The Bengals offensive line underwent a massive change in Sunday's 36-10 loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh for the second straight game and for the second straight game they had to like how it worked out when rookie left tackle Hakeem Adeniji made his second straight start and left guard Quinton Spain made his first start ever at right tackle.
They didn't get the win like they did two weeks ago against Tennessee when they had to replace four starters. But they also didn't let the Steelers' NFL-leading pass rush take over the game while providing an effective running attack that produced 5.2 yards per the 15 carries split by running backs Giovani Bernard and Samaje Perine.
With left tackle Jonah Williams (neck-stinger) limited in all three practices last week, head coach Zac Taylor opted to keep him active in an emergency role and went back to Adeniji, the sixth-rounder from Kansas for whom they have high hopes.
Right tackle was a bit trickier. Bobby Hart (knee) was out again and Fred Johnson, his backup that played so well against the Titans, was on the Covid list. Two guys that appeared to be emergency options, center Trey Hopkins and left guard Michael Jordan, were back in the middle after missing the Tennessee game and they apparently didn't want to mess with that chemistry.
Spain may be a career guard, but after coming off one of the more remarkable debuts in Bengals history two weeks ago, he keeps impressing the coaches with his intelligence and experience he's picked up in six seasons and 66 starts in the NFL.
They signed him as a free agent and they had to use him right away two weeks ago. As in right away. As in he walked into Paul Brown Stadium Friday, Oct. 30, and 48 hours after getting his playbook he played 62 snaps in a game rookie quarterback Joe Burrow didn't get sacked or hit while the offense rushed for 118 yards in the 31-20 victory over the Titans.
At 6-4, 330 pounds, Spain knows how to use his massive size. If offensive line coaches Jim Turner and Ben Martin could get him ready for NFL start No. 67 and No. 1 at right tackle, they could keep the interior intact. It worked. Spain and Adeniji held up extremely well. The Steelers did get four sacks and nine hits on Burrow, but that's not what the Steelers can do to you with such a big lead.
"If you have another right tackle, let me know," Taylor said. "We didn't have Jonah today. Jonah wasn't ready to go, and so it was next man up. Quinton was ready for it, felt confident doing it. I thought overall those guys did a nice job. I know some hits come. When you play teams like that and they get a lead on you and you're throwing the ball trying to get back in it, there's going to be some hits to come."
The Steelers pass rush came into the game leading the NFL in sacks, quarterbacks hit and pressures with an attack led by their relentless outside rushers. T.J. Watt, lined up over Spain, came in leading the NFL with 24 quarterback hits to go along with seven sacks and Bud Dupree, with six sacks and 11 hits, lined up over Adeniji. Consider that Watt and Dupree have combined for 36 sacks in the past 24 games, but Dupree didn't get a sack and two hits Sunday until it was out of hand and while Watt had two sacks and four hits, it was hard to blame Spain for those two sacks late in the first half.
"I know early on in the first half we gave up one on a 3rd and 12 (to Watt) where they did great job in coverage and we had to hold the ball for a while," Taylor said. "And then another one came up in that two-minute. I think it was the two we gave up in the first half, but I thought overall those guys did a good job protecting him, and then we got in the once second half, those guys got a couple hits there late."
On the third-and-12, Spain steered Watt past the pocket, but Adeniji got picked off by end Cam Heyward and Dupree was able to apply some pressure to allow Watt to get back into the play. Still, it looked to be more of a coverage sack.
And then Watt's sack at the end of the half came on a stunt inside away from Spain, a big play that took the Bengals out of field goal range.
"I put us in a tough spot, we took a sack. That was me," Taylor said. "I've just got to improve myself to put us in a better positions because when you're in a hole like that on the road in the first half, you've got to do the things that get you back in the game and create some momentum when you know you're going to get the ball back to start the second half, and I failed today in that aspect."
But the huddle saw that the moves with Spain and Adeniji didn't fail in another resourceful effort by back-up offensive linemen.
"I thought they played really well, considering the circumstances," Burrow said. "I thought they did an awesome job in the first half. That sack in the two-minute drill I can't take. That one's on me. They did awesome all game. They really did."
