It's a loss. That the Steelers lost, 37-30, Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals here at Acrisure Stadium isn't going to change.
But there were some important things that happened in this game that could pay dividends down the road – if not this season, then certainly next year.
The Steelers hadn't scored 30 points in a game in nearly a year. In fact, the last time they did so was Nov. 21, 2021 against the Chargers in a 42-37 loss.
The difference between this game and that one is that the Steelers scored 27 of their 37 points in that loss to the Chargers in the fourth quarter. In this game, they put up 20 points in the first half – the first time they've done that all season in a half – and added 10 more points in the second half.
Now, that being said, the third quarter was a dead zone, as the Steelers gained 19 yards on four possessions and went three-and-out on all four of those, but for this young offense, the game was a semi-positive step in the right direction.
"There's a lot of good stuff we put on film. We scored points," Steelers running back Najee Harris said. "At one point, we were 5 for 7 on third downs. We scored 30. That was our first time all season scoring 30. That was good. But it's not good enough. In the NFL, you need to be good enough to win games. We need to execute on important downs to be able to succeed."
There are positive signs that's coming.
For the second consecutive week, the Steelers effectively ran the football. Harris finished with 90 yards on 20 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns.
The Steelers also posted their two longest touchdowns of the season, a 19-yard run by Harris and a 24-yard reception by George Pickens, both in the second quarter. Prior to that, the team's longest touchdown this season had come from 8 yards out.
The Steelers were 8 of 17 on third downs and did not turn the ball over for the second consecutive game.
The problem, at least in this game, was the defense didn't follow suit.
A week after holding the New Orleans Saints under 200 total yards and to 10 points, the Steelers allowed 408 yards and 37 points to the Bengals.
Cincinnati had two touchdown drives that accounted for 92 and 93 yards. The 185 total yards on those two possessions was one fewer yard than the Saints gained in the entire game last week.
We'll have more on that later. But in the meantime, it didn't help that the offense went through that dead period in the third quarter, when the Bengals turned a 20-17 deficit into a 27-23 advantage.
"They made adjustments and I don't think we executed," said Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett. "Penalties, not taking advantage of short fields, those are the two things I can think of right now that needed to be done and didn't get done."
To Pickett's point, T.J. Watt had an interception at the Cincinnati 21 with the Steelers trailing 24-20.
The Steelers came out of that with an incompletion in the end zone to tight end Zach Gentry, a Harris run for 6 yards and an incompletion to Diontae Johnson that wasn't close to being catchable. They kicked a field goal.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 11 game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium
Then, after the Bengals got a 54-yard field goal late in the third quarter, the Steelers moved the ball to the Cincinnati 39 via a 33-yard completion to rookie wide receiver George Pickens along the sideline.
They sprinted to the line of scrimmage after that and, thinking they might catch the Bengals napping, attempted to run a flea-flicker. The Bengals got pressure and Pickett threw the ball away. Then, Harris was stopped for a negative gain on the next play – the only time that happened all day – and Pickett was sacked on third down, forcing the Steelers to punt.
They got the ball back after a three-and-out by the Bengals, taking over at the Cincinnati 47, with Harris breaking off a 13-yard run on first down to the 34.
Then, Pat Freiermuth was called for a hold, and center J.C. Hassenauer – subbing for an injured Mason Cole – was called for being downfield early, turning a prime scoring chance into first-and-25.
For a team that's still trying to find itself offensively, that was too much to overcome.
A punt gave the Bengals the ball back at the 7, and they marched 93 yards to put the game away.
"When you're in that position, the field positioning is a component," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "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."
The offense took a step forward, the defense a step back Sunday.
• The running game is something the Steelers should be able to lean on. While they wound up dropping back to pass 44 times in this game and ran it just 24 times, they produced 102 yards, an average of 4.3 per carry. Harris averaged 4.5 yards per attempt. The Bengals had 62 rushing yards and averaged 2.6 yards per attempt.
Couple those things with the fact the Steelers didn't turn the ball over in this game, while forcing two of their own, that typically adds up to a win.
The difference is a number former Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert used to point to when it came to determining wins and losses. The Bengals averaged 6.3 yards per play. The Steelers averaged 5.2 yards per play.
And a lot of what Cincinnati gained came on yards after the catch. The Bengals made some significant plays running after the catch.
It was disheartening considering this was the first time since Week 1 – a 23-20 overtime win over the Bengals – that the Steelers had all of their defensive stars on the field together.
