You can talk about the last 22 seconds, maybe holding penalty on cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, the gambling blitz out of a goal-line defense on their 31, the possible illegal pick and Marvin Lewis leaving too much time ticking on Big Ben.
But the Bengals lost another jump-the-shark-28-21 soap opera to the Steelers Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium because they didn't just blitz on Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown's 31-yard catch-and-run touchdown with 10 seconds left. They blitzed much of the day and they never touched Roethlisberger. Nose tackle Andrew Billings had the only hit on him.
"That's what they do. Max protect," said left end Carlos Dunlap, who pointed to Big Ben's savvy in the last drive. "He knew he had time on the clock. He threw short routes. That's what a veteran quarterback does. He gets rid of it. That takes away the rush."
Not only that, their nickel package, reduced severely in the second half without WILL linebacker Nick Vigil (knee), slot cornerback Darqueze Dennard (shoulder) and safety Shawn Williams (possible concussion), got smoked 57 percent of the time on third down as Pittsburgh rolled up 481 yards with three 100-yard performers. If Brown had the coffin nails, running mate JuJu Smith-Schuster supplied the hammer with a 23-yarder smack down the middle of a Cover Two against a four-man rush to put them in field goal position. While the Bengals have two tight ends out either for the year (Tyler Eifert) or a long time (Tyler Kroft), three Steelers tight ends combined for 16 catches for 129 yards.
"The big thing is,' said Vincent Rey, who replaced Vigil for his first significant scrimmage snaps this season, "we have to get off the field on third down. We have to do better and that includes me."
Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green slithered for seven catches for 85 yards underneath the Steelers' deep net secondary preventing the big pop and had two big ones for 30 yards in the go-ahead drive. The 23-yarder down the middle of a zone with 1:24 left was their only 20-yard play of the day. But he was grousing about his two drops on the first two drives, especially the first one that he thinks cost them points on what ended up being a three-and-out.
"I think the first one, that could have kept the chains moving," Green said. "The second one, I (later in the drive) converted a third down but the first one, I feel like we definitely could have gotten some points out of that. I can't let that happen. (I'll) try to stick it through, but you can't have drops like that."
And early in the season the Bengals looked to have the next Le'Veon Bell in the AFC North in running back Joe Mixon and on Sunday he had 5.8 yards per carry. But James Conner, Bell's replacement, also had 5.8 yards per carry. He carried it 19 times. Mixon carried it 11.
"The only thing that's frustrating is we lost it. They didn't beat us today in my opinion," said Dunlap after engaging in his ninth season of The Rivalry. "There's not one person you can point to and say they did their part on and off the field."
The frustration was palpable. In their last four Paul Brown Stadium games against their arch-rivals, they've let fourth-quarter leads slip away, two of them on basically last-snap field goals and then Sunday's shocking last-shot TD that conjured up Bill Cowher's last snap as Steelers' head coach: Roethlisberger's 67-yard-catch-and-run dish to Santonio Holmes in overtime of the 2006 PBS game.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd's frustration bubbled. Boyd, his big year becoming bigger with two touchdowns and 62 yards on seven catches, felt the Bengals were the better team. And so did Kirkpatrick.
"Of course," Green said. "Like I said, we had some errors. Like I said, I had two drops that really cost us some points I feel like, especially the first one. I've got to do better on my end, I've got to do a better job. Andy (Dalton) threw a great ball so I've got to make those plays."
Kirkpatrick had a tough day as he tried to keep together a secondary dropping like flies. They're hoping Dennard and Vigil have only sprains and Williams may have to pass concussion protocol before Sunday night's game in Kansas City. So they may have to go through this again with the Chiefs. It will be recalled in last year's Steelers game at PBS Kirkpatrick got hit with two pass interference penalties totaling 68 yards. On Sunday he got the big holding call with 22 seconds left.
"(Roethlisberger) was out of the pocket," Kirkpatrick said. "He put his hands on me. I should have been able to get my hands on him. He tried to push off on me. I held my ground. I had outside leverage. He was trying to go outside."
