild-card playoff game led to the winning field goal for Pittsburgh. He took a shot at Brown again on Sunday and wasn’t penalized, although it’s likely the NFL might take a look, especially considering Burfict’s past history.
“There are a lot of plays out there,” Lewis said. “The league looks at every play.”
Sunday’s game was missing a couple key instigators in this rivalry with Bengals corner Adam Jones now with Denver and Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell not expected to end his holdout until later this month. Burfict ended Bell’s season with a hit in 2015 adding further fuel to the rivalry’s fire.
Bell’s absence was no problem on Sunday for the Steelers who didn’t deviate from their punishing style with James Conner rushing for 111 yards and two TDs in his place.
“We don’t get a chance to whine about it. We have to get ready to go,” Lewis said of next Sunday’s prime-time matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. “It’s unfortunate we lost the football game, but we have another one on Sunday night.”
Turning the page on Sunday’s loss might not be that easy. The frustration was evident in the Bengals locker room on Sunday, even for the even-tempered Green.
This one hurt.
“Fans, they come to watch the game,” Green said. “We know how hard we work, not seeing your families all week, 10-hour days with the meetings, and coming out with an ‘L’.
"If you think it’s frustrating for the fans, come walk in our shoes for a week.”