There were a lot of friendly statistics when the game was over. The Steelers converted 8-of-17 on third down (47.1 percent) to the Bengals' 3-of-9 (33.3 percent). The Steelers outrushed Cincinnati, 102-62, and had a better per carry average, 4.3-2.6. The offense finished with 351 total net yards, scored three touchdowns in a game for the first time this season, and it exceeded 23 points for the first time by finishing with 30. And the 30 points was the most for the Steelers in a game since Nov. 21, 2021, when they scored 37 in a 41-27 loss to the Chargers.
Unfortunately, those statistics didn't add up to squat, because the Steelers lost, 37-30, to the Bengals at Acrisure Stadium to drop to 3-7, and for the third time this season they failed to capitalize on an opportunity build a two-game winning streak.
While there could be some sentiment to view the performance against the Bengals as one indicating progress, that has to be suppressed by the reality there are no moral victories in the NFL, and with this season more than halfway over, any notion that making progress is a worthy accomplishment rings hollow.
For a half against the Bengals, things were unfolding nicely. The Steelers held a 20-17 lead at halftime thanks to scores on four of their five offensive possessions; they were 2-for-3 in the red zone, plus-1 in turnover ratio, 71.4 percent on third down, and were running the ball and stopping the run better than Cincinnati. In addition, the Steelers were to receive the second half kickoff, but that's where things fell apart. Not on the kickoff specifically, but in the second half as a whole.
It's worth noting that there were 12 games played on Sunday, and the team that ended up winning those 12 outscored its opponent in the second half in 11 of them. But instead of a strong finishing kick, the Steelers wilted in the third quarter and then couldn't make up the ground they had lost in the fourth.
"I thought the significant component of the game was the field positioning in the second half, (particularly) the third quarter," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "We had the short field on offense and weren't able to get points. I think we had a holding penalty and ended up third-and-25. Just when you're in a battle like that, you've got the short field, you've got to produce points.
"We didn't. I thought it was significant," added Tomlin. "We pinned them back and they went plus 90 (yards) and scored a touchdown on the subsequent drive. I thought that was a significant sequence in the game, particularly from a field positioning standpoint. When you're in that position, the field positioning is a component. When you've got it, you've got to maintain it. It has to produce points, and obviously when you've got it on defense, you can't allow them to drive the field. Those are a couple things that happened that I thought shaped the second half of the football game."
Taking Tomlin's words and attaching them to specific events starting in the third quarter serve as a road map for this defeat.
After receiving the second half kickoff, the Steelers gained just 1 yard on three plays and punted. When the Bengals punted the ball back, the Steelers had lost 16 yards of field position and began their second possession of the half at their 9-yard line. A second three-and-out by the offense, and the Bengals took over at their 41-yard line. Seven plays and 59 yards later, a 1-yard pass from Joe Burrow to Trenton Irwin put Cincinnati in front, 24-20. A third straight three-and-out following the Bengals' kickoff meant the Steelers had run nine plays that gained 13 yards and consumed 4 minutes, 45 seconds of the game clock, and all they had to show for it was they had lost the lead for good.
T.J. Watt's interception gave the Steelers one final chance to accomplish something in the third quarter, but despite good starting field position at the Cincinnati 21-yard line, the offense set about trying to take advantage of that in a curious and frustrating way.
On first down, Kenny Pickett overthrew Zach Gentry, who had run a deep route up the seam. Gentry isn't on an NFL roster because those kinds of routes are his forte, but even if they were he was double-covered in that instance and had no realistic chance to make a play on the ball. Najee Harris gained 6 yards on second down, and then Pickett was pressured and threw the ball into the ground trying to hook up with Diontae Johnson on third down. Matthew Wright kicked a 34-yard field goal, but that seemed turned out to be slight consolation.
Certainly, the offense was short circuiting time and again in the second half, but it wasn't as though special teams and the defense were blameless, either.
Following Wright's field goal, Trayveon Williams returned the ensuing kickoff 42 yards, and then the Bengals nickeled-and-dimed the Steelers defense for 22 yards on 9 plays to get Evan McPherson in position to restore Cincinnati's 4-point lead, 27-23, via a 52-yard field goal with 31 seconds left in the third quarter.
There would be one final sequence that, for all intents and purposes, closed the book on the Steelers realistic chances for a victory, and once again there was plenty of blame to go around.
On the second play of the fourth quarter, the Steelers had a third-and-4 from their 28-yard line when Pickett threw a pretty pass deep down the right sideline where George Pickens made a great catch for a 33-yard gain to the Cincinnati 39-yard line. The Steelers hurried to the line of scrimmage and snapped the ball, but the play turned out to be an ugly reverse-pass that fell incomplete, and then on the next two snaps Harris lost 2 yards and then Trey Hendrickson sacked Pickett for a 10-yard loss on third down to end the threat. Pressley Harvin III's punt pinned Cincinnati at its 10-yard line, and after the defense forced a three-and-out, the offense was back on the field with a fresh set of downs at the Bengals 47-yard line.
Harris ran for 13, and then he ran for 3, but that play was nullified by a holding penalty on Pat Freiermuth. On first-and-20, Pickett and Harris missed a handoff, and while it seemed as though Pickett managed to make some chicken salad with a 7-yard pass to Pickens, that was nullified because J.C. Hassenauer was illegally downfield because the original play was supposed to be a run. Two short passes fell incomplete, and then on third-and-25, the Steelers settled for a give-up draw play and another punt that had Harvin pin the Bengals at their 7-yard line.
On a 10-play, 92-yard drive in the first half, Burrow had completed 7-of-7 for 79 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown to Samage Perine. This time, on what would turn out to be an 8-play, 93-yard drive, Burrow completed 4-of-4 for 80 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown to Perine.
"You know, I thought that was a significant sequence that kind of defined the second half and ultimately the outcome of the game," said Tomlin. "We got the ball at midfield. We don't produce points. Pinned them back, and they go the length of the field. That's a significant swing."
An 11-point deficit with 4:30 remaining was too much for the Steelers to overcome, and once again the players were left trying to explain a defeat.
"We just need to finish plays," said Watt. "I mean, myself personally, I only get so many one-on-ones in a game. When I get them, I need to execute, and I need to finish on the quarterback, and I wasn't able to do that tonight.
"We're not where we want to be clearly right now but sitting here and sulking about it isn't going to do anything. We have to be real with what we put on tape. Can't take everything personally. We have to digest the film and practice hard and then come out next week with a better performance."
It was a familiar refrain after an all-too familiar outcome.