About an hour ago
CINCINNATI – An extra day of preparation was supposed to rejuvenate the Pittsburgh Steelers and help them recapture the groove that resulted in 11 consecutive wins to start the season.
Instead, the opposite happened.
The malaise that has stricken the Steelers in December lingered Monday night when they fell behind by 17 points to the last-place Cincinnati Bengals and were stunned, 27-17, at Paul Brown Stadium.
The loss was the third in a row for the Steelers (11-3), who not only failed to clinch the AFC North title, they dropped to the No. 3 seed in the conference hierarchy.
With two games remaining, the Steelers hold a one-game edge on 10-4 Cleveland. And they play the 10-4 Indianapolis Colts in just six days.
“We’re not a good football group now,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We understand the consequences that come with that. We’re working on a short week. We’ve got to be better than we’ve been. That’s the reality of it.”
The Steelers were hoping that having an extra day to prepare for the Bengals — after working on short weeks before games against Washington and Buffalo — would get them back on track. But the offense turned the ball over three times and failed to put up 20 points for the fourth game in a row. The defense allowed 152 yards rushing and a long touchdown drive in the second half after the Steelers had pulled within 17-10.
The Steelers only have two games remaining until the postseason to correct their laundry list of deficiencies.
“I’m a firm believer that things don’t change by believing they will,” defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “Our work has to reflect that. We have to solve that in practice. Whatever it takes. … We’ve got to get to work and solve this and understand where we’re falling short.”
Three turnovers — two fumbles and an interception — in an ugly first half led to 17 unanswered points by the Bengals, who had lost five games in a row and eight of their past nine.
The Bengals, in fact, had lost 11 games in a row to the Steelers dating to 2015.
In December 2017, the Steelers also trailed by 17 points in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium and rallied for a 23-20 victory. This time, they pulled within 17-10 and 24-17 in the second half but could get no closer.
“You exert so much energy, and you get to the point where you need one or two plays, and it went their way,” Heyward said about the second-half rally. “We just didn’t get the job done. It’s going to stick with us. It sounds like I’m beating a drum, but it (ticks) us off that we didn’t finish.”
On a day when ESPN reported that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger planned to return for the 2021 season, the 17-year veteran presided over a dismal first half for the Steelers, who had two first downs and 40 total yards in the opening 30 minutes.
Roethlisberger finished 20 of 38 for 170 yards, one touchdown and one interception. For the second week in a row, he had a season-low passer rating.
Roethlisberger tried to open up a passing game that had become reliant on short passes by looking for receivers down the middle and on deep routes. Still, he had just 19 yards passing in the first half when he completed 7 of 16 attempts.
His overthrown pass that was intercepted by cornerback Mackenzie Alexander in the second quarter set up a touchdown that gave the Bengals a 17-point cushion.
“It felt like they were taking away some of the underneath stuff,” Roethlisberger said. “We wanted to try to take some shots down the field. The disconnect was me not making it happen.”
Bengals counterpart Ryan Finley completed just 7 of 13 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown, but he provided the insurance touchdown on a 23-yard run in the fourth quarter for a 24-10 lead. Running back Giovani Bernard had a rushing and receiving touchdown for the Bengals.
While the passing game continued to struggle, Benny Snell replaced injured starter James Conner and rushed for 84 yards on 18 carries with one touchdown. Snell gained more yards than the Steelers had rushing in the previous two games combined (68).
When the Steelers exited the locker room at halftime, they trailed 17-0. Whatever transpired during intermission, it awakened the offense, which scored on its first two possessions.
It took four plays for the Steelers to go 67 yards for a touchdown, with Roethlisberger finding Diontae Johnson for a 23-yard score.
Chris Boswell’s 25-yard field goal with 5:27 left in the third trimmed the Steelers’ deficit to 17-10.
The Bengals, though, refused to wilt. After getting a three-and-out near the end of the quarter, Finley directed a nine-play, 80-yard drive that he capped with a 23-yard touchdown run on a bootleg through an open hole in the left side. Finley was never touched en route to the end zone, and the Bengals held a 24-10 lead with 11:21 remaining.
The Steelers countered with Snell’s 1-yard touchdown run with 5:32 left to pull within 24-17. JuJu Smith-Schuster had a 21-yard catch on the drive, and a pass interference call on fourth down against William Jackson gave the Steelers a first down at the 1. Snell scored on the next play.
The Steelers got the ball back at their 24 with 2:17 and one timeout remaining. Roethlisberger threw four consecutive incomplete passes, sending a fourth-and-10 toss over the head of James Washington.
Austin Seibert kicked a 33-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining to push the Bengals’ lead to 10.
None of the Bengals’ scoring drives in the first half was longer than 38 yards.
“It was an uphill battle the rest of the way because of that,” Tomlin said.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
Sports | Steelers/NFL