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Early Bengals Mistakes Boost Steelers Into Second Half

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Auden Tate (19) is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Terrell Edmunds (34) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Auden Tate (19) is tackled by Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Terrell Edmunds (34) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took dead aim at the Bengals undermanned secondary and put up 243 yards and two touchdowns through the air in the first half to stake Pittsburgh to a 22-7 halftime lead Sunday at Heinz Field.

His shootout with Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow didn't get off the ground when the Cincinnati offense committed two first-quarter turnovers. The half ended ominously when Burrow (ankle) came off the field with a limp when he slipped heading out of bounds after Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree pushed him out.

Burrow did come out for the first series of the second half and while he looked OK, he overthrew rookie wide receiver Tee Higgins on a three-and-and-out to start the half.

The Bengals kept doing what you can't do to beat the Steelers. They kept giving them chances and the Steelers almost always make you pay the second time around. In the first quarter it was two fumbles, one by punt returner Alex Erickson and one by Higgins. But Higgins recovered to post the second 100-yard game of his career early in the second half.

In the second quarter, the mistakes were two 15-yard penalties on one drive.

Defensive end Sam Hubbard couldn't prevent from getting a roughing penalty on Roethlisberger and cornerback William Jackson III was called for mauling rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool for a pass interference penalty that set up Roethlisberger's eight-yard touchdown pass on third down to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster getting behind safety Vonn Bell. And that pass never should have happened. Rookie linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither blitzed and had him, but Ben stepped up in the pocket to make it 19-7.

Then on the Bengals' next series, they were rolling when running back Giovani Bernard got a first down on a second-down three-yard run to the Steelers 49. But right guard Alex Redmond was called for a hold and that set up a third-and-12 and the Steelers' first sack of the day late in the second quarter. And it wasn't the line's fault because Burrow had time but couldn't find anybody open. The Bengals, who came into the game clicking at nearly 60 percent on third down in their previous three games, went deep into the third quarter without a third-down conversion.

The Bengals cut the lead to 12-7 with about 10:30 left in the first half when they jacked their hellacious fourth-down conversion rate to 13 of 14 when Burrow hit Higgins on a fourth-and-two slant courtesy of a wide receiver Tyler Boyd's pick.

That capped a 90-yard drive that featured two big runs up the middle by running backs Samaje Perine (14 yards) and Giovani Bernard (eight) and the Bengals' second longest play of the year, a 54-yarder to the wide-open Higgins in the middle of a zone. It was nice comeback for Higgins after the fumble.

After a slow start, Burrow finished the half 16 of 25 for 189 yards and that touchdown.

When Hubbard knocked down Roethlisberger's pass on third-and-two early in the second quarter, the Steelers were 0-for-5 on third down, but they were leading, 12-0, because the Bengals at that point had more turnovers (two) than first downs (one).

The Bengals defense had a nice stand on the first possession of the game, helped out by a zone defense that produced a tip pass by Bell. Then it came up with an even bigger stand when Erickson fumbled a punt at the Bengals 32 when he got stripped by Steelers running back Benny Snell Jr.

But on third-and-two rookie defensive end Khalid Kareem wrapped up by running back John Conner to force Chris Boswell's 41-yard field goal about three minutes in to give the Steelers a 3-0 lead.

You just can't do that against the Steelers, third in the NFL scoring 68 points off turnovers.

The Bengals offense came out of the gates a bit off. Higgins moved before the first snap for a penalty, wide receivers A.J. Green (no catches in the first half) and Boyd ended up in the same spot on an incompletion, Burrow couldn't negotiate the wind and when they tried to punt they drew a delay of game penalty.

But the Bengals defense came out to play. They drew a hold in the run game and the Bengals then proceeded to show some blitz looks. Slot corner Mackeknsie Alexander blitzed on second down and on third and nine defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo brought six and was rewarded with a pass going off wide receiver Dionate Johnson's hands over the middle.

Unbelievably, Alexander was hurt on the next series and was checked for a concussion and was gone for the game, leaving the Bengals with just three cornerbacks. One of them was first-year player Jalen Davis, just signed to the practice squad late last month with 60 NFL snaps. And in the second quarter Davis had a nice pass defensed on Claypool in the end zone.

The Bengals' second series got off to another rough start when Erickson called a fair catch and then let it bounce for about 10 more yards to the Bengals 12. An illegal formation call didn't help, Burrow overthrew Boyd and when he went for wide receiver Auden Tate at the sticks on third-and-nine on the sidelines, cornerback Joe Hayden knocked it away.

Then on the next series, Burrow tried a screen pass to Bernard, but it was too low and Bernard lost yardage. On third-and-13, Burrow had plenty of time against a scheme that didn't blitz that much but played coverage and Burrow was forced to check it down to Bernard.

By the time the Steelers scored their first touchdown go up 12-0 with 1:51 left in the first quarter, the Bengals had 13 yards, were 0-for-3 on third down and Burrow was three of seven for just nine yards.

Check out some of the best images from Week 10 as the Bengals face the Steelers.

The Bengals' re-shuffled offensive line tried to pull it off for a second straight game Sunday, when they started rookie left tackle Hakeem Adeniji and transplanted left guard Quinton Spain at right tackle and they held up quite well in that first half. Well enough the Bengals went to five wides often against the NFL sack leaders.

Head coach Zac Taylor, who in the pregame presented a list that had Adeniji starting at right tackle, had vowed not to announce his starting offensive line until he rolled it out and he was true to his word.

Starting left tackle Jonah Williams (neck-stinger) was active after being limited in every practice last week, but he would apparently be used only in emergency. With right tackle Bobby Hart (knee) on the inactive list and backup Fred Johnson on the Covid list, the Bengals turned to Spain, already an intriguing figure even before making his first Bengals start and what is believed to be his first NFL start at right tackle.

The 6-4, 330-pound Spain made one of the more memorable Bengals debuts two weeks ago when he showed up Friday and played 62 snaps that Sunday at left guard without committing a penalty and allowing just one pressure as the Bengals beat the favored Titans, 31-20, without Burrow getting sacked. Or hit, according to Pro Football Focus.

Spain's play was the centerpiece of a remarkable effort by the offensive line that started four different players from the week before. That was the first time that had happened to them since they used replacement players in the 1987 strike. Spain, a six-year veteran making his 67th NFL start, immediately impressed the coaches with his experience and feel for the game and must have kept doing it last week in practice. Other potential emergency tackles were already back in the starting lineup with center Trey Hopkins and left guard Michael Jordan returning after they missed the Titans game.

It's quite a challenge after quelling Tennessee, which had one of the worst pass rushes in the league. The Steelers are poles apart, leading the NFL in sacks and quarterbacks pressures with an attack led by their relentless outside rushers. T.J. Watt, lined up over Spain, leads the NFL with 24 quarterback hits to go along with seven sacks and Bud Dupree, with six sacks and 11 hits, lines up over Adeniji. Watt and Dupree have combined for 36 sacks in the past 24 games.

Adeniji, a sixth-round pick out of Kansas, drew rave reviews after his first NFL start against Tennessee. Pro Football Focus had him allowing just three hurries and one false start on 42 pass plays.

Watt got the Steelers' two sacks in the first half. But one was on a coverage sack and while the second one was a killer in the last minute of the first half that took the Bengals out of field-goal range, that was a tough one because Watt worked a stunt and came inside on Redmond.