LOOKING AHEAD: Burrow said he's using Sunday for a learning tool and he's got support from two key defensive guys in free safety Jessie Bates III and defensive end Sam Hubbard.
"I feel good," Bates said of next month's rematch. "I feel good that we knew what that they had, what they were bringing to us. It'll be a Monday Night Football game (on ESPN) as well. We'll be ready, for sure. A divisional game. They whooped us tonight. That's fine. We'll see how it goes out on Monday Night Football."
Hubbard offered, "The locker room we have, we're going to get to where we want to go. I think we've got the right guys in the locker room. You can see it in the way we practice and the way we go about our business and the improvements we're making."
DEFENSE STANDS IN: Even though Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't practice all week, the Bengals had a rough assignment going in against him with just four cornerbacks and two of them with just one snap among them this season. They lost one of their starters early when slot cornerback Mackensie Alexander got a concussion in the first quarter and had to turn to practice squadder Jalen Davis for his Bengals debut. And he may have come close to halving his 60 career snaps.
Bates saw Roethlisberger improvise a lot on his way to 333 yards and four touchdown passes.
"We were prepared for it I felt like, but it was really hard," Bates said. "I was seeing it before the play and Big Ben was kind of just ... they weren't even calling calls he was just like, 'Hey you guys do this here.' I felt like we had a good feel for it, but those explosive plays hurt us for sure."
Still, the defense stepped up and it's hard to look good when the offense goes 0-for-13 on third down. Cornerback Tony Brown, the former Packer who had been a special teamer until getting his fourth NFL start and first as Bengal on Sunday, had a game-high nine tackles with a pass defense and Davis had three tackles as the Bengals allowed the Steelers just 44 yards rushing, tied for their third best game ever against Pittsburgh.
Even before he got the concussion Alexander racked up four tackles as the Bengals did a nice job on the perimeter runs and gadgets.
"The first thing was to obviously stop the run and out-physical them up front," Bates said. "Unfortunately they got off on us with the pass game, so it doesn't really matter."
BATES' BID: Bates had another active game. He should have had one interception that could have been a pick-six, but he dropped it. And he says he could have had another one.
"I think that's just kind of how the day went for us. I feel like we had a lot of opportunities, myself included. I feel like I could have picked two balls off today," Bates said. "I had a really good feel. I think they ran that play against us the past two years. (Tight end Eric) Ebron was out there and he kind of blocked. He was kind of running the under route. I had my eyes on him the whole time. I'm not sure. I gotta look at the film. I honestly don't even know how I dropped it. I'm not sure if I mistimed it or I was looking forward to dancing in the end zone. I honestly don't know."
RUSH LANES: For the fifth straight game the Bengals had one or no sacks. This time it was none and Roethlisberger does that with his NFL-fastest release, but he also got the 38-year-old legs to move.
"He's Big Ben for a reason and he knew what he wanted to do and where he was going with the ball, and they had a good plan and he made a lot of great throws and good decisions," said Hubbard who dropped in coverage at times as part of a diverse scheme that sometimes blitzed but most often seemed to drop seven or eight.
"We were trying to mix up the coverages and trying to you know, show them different looks," Hubbard said. "You never want to allow explosive plays but I think he just did a good job getting the ball to his receivers quick and letting them make yards after the catch, and we've got to do better."
SPECIAL TEAMS: In his 115th NFL game, Bengals safety Shawn Williams finally got snapped the ball. It came off a direct snap late in the game on a fake punt and Williams went for 39 yards to set up Randy Bullock's field goal with five minutes left.
It was one of the rare bright spots on an uncharacteristically shaky day for the special teams. Punt returner Alex Erickson fumbled to give the Steelers their first points and after that he let a couple bounce that he should have caught. They came in third in the NFL covering punts, but gave up a 42-yarder that set up the Steelers' last touchdown.
STICKING WITH JOE: With Burrow limping, Taylor was asked why he kept him for the final series.
"We tried to manage it some with the runs. We wanted to get some points, get some momentum going, to be honest with you, and we left him in there," Taylor said. "It's just we want to move the ball and put some points on the board, and we felt like we shot ourselves in the foot a lot. Obviously they did some great things, but we just felt like we kept shooting ourselves in the foot. We could get some drives together put some points on the board, get some momentum going, it just didn't turn out that way."