I love the AFC North rivalries and Steelers versus Bengals is always penciled in on my schedule, but Pittsburgh has now won six in a row and nine of the last ten in this matchup. In the seven games they’ve played over the last three seasons, only two were decided by more than one score, but Cincinnati somehow can’t seem to finish against their division rivals, despite objectively putting up a better effort a lot of times. I want to dive into why the Bengals can’t seem to make this an even series.
First, let’s look at some precedence cases. In 2015 the Bengals started the season 7-0 for the first time in franchise history – that was also the last time they were able to defeat their division rivals. In their second matchup that year, MVP candidate Andy Dalton suffered a season-ending injury and backup A.J. McCarron had to jump in. Cincy lost 33-20, which I don’t want to weigh too heavily, but they were able to win two of their last three games and clinch the AFC North with a 12-4 record. Unfortunately, due to a tie-breaker with the Denver Broncos, it was only good enough for the third seed in the conference and the Bengals were set to host a Wildcard game against, of all teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite McCarron playing excellent through weeks 15 to 17 in the absence of their number one quarterback and Pittsburgh being down to their third-string running back, Marvin Lewis’ team found themselves down 15-0 heading into the fourth quarter. The striped Tigers rallied behind their fill-in signal caller though, scoring 16 unanswered points against a Steelers team, which was now without their starting QB as well. With 1:36 left on the clock, linebacker Vontaze Burfict intercepted Ben Roethlisberger’s backup and all Cincinnati had to do was run the clock down, since the Steelers only had two timeouts left. Yet, on the following play Jeremy Hill is stripped by Ryan Shazier and with Big Ben coming back, this game is still up for grabs. On fourth and three, Ben tries to force a pass to Antonio Brown and it falls incomplete. But there’s a flag – Burfict, who had just made, what looked like it was, the game-sealing pick is flagged for a hit to AB’s head and the Steelers can kick the field goal to advance to the Divisional Round.
From this game on, the Bengals seem to have been doomed. In week two of 2016, the Bengals fought their way back from a 24-9 deficit, but with the opportunity to tie the game, rookie Tyler Boyd once again fumbled inside Pittsburgh’s 40 and the Steelers were able to run the clock down to a couple of seconds and win the game. In their second meeting last year, the Bengals were up 20-6 with less than a minute left in the first half, before Roethlisberger stepped around in the pocket to deliver a huge pass downfield and set up a field-goal. From that point on, it was all Steelers, as they scored 15 unanswered and won 24-20.
That brings us to this year. Cincinnati lost their first three games of the season before winning their next two. Off the bye, the Bengals managed to match the Steelers’ first two touchdowns, but then were shut down in the second half, while throwing two INTs, allowing four sacks and a conversion off a punt-fake to make the final score 33-14. On Monday night, I thought the Bengals would finally slay the dragon and get back in the win column. They came off consecutive wins and were looking to put themselves back into the playoff hunt with a 6-6 record potentially. Up 17-3 five minutes into the second half, the Bengals once again put stones in-between themselves and a win. On a day, at which they broke their franchise record for penalty yardage, the one play they were hesitant to go all in, it was cornerback William Jackson who pulled up along the sideline to avoid a flag, but opened the door for Le’Veon Bell to scamper into the end-zone. To be honest, there were some ticky-tack calls by the referees, which resulted in one of A.J. Green’s long touchdowns being taken off the board once and setting the Steelers up in scoring range, with a pass-interference against Dre Kirkpatrick who ran stride for stride with his man and he just arm-locked a little, which he was taught to do all his life by coaches. Nevertheless, Cincy gave up a LOT of free yardage (173 to be exact) on a bunch of silly mistakes and it came back to hurt them. They managed to put another field-goal on the board, but when the Steelers started their comeback, it just felt like they would absolutely beat their division foes again and even down a touchdown, I would have put my money on Pittsburgh. Tied at 20 in the fourth quarter, I almost felt like they should go for a fourth & five from their own 17 or maybe even fake the punt. I just knew they wouldn’t be able to stop the Big Ben & company and lose in bitter fashion once again.
As the title of this article says, I see the Steelers having the psychological edge in this matchup. That illustrates itself in numbers as well as what the eye-test tells me.
