It was supposed to be a get-right game against a two-win team, the perfect stage on Monday Night Football to stop a two-game skid and reclaim the AFC North crown for the first time since 2017.
Instead, it was an embarrassment.
Rather than clinching the division, the Pittsburgh Steelers dropped their third straight in a 27-17 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, snapping the Steelers’ 11-game win streak against the franchise.
“I’m not disappointed — I’m just pissed off,” Steelers defensive captain Cam Heyward said. “We just lost the damn game. I think that’s the way our team feels. We’re not feeling sorry for ourselves, but we’ve got to get the job done. We’re two weeks out.
“We’ve just got to play our brand of football. Attack the line of scrimmage, offense and defense. We need to make plays early and not be in a catch-up game. As a defense, if you get in the red zone, it’s got to be three points or nothing. It can’t be touchdowns. They go up early, and to start 17-0, you’re asking for a lot from our offense. Our offense just has to start fast.”
The Steelers (11-3) entered Monday’s game as 14.5-point favorites. With the loss, they matched their largest upset defeat since 1966.
Including the Rams’ loss to the Jets on Sunday, Week 15 marked the fourth time in the Super Bowl era that two underdogs of 14-plus points won outright.
Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ 38-year-old quarterback, looked every bit his age in the first half, putting together a performance that led to the worst offensive effort in any first half in his 17-season Steelers career.
In addition to setting new lows in passing yards (7) and yards per play (1.4), the Steelers matched their fewest first downs (two) and most turnovers in a first half (three) with Roethlisberger as their starter en route to a 17-point halftime deficit.
“I’m not consistent enough, which affects the offense because the ball is in my hand every play,” Roethlisberger said.
The Bengals (3-10-1) took those three turnovers — two fumbles and an interception — and turned them into two touchdowns and a field goal.
“That was not good enough for us,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “The performance speaks for itself. We turned the ball over at the early portions of the game. You can’t do that. You can’t do that vs. anybody. We gave them a short field three times in the first half or so, and so it was an uphill battle the rest of the way because of that.”
Instead of relying on short passes, Roethlisberger came out and attempted long and intermediate throws that seemed missing from the offense the past few weeks. But he didn’t have any success pushing the ball down the field, misfiring and underthrowing his receivers.
The drops that plagued his receivers in recent games weren’t the problem. Roethlisberger’s throws just weren’t on the mark.
Roethlisberger failed to complete any of his seven throws of 10-plus air yards in the first half, and six of them were broken up or intercepted by Bengals defenders.
“I just felt like they were taking away some of the underneath stuff, so we wanted to take some shots down the field and the disconnect was me not making it happen,” Roethlisberger said.
For the first time in 20 seasons — including the postseason — the Steelers went three-and-out on their first five possessions, including two fumbles that led to 10 points for the Bengals. It marked the first time since Week 3 of 2017 at the Bears that the Steelers lost two fumbles in the first quarter.
The Steelers failed to gain a first down in the first quarter for the first time since 2018 Week 8 vs. the Browns. Their first first down Monday came with just less than 10 minutes to go in the second quarter.
The Steelers started to climb out of the three-score hole in the third quarter, as Roethlisberger completed seven of 10 passes for 89 yards and a touchdown on a 23-yard deep strike to Diontae Johnson, his first completion of 10-plus air yards Monday.
Playing without running back James Conner, who was ruled out because of a quad injury prior to the game, the run game was once again nonexistent in the first half. But Benny Snell Jr. came alive in the second half with runs of 13 and 29 yards. The 29-yard gain was the longest run by a Steelers running back since Week 2, when Conner picked up 59 yards.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
Roethlisberger finished the game completing 20 of 38 attempts for 170 yards with one touchdown and one interception — just enough to give him 60,000 passing yards in his career.
A Bengals offense led by third-string quarterback Ryan Finley wore down a Steelers defense playing with significant injuries to its inside linebackers. Finley used his legs on a crucial drive spanning the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth to score a 23-yard, game-sealing touchdown. Finley finished with 47 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown along with 89 passing yards and another TD.
“We gave up a QB run to really give them a little bit of breathing room,” Heyward said. “We’re storming back in the third quarter, but I felt like we let them off the hook as a defense. We’re trying to ask our offense to do too much.”
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