The Bengals have to stop the run if head coach Marvin Lewis' club makes the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
The Bengals defense went back to work Monday and rolled up their sleeves while toughening their skins in preparation for another AFC North lockdown Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 19) in Cleveland.
"I don't like seeing bad things on tape, I don't like being called out," said safety George Iloka, who knew the defensive meeting would be tough. "I came in, 'Try not to be sensitive, George.' You lose by 21 points, everyone is at fault."
In wake of the biggest yardage onslaught in seven years against the Bengals defense with the Steelers' 543, coordinator Paul Guenther called his people out with a long list but short message. That was after head coach Marvin Lewis set up the urgency in the team meeting. They haven't had a losing December since 2006 and they don't want to start now.
Guenther's unit had done a good job during the first three quarters keeping in check the Pro Bowl trio of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. They were getting their yards, but not in the end zone until the Bengals let them in after quarterback Andy Dalton's fumble on his 24 with 12:45 left.
As Guenther said, he got into his car "12 minutes later," to drive home wondering what the heck happened after the Steelers pile drove 222 yards in the first 9:51 of the fourth quarter.
"We have to do a better job finishing games regardless of the circumstance. Period. If we get down seven, if we get down 14, we have to go play and understand the situation," Guenther said. "We have to understand if we have a turnover like that, we've got to hold them to three points and get the ball to give our offense an opportunity. We can't give up seven. To me, that's where we're lacking a little bit right now."
He's also lacking the same front seven from a year ago and never was there more evidence than how the Steelers ran Bell at will on one play. Literally. Pro Bowl WILL linebacker Vontaze Burfict (knee) has missed six games, SAM backer Emmanuel Lamur is learning on the job in his first season as a starter, and too many defensive linemen are playing too many snaps because of either injury or ineffectiveness.
You can talk about how the Steelers ripped them in the passing game and wasn't it fitting that Dan Fouts called the game for CBS? According to Elias, the last time the Bengals allowed a 350-yard passer, a 100-yard receiver, and a 100-yard rusher was against Fouts and the Chargers 32 years ago in a 50-34 loss in the heat of San Diego. The Steelers chipped in two 100-yard receivers, the first time the Bengals have allowed a pair of those since they eked out a win in Seattle in 2011.
Say all you will about that and how the Bengals have just two sacks in the last five games and on Sunday didn't have a sack against a quarterback that has been banged around this year. But when you can't stop the run, everything else becomes secondary.
The Steelers ran where Burfict would have been repeatedly, usually pulling right guard David DeCastro and pulling or motioning tight end Heath Miller in the modern version of Joe Gibbs' Counter Trey with the Redskins in the 1980s. That's the play that popped the game-changer on Bell's 53-yarder on the first play of the fourth quarter and his ensuing touchdown runs of 13 and 22 yards.
"They've been running it all year. We practiced it pretty good all week," Guenther said. "For some reason or other we just had a hard time reading it and not seeing the pullers quickly enough in the second level, mainly the linebackers."
The Steelers simply changed up looks when they came out in the second half, but Guenther indicated they couldn't sort things out at the second level.
"There was a down pull, two guys pulling across and a lot of time our offside linebacker was too late to get over there, that's why the ball was coming out," Guenther said. "We've got to get the ball turned back to that guy, but he's got to read it fast enough to see it and get over the top…It's just matter of getting a double team back to the backside linebacker, guys pulling around so front side linebacker has to play the pulls and the backside linebacker has to read the pull and get over top of the double team fast enough."
The Bengals weren't fast enough to get in position.
"We have to fit better," Iloka said. "You want to be more physical, more relentless, get to the ball faster, have more energy, (but) the biggest thing was our fits. We didn't fit right. That's why there were holes and seams and they were hitting it untouched for like 10 yards before someone popped them. We have to focus and concentrate (in) our gaps."
They got a big game against the run from Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins as he continues to recover from last season's ACL tear. He's still looking to find his signature pass rush as the Bengals hit Roethlisberger only three times Sunday, according to profootballfocus.com. Atkins didn't have one, but he did hurry him twice.
"He's still working on that. He's doing a better job in the running game, for sure. We are moving him around some in there," Guenther said. "He's in there penetrating in the run game. He's going to do a better job when he's in the point of attack tearing off and getting up on the quarterback. I tell the guys not to rush straight down the middle of guys, work side to side, particularly when you are going against bigger type guys like Pittsburgh has. "
But forget the pressure. Guess what Cleveland is going to try and do? Starting a rookie quarterback? After pounding the ball 52 times in Paul Brown Stadium last month in a 24-3 victory?
"One of the messages I am going to give the guys that I have been telling them is we have to be better when the odds are against us a little bit," Guenther said. "When things aren't going quite as smoothly as we want them to go — it's the NFL — we have to go out there and buckle up."