The Pittsburgh Steelers could have chalked up their first two losses of the season to logical explanations.
They ran into a good defense against Washington. They were due for a loss. They didn't have James Conner. Buffalo was rolling. They're still adjusting to their irregular schedule. They're really banged up.
Monday night brought valid reasons to sound the alarms. Pittsburgh fell to the woeful Bengals, who entered their late-season, prime-time affair with little to be proud of since losing promising rookie quarterback Joe Burrow to a season-ending knee injury. Cincinnati had largely been lifeless in its last month, and it seemed as if the offensively struggling Steelers had received a scheduling gift at a perfect time.
Nope. The Bengals played inspired football and jumped all over Pittsburgh's offense, which gave us four more quarters of proof that it is broken, turning the ball over three times in the first half and giving Cincinnati short fields, which the Bengals turned into a 17-0 lead. Cincinnati held on, taking a 27-17 win into the winter solstice and leaving the Steelers dazed and searching for answers once again.
"I'm not disappointed, I'm just pissed off," Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said, via ESPN. "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."
Pittsburgh's offense has done exactly the opposite of starting fast in the last month, going without a first-half offensive touchdown in two of its last four games. Even when it did start relatively quickly in Week 13, scoring two touchdowns in the second quarter against Washington, it ground to a halt, giving the opposition plenty of time to mount a comeback.
Cincinnati didn't need time to mount a comeback Monday night, because the Steelers put an early lead on a platter for the Bengals. Ben Roethlisberger accounted for two of the Steelers' three first-half turnovers (noted midfield Tik Tok dancer JuJu Smith-Schuster also fumbled away possession) and finished with a forgettable passing line (20-of-38, 170 yards, one touchdown, one interception). His passer rating of 62.4 was his second straight under 66.
"I'm not consistent enough, which affects the offense because the ball is in my hand every play," Roethlisberger said. "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."
The downfield shots mention is notable only because it's become a chorus from the Steelers, who point to their need to push the ball on a weekly basis while still falling short of doing so consistently on game day. Going deep is great in theory, but not if it becomes more of a pipe dream than reality, primarily because the Steelers have either struggled with drops (Ravens, Washington games), have seen Roethlisberger miss his target on multiple occasions (versus the Bills), or haven't been able to give him enough time to throw deep (Monday night).
It took Heyward a little bit to get to the actual issue in his response, first attempting to pin blame on his unit for not limiting Cincinnati to three points "or nothing" before coming around to admitting the offense isn't doing its part. It hasn't been for most of the month, and although it showed some life in a brief second-half comeback push, the Steelers again could not sustain their offensive momentum long enough to win a game.
The Steelers have two weeks to figure things out before the playoffs arrive, and there doesn't seem to be any answers in sight. The once-explosive Pittsburgh offense has vanished, and with games against two teams hot on their tail at 10-4 (Indianapolis and Cleveland) to close the season, there's little time left for soul searching.
"I'm a firm believer that things don't change just by believing they will," Heyward said. "Our work has to reflect that. We have to solve that in practice. Whatever it takes. That's not guaranteed. We've got to get to work. We've got to solve this and understand where we're falling short. I know we've had guys injured, but that's not an excuse. The guys that can go out and play have to get the job done."