"I would have definitely liked a better showing," admitted defensive captain Cam Heyward. "This was the first time since Week 1. Whoever is out there, we've got to be able to execute at a high level. You look at this game, the little things mattered the most. The hidden yardage in the second half was very key."
• Where was Diontae Johnson in this offense?
When the Steelers traded Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears a few weeks ago for a second-round draft pick, it was supposed to mean the team would be featuring its remaining playmakers more.
Harris got 20 carries for the second consecutive week. Freiermuth got 12 targets, catching eight for 79 yards. Pickens had four catches on six targets for 83 yards.
Johnson? He got five targets, catching four passes for 21 yards.
ESPN analytics show that Johnson is the best player in the NFL creating separation from defensive backs. Pickett needs to give him more opportunities, even if he's "covered."
"With the coverage they were playing, I felt they weren't letting Diontae get singled up," Pickett said. "That's frustrating when he's that good of a player, that talented, and they try to take him out of the game plan. There are some things, maybe move him around and get him in different spots and try to get him the ball. But when they're playing a two-high shell and they've got a safety over the top, it's tough."
One of Johnson's best attributes is his run after the catch. He's been an All-Pro return guy. Get that guy the ball in space and let him create.
You can't let the opponent dictate that your most explosive player won't touch the ball.
• The Bengals didn't allow that to happen with their star receiver Tee Higgins. With Ja'Marr Chase out, the Bengals knew the Steelers would work hard to minimize Higgins. They moved him into the slot and across the formation.
Higgins didn't have a target in the first quarter. He finished with nine catches for 148 yards on 13 targets.
"He's a good player. He's one of their star players," said Steelers strong safety Terrell Edmunds. "We knew that they were going to try to get the ball to him. We just have to figure out how to stop him."
As the game went on, Higgins and Bengals head coach Zac Taylor figured out some things to get him the ball.
"He did a great job of communicating with me on some routes he wanted as the game went based on how they were playing him," Taylor said. "I thought that was awesome."
• Punter Pressley Harvin had a strong game, punting six times for an average of 45.5 yards, with a net of 41.8 yards and two punts downed inside the 10.
The weather in this game was not necessarily conducive to punting well and Harvin, who struggled at times with the weather last year, passed a big test in this one.
• The same thing could be said of fill-in placekicker Matthew Wright. Wright missed a pair of makeable kicks against the Saints last week. But he was perfect in this game, making field goals from 42, 30 and 34 and all three of his PATs.
• Center Mason Cole has a mid-foot issue of some sort, which is a big deal. He has played really well this season.
Hassenauer, the backup, is a solid player, as well, but Cole had really been coming on and was helping Picket with calls up front.
"It was bad to lose Mason," Harris said. "But we believe in J.C. as much as we believe in Mason to get the job done."
• At 3-7, the Steelers still have seven games remaining. At this point, they're not eliminated from playoff contention. But they're obviously teetering very close to that.
"We know we've got to be better. We've still got seven games left, so we've got to keep playing," outside linebacker Alex Highsmith said. "We've got a core group of guys. We know we've got to step up and hold each other accountable. This was not it. We've got to execute better."
Better execution would help. So would holding each other accountable.
Anything that leads to better and more consistent play on the field is what's needed.
"I know the guys in this room. I know when adversity hits, guys in this room can bounce back," Highsmith said.
• This was obviously another game where a play here or there could have turned things in the favor of the Steelers. They've had a bunch of those already.
In fact, outside of their games against the Bills and Eagles, their other eight games looked a lot like this one. They've found a way to win three of them and lost five.
The difference in this one was that the bounces went their way. They didn't turn the ball over and lost for the first time this season when that was the case.
It marked the first time since – wait for it – that game against the Chargers last season that the Steelers lost a game in which they didn't turn the ball over. They had been 5-0 in such games since losing to the Chargers without having a turnover.
It just goes to show that good quarterback play can sometimes overcome those issues. The Bengals got it Sunday, just as the Chargers got it in that game last year from Justin Herbert.
• On the very positive side of things, the Bears lost again Sunday, dropping them to 3-8 and into the No. 2 spot behind Houston for the top pick in next year's draft.
Remember, the Steelers hold Chicago's second-round draft pick, which would be the 33rd selection right now. Miami has already forfeited its first-round pick, meaning there are only 31 selections in the first round of this year's draft.