We all understand this is a heated rivalry and with some of the hits we saw on Monday night, a lot of viewers certainly didn’t like the violence displayed, especially if you see players on both sides being hurt. Pittsburgh has a bunch of young players on their squad, who are prone to mental mistakes at times or investing too much energy into things, which don’t influence the outcome of games. Whether that may be taunting opponents, sideline outbursts or, even though it’s allowed now, celebrations in the end-zone. Yet, it’s the Bengals, who have been shooting themselves in the foot mostly in this matchup in recent years. In those six consecutive losses to their AFC North rivals, Cincinnati has doubled the number of turnover at 12-6 and the only time, they won the battle in that department, was their last game, when Big Ben threw a first quarter INT before the Steelers went on to outscore the Bengals 20-3 in the second half. Even more mind-boggling has been the already mentioned penalty yardage those Tigers have given up for free. While a game like this calls for a multitude of flags in general and the Steelers have actually outgained their rivals in terms of penalty yardage in 2015 and 2016, it has been the amount of first downs allowed through penalties, that has killed Cincinnati. Over the course of this six-game losing streak to their opponents, they have surrendered a total of 22 first downs via penalty to keep drives alive constantly and, like I said, on Monday night they helped out a little as well, with the yardage to almost drive the length of the field twice.
Not only has it been the Bengals team as a whole, which hasn’t had their best days against their foes from Pennsylvania, it has been individual players, who have had really rough outings over the last three years. During that span, it took until Monday night for a Cincinnati running-back to surpass the 50-yard mark though a contest. In particular, Jeremy Hill has struggled mightily against the Steelers. In five of those matchups he was active, while being their leader rushing in every one of them until this season, he has amassed a total of 138 yards on the ground on his 54 carries. That gives him an average of 2.5 yards a clip and his worst moment came in that 2015 playoff game, when he basically fumbled away the victory. At this point, I’d like to mention as well, that Vontaze Burfict and some of his members on defense already celebrated with a run into the tunnel after he thought he had just made the game-clinching pick. Another Cincinnati member, who has had some bad outings versus Pittsburgh, has been cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. Like I mentioned at times throughout the last couple of seasons, he has been a borderline top-ten cornerback in this league for me, but when it comes to this series, I’m sure the six-year vet out of Alabama would probably like to burn the tape. Outside of quite a few big plays allowed on his account, he has been the victim of a huge number of penalties. Over the last three years, Kirkpatrick has been flagged for pass interference five times for 140 yards as well as five calls for defensive holding. To put this into perfective, during that time he has given up a total of 320 yards via penalty. That means almost half of that number came against the Steelers, which is just crazy. Yet, what hurts me even more to watch have been his battles against Le’Veon Bell in the open field. This season alone, he has been humiliated in both matchups by the league’s top RB. In week seven, Bell caught a short pass over the middle, made a couple of defenders miss and then just bounced Kirkpatrick like a basketball on a stiff-arm. On Monday night it was a fourth-and-inches situation, when the All-Pro back went off the right side to truck the corner like he was a high-schooler and kept on going.
Most importantly for me though, the Bengals simply haven’t been able to sustain any momentum to win those games against their division rivals. I will disregard their one matchup when Andy Dalton went down with an injury early, but let’s take another look at the last five games of this series. Obviously, Cincinnati led a furious comeback surge in that 2015 Wildcard matchup, when the advantage was clearly on their side. Roethlisberger was out of the game, the Bengals defense stifled anything the back-up QB tried to do and Burfict made the big play to seal the deal. There was basically no way the outcome of this game could still be changed, but when it was most important, one of their players managed to put their fortunes back into the hands of Big Ben, who had just returned. And then it was a dumb mental mistake by the leader of their defense, to attack Antonio Brown’s head area on a fourth-down play with the pass being out of reach. This one wasn’t on the Steelers, the Bengals gave away the game at the end. In their two 2016 matchups, they once were on their way of crawling back from a two-touchdown deficit, but ultimately fumbled away their chance to do so, while the second time around, they dominated the first 29 minutes of the half number one, but then a switch was flipped and and it was all Steelers from that point on. Week six of this season, those two squads went blow for blow early on, but then the Bengals just lost their attitude when Bell put that enormous stiff-arm on Kirkpatrick and were a completely different team. Even on Monday night, in a game where the Steelers were clearly in shock because of the horrific scene of Ryan Shazier being carted off the field, which head coach Mike Tomlin even admitted to, saying it was hard for him to focus on the game, Cincy just couldn’t take advantage of the big lead they had built through the first half and then kind of surrendered the victory with mental errors.
The bottom line:
You can say the Steelers have had some luck with referees and the ball bouncing their way in recent years, but there’s no dispute in the way those head-to-heads have been mentally owned by Pittsburgh. This series could easily be tied since the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton in 2012, because they have had one of the top rosters in the league throughout those years, but when the game has been on the line, they have just lost the mental battle and as a result the games as well. While everybody has been beating up on the Browns, the Ravens – Steelers series has gone back-and-forth, with the record since 2000 being at 20-19 advantage Steelers and 10-7 for the Ravens since 2010, but Marvin Lewis and his troops just haven’t been able to stick up to the bully and come away with victories. This has nothing to do with talent anymore. It’s all in their heads.