After two straight losses anchored by stagnant offense, Monday was supposed to be a get-right game for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was anything but.
A two-win Cincinnati Bengals team helmed by backup quarterback Ryan Finley handed the once 11-0 Steelers their third straight loss. The stunning 27-17 defeat dropped the Steelers to 11-3 and raised more questions about the effectiveness of 38-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
What’s wrong with Roethlisberger?
Roethlisberger opened the first half completing 7 of 16 pass attempts for 19 yards with an interception. He was better after halftime, but not good enough in a game where Finley was the best quarterback on the field.
Roethlisberger’s first pass of the night was a deep ball to James Washington that fell incomplete at least 5 yards short of where it needed to be.
After the Bengals converted a violent Vonn Bell forced fumble of JuJu Smith-Schuster into a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead, Roethlisberger gave the ball back on an ill-advised throw into a crowded Bengals zone.
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 22, 2020
The Bengals converted that turnover into a 17-0 lead.
Too little, too late
Roethliberger found a semblance of rhythm in leading the Steelers to a touchdown drive to open the second half. It was too little too late. The Bengals would never let the heavily favored Steelers within a touchdown and fittingly thwarted Roethlisberger’s last-ditch effort on a fourth-down pass that fell incomplete inside the two-minute warning.
Just weeks ago, the Steelers were the last unbeaten team in the NFL. They have now gone four straight games without scoring 20 points. The scoring drought arrives after Pittsburgh scored at least 24 points in each of its first 10 games.
It’s not going to get easier with tough games against the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns left on the schedule.
Tough problem to fix this late in the season
With two games left before the playoffs, the Steelers are facing a quarterback quandary at the wrong time.
Roethlisberger finished the night completing 20 of 38 attempts for 170 yards with a touchdown and an interception. After three games that saw his receivers hurt his and the Steelers’ bottom lines with drops, there was no blaming the pass catchers on Monday.
Drops weren’t a problem against Cincinnati. Roethlisberger’s frequently off-target arm was.
"I would say that I don’t feel 100 percent,” Roethlisberger told reporters. “But nobody feels 100 percent right now.”
The Bengals were fired up to face their long-time division rivals in a game that was violent and personal. Bell’s first-half hit on Smith-Schuster arrived after he promised to make the Steelers wide receiver pay for his pregame routine of dancing on opponents’ logos.
In a lost 3-10-1 season that saw rookie quarterback Joe Burrow go down with an ACL injury, the Bengals have delivered their 2020 highlight. And they left the Steelers looking like a team that could go one-and-done in the playoffs.
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