Safety Clayton Fejedelem, playing for Shawn Williams, may have had the best view in the house.
Images from week six as the Bengals host the Steelers in an AFC North showdown.
"I don't feel that was a hold. I don't think it was at all," Fejedelem said. "They were just kind of scrambling and running into each other. AB is so shifty they kind of figured if he didn't get off he was just running into him. Sometimes you've got take it out of the refs' hands."
In some ways this Bengals-Steelers was if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all.
There was a post-game scuffle. There was the obligatory scrutiny of a Vontaze Burfict play with snapshots of a possible elbow to Brown's head being circulated in cyberspace. Kirkpatrick said he didn't see it and that Burfict was merely playing ball. "They've got to relax," said Kirkpatrick of possible league action. Burfict declined to talk.
And there was Big Ben with his eighth game-winning drive against the Bengals, seventh at PBS, and Conner's 111-yard day making him the third Steelers back to hit 100 against the Bengals in the eight seasons of Green-Dalton. There was another controversial winning play. The Bengals gambled blitzing out of a goal-line alignment falling victim to what some said was an illegal pick and Big Ben's Canton savvy.
"I think he knew just how we were lined up; I mean, everyone was right there in front of him and that's how we were lined up on a few of our goal line plays," Fejedelem said. "He'd seen it a couple times (today) already."
Pretty typical when it comes to Bengals-Steelers.
But there were other ways this wasn't very typical.
First of all, and most importantly, Shazier, the great Steelers linebacker who suffered a spinal injury last December at PBS and hasn't played since, joined his emotional teammates Sunday as they walked the field together before the game.
"I mentioned in the prayer afterwards that we're thankful," Roethlisberger said. "Thankful that he's walking now and doing things. Obviously he's not to where he wants to be and playing football again, but just the fact that he's able to walk, and to see him walk off that field, and to walk with him, It was special. This is a place we'll always remember. Not just for football, but for life."
It was only Brown's fourth 100-yard game against the Bengals. The Bengals special teams, dinged by Brown so many times, starred. Kevin Huber hit them back in the mouth with punts of 62 and 63 yards and wide receiver Alex Erickson had kick returns of 47 and 51 yards.
It also opened up frustration rarely voiced by Green when he was asked about the fans' frustration with seven straight losses to the Steelers.
"The fans, they come to watch the game; we put in the work," Green said. "We all know how hard we work, so if you think it's more frustrating for the fans, try to be out here (in our shoes), not seeing your family the whole week, (going to) the meetings and coming out with an 'L' after putting in all this work, putting in 10 hour days each day. You think its frustrating being a fan? Come walk in our shoes for a week."
And there was that go-ahead drive, putting them 78 seconds away from their first fourth-quarter comeback at home against the Steelers since Carson Palmer to Andre Caldwell with 14 seconds left on Sept. 27, 2009.
Here's another first. It also got everyone wondering if Lewis left too much time for a Hall-of-Fame quarterback eyeing his 44th career game-winning drive. The Bengals were still going no huddle at the 50 at the two-minute warning with two timeouts left. Talk about being damned if you do and damned if you don't. Dalton brilliantly led the Bengals on a nine-play, 75-yard drive in which he got all but the last four through the air.
CBS-TV analyst Dan Fouts backed Lewis and so did his players.
"It's always tough. It's always tough when you leave a great quarterback like that (time)," Green said. "It could have been vice-versa. They made the plays. That's why that guy is a Hall of Fame quarterback. He's been through situations like this hundreds of times and nothing's too big for him."
Dunlap was looking for the defense to make a play.
"I'm not going to say the offense scored too quick," Dunlap said. "We've got a great defense. We can stop them in any situation, but today we came up short. We have the ability to stop them."
Fejedelem thought the same thing. Somebody had to make a play.
"First and foremost, you hope (your team) scores," he said. "That's going to put you in position to win the game. They did their job. Ideally, there'd be less time on the clock but it's up to the defense to make a stop."
After the Steelers left with 481 yards, eight third-down conversions and more than five yards per rush without getting sacked or turning it over, that's about right.