A couple of weeks ago, Coach Mike Tomlin said that he often speaks to the team through the media, especially those sessions that happen after a game or during his weekly in-season news conferences on Tuesdays at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
"My Tuesday press conference gives them a snapshot of what Wednesday morning is going to be about, to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin about those occasions. "I talk about the significant components of the matchup, the personality, the significant situational things we need to be aware of, etc. What I'm doing is giving them a preview of what they should anticipate on Wednesday morning."
Maybe the delivery of that message is subtle at times, but on the Tuesday before the Steelers were to travel to Cincinnati for the second of the annual home-and-home series vs. the Bengals, Tomlin chose to be blunt.
"This is a big week for us, and I think that's one of the approaches we're gonna take this week," is the way Tomlin began that news conference. "We're not gonna play it cool and pretend like it's not (big) or downplay it. This is significant AFC North football for us. Very similar to the circumstances that we were in a couple of weeks ago when we were readying ourselves to go to Cleveland. These games are big. They are. You're not gonna backdoor your way into the single elimination tournament. You're not gonna backdoor your way into division significance. You've gotta go on the road and win games in this division, and that's just the reality of it. The sugar on top is obviously, earlier in the season, they were able to come to our place and win. It's a big game for us, it's a big game for them."
In the days leading up to Steelers at Bengals on Nov. 28, describing it as a "big game" was fair. In fact, it was a game that came as close to a must-win situation as possible when there are still six games remaining in their 2021 regular season, when three of those six games are against AFC North opponents. But arithmetic aside, Steelers at Bengals had the feel of a game that might not determine the winner of the AFC North but could provide some strong evidence about whether either of the participants had the stuff to finish the season atop the division.
And when it was over, the final score of Bengals 41, Steelers 10 certainly felt as though the game had done just that.
"Not a lot to say. Tip our caps to those guys," said Tomlin in the immediate aftermath. "They played today and won and did the things that were required of a big game like this, and we didn't. We didn't play nearly well enough in any of the phases, and — significantly I thought — we got beat up-front on both sides of the ball, and they won the line of scrimmage. When you win the line of scrimmage, the game has a chance to look like that … We stunk it up today."
That assessment was inarguable, and it didn't take long for that impression to take root. Against the Chargers the previous week, the Steelers defense allowed scores on each of the opponent's first five possessions, and the deficit was 27-10 heading into the fourth quarter. As bad as that was, a case can be made that things were worse against the Bengals, because in that game the defense allowed scoring drives in each of Cincinnati's first four possessions, and the deficit was 31-3 at halftime after a pick-six by Mike Hilton added a defensive touchdown to the Bengals offense's total.
The Bengals put together touchdown drives of 75, 75, and 84 yards in the first half. On the first of those, Joe Mixon rushed for 49 yards on seven carries, and the Bengals had gained 57 of those 75 yards on the ground when Joe Burrow's 8-yard touchdown scramble is added to Mixon's total. On the second 75-yard touchdown drive, Burrow completed 5-for-5 for 69 of the yards, including the 32-yarder to Tee Higgins for the touchdown. And then on the 84-yard scoring drive, Mixon gained 50 yards on nine carries, and in one stretch he carried seven straight times for gains of 9, 8, 9, 0, 9, 5, and 1 for the touchdown.
"A loss is a loss. We got our tails kicked," said Cam Heyward. "We did not play well in any facet of the game. Too much pitch and catch, and when they did pass the ball, they fell forward every single time. Even down in the red zone, the stops we got were not enough. We have to get back on the horse. The first quarter has been terrible for us, the way we start games. We have to pick it up."
Against the Chargers, it was just one phase that seemed to be letting the team down. In Cincinnati, it was two of the three.
On the third play following the Bengals' game-opening touchdown drive, Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted by cornerback Eli Apple when trying to get the ball to Chase Claypool. Apple's 50-yard return put the ball at the Steelers 5-yard line.
On that occasion, the defense rose up, and after Chris Wormley sacked Burrow for a loss of 11 yards on a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Bengals settled for a field goal and a 10-0 lead. It didn't feel like a victory at the time, but that stand represented a highlight for the Steelers, which illustrates had bad things actually were.
Still, it wasn't until the final minute of the first half when it seemed as though things had hit rock bottom. After Mixon capped that 84-yard drive with his 1-yard touchdown that made it 24-3 with 2:43 before halftime, the Steelers took the ensuing kickoff and went three-and-out. After Pressley Harvin's 37-yard punt, the Bengals offense was back on the field at the Cincinnati 29-yard line with 1:48 on the clock and all three of its timeouts.
Burrow completed three straight passes for 61 yards, and then a Mixon run for eight yards had the Bengals at the Steelers 26-yard line with two timeouts left and 62 seconds left in the second period. An offensive interference penalty on Ja'Marr Chase cost the Bengals 10 yards, and when Burrow tried to make up for the rookie receiver's mistake and get the ball down the sideline to Tee Higgins, Minkah Fitzpatrick came flying over from the middle of the field to intercept the pass. His 18-yard return gave the Steelers the ball at their 24-yard line with 37 seconds left, and it appeared the halftime deficit would be no more than 24-3.
But that dream evaporated when Roethlisberger tried to get the ball to James Washington on a sideline route on first down, and Mike Hilton stepped between the receiver and the football, and the resulting 24-yard pick-six made the halftime deficit 31-3.
If there was any hope of a Steelers comeback, a la the game against the Chargers, that hope disappeared like a puff of smoke on a windy day when the offense managed only three first downs on its first three possessions of the second half, with two of those ending in punts and the other ending with the third turnover of the afternoon.
"Not a lot to be said. You get your butt kicked, it happens," said Roethlisberger after having his interception-less streak end at five games and 175 pass attempts. "These things happen. It's one of those games that you come in tomorrow and talk about it, even if there's not much to say. It is what it is.
Then when asked about moving past such a disappointing performance, Roethlisberger added, "It's tough because we're getting into crunch time, and it's a divisional opponent. You want to come out playing good football and you don't. It stinks, but we're going to have to move on, we have another (game against a division opponent) next week."
At this point, it's difficult to determine if that's the good news or the bad news.