Bengals quarterback Jake Browning, who used to stun his high school coaches back in California when he would tell them exactly what they would see on the film as he came off the field, took that gift into his first NFL start Sunday at Paycor Stadium.
Entrusted with Joe Burrow's 5-5 team in the teeth of a playoff grinder against the always vaunted Steelers 6-4 defense during a late November rain that matched the narrative, Browning knew exactly what he was staring at on the first series of the second half.
Third-and-seven from the Steelers 18 with the Bengals leading, 7-3, and there was Pro Bowl wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase leering in the flat. The play of the game, a 16-10 loss to the Steelers, loomed. With beleaguered Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett not yet in the end zone during his first game with a new offensive coordinator, Browning knew a 10-3 lead would be huge.
Indeed, head coach Zac Taylor said after it was over, his defense could play the way it knows how at that point.
But there was an interception, the Steelers took it and went 14 plays for their touchdown with 1:34 left in the third quarter to finalize a crushing ten-point swing.
"I'm just trying to get the ball to Ja'Marr quickly, not go backwards and get a field goal," Browning said. "The guy just kept buzzing in there. I made a bad read."
Stand-up guy Browning, who waited five years for this day with the 2019 Rose Bowl his last start. He crossed paths Sunday with Steelers first-year cornerback Trenton Thompson, like Browning, playing because he's a next man up. Thompson's first NFL pick was Browning's first NFL pick.
"I think I made the decision too early in the play. Let the play play out and let (Thompson) decide if he's going to take the curl or the flat," said Browning, who other than holding onto the ball too long on a sack or two, made just this one mistake in the playoff pressure cooker.
"I kind of made the decision without really reading it out. 'Get the ball to Ja'Marr. Get four (yards), get three points. It's not going to be a shootout … In hindsight, play out the play and read it out. Just don't see something presnap and make the decision."
Browning, who finished with a 96.2 passer rating on 73% passing for 227 yards, refused to write it off to first-start stuff.
"That's a little bit of a cop out for me to sit here and say that any interception was because I haven't played in a while," Browning said. "That's a cop out. I think I can read out that play and make the right decision."
There was good. There was bad . Yeoman. Serviceable. But Browning said, "Not up to my standards."
"I thought he handled some things really well for us," Taylor said. "It's a tough task to play a divisional game versus a good defense in your first game. There's going to be plenty of things he can learn from. I told him this is just the first chapter in his story. He's getting to play in a real football game and getting a chance to assess his performance and rebound, and still have all the confidence in the world."
PRO BOWL DEFLECTOR: Two of Chase's four catches and more than half of his 81 yards (45) came on deflected passes where he showed immense concentration.
"I don't know. It was just meant to be, I guess," Chase said. "(Browning) played well. But we can do better though."
"They just brought a lot of pressures. That's what kept it going (for them). We knew what kind of game — it was going to be a possession game. We just had to make some opportunities when we got to the red zone and didn't make those opportunities last. That's how the game slipped away."
Browning was sacked four times and hit one other time, although he said he's still looking to find the line of getting rid of the ball or taking a sack.
"Figuring where that line is, playing aggressive but then also knowing that this isn't going to be a 42-45 game," Browning said. "So, taking some of those sacks when you're trying to make the play end up hurting you in some field position stuff. I think just the overall experience I will build from. Being able to see myself on tape and critique it pretty hard will be good for me, too."
Get ready to enjoy the Chase-Joey Porter, Jr. battle for years to come. The Steelers rookie cornerback was on Chase often, although he had plenty of help on third down, when Chase said the Steelers usually went zone. But he said all other downs it was mostly man, including a few plays before Thompson's pick when Browning hit Chase deep for 25 yards down the right sideline and Chase plucked it off Porter's helmet.
Chase, who has won a national title and two AFC North titles in the last three seasons, sighed.
"I don't like losing," Chase said. "I can't be pissed. Go to the next play."
WATT AGAIN: Steelers All-Pro pass rusher T.J. Watt came into the game with 11.5 sacks, third in the NFL and nine in his career against the Bengals. Add two more and the last one was a crusher because it came on a third down on a three-and-out right after the Steelers took a 13-7 lead with 8:03 left in the game on what appeared to be a miscommunication involving right tackle Jonah Williams and tight end Drew Sample.
FAMILIAR CONNECTION: It was quite fitting that the University of Washington teammates Browning and Sample hooked up on the first touchdown of the day to give the Bengals a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter. Working out of 12 personnel (two tight ends), Browning went bootleg leg after faking the counter to running back Joe Mixon and flipped an 11-yard touchdown pass on the sideline to Sample following in tight end Mitchell Wilcox.
"I think (Browning) had great poise, he made some plays with his legs, which is always great, and it's tough going against that D-line," said Sample, who got two of his three NFL touchdowns this month. "They tried to give us some different looks, but he's a competitor. His first game starting. He's going to learn a ton and make a big step next week.
"You have to go sell the run (on the TD play). We do a lot in 12 personnel with the runs. It's the timing of it. It's Jake understanding the timing and we were on same page when we were able to get them to bite."
TIGHT END DAY: It seems like the Bengals have been tussling with tight ends all month. The 49ers' George Kittle had 149 yards, the Bills' Dalton Kincaid had 81, and the Texans' Dalton Schultz 71 that included a big 25-yarder on the winning drive. On Sunday, Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth had his first career 100-yard game with 120 on nine catches.
"It felt like they were showing a lot of middle field open coverages where we need Pat to step up and be big for us, which he was," Pickett said. "Having some one-on-one routes to move the chains. I think Pat had an unbelievable game. Really happy for him. (He was) battling back off an injury with his hamstring which isn't easy."
It was Freiermuth's second game back from a hamstring injury that took him out for a month and he busted out with catches of 29 and 24 yards before a killing eight-yard catch on the sideline on third-and-six in the go-ahead drive. Pickett threw a great ball with the hand of Bengals safety Dax Hill in Freiermuth's stomach. With Steelers wide receiver George Pickens acting like almost a pick as he went inside and Freiermuth ran an out, Hill swam through it and got there an instant after the ball.
"It was a 50-50 ball. He made a good catch. I had my hand in there," Hill said. "Sometimes that's how it goes. They kept their drives going. We could have got off the field a little earlier. Hey, it's on us. We have to take a bullet and get off the field early next time.
"Early in the game, they found him in some zones, That really started his momentum. He had some good catches on third down. I think it started from the beginning. (The first play for the Steelers was a 24-yarder down the middle to Freiermuth.) They caught fire. The quarterback made some good throws. We were in good position, we just didn't come up with the balls."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Zac Taylor confirmed that quarterback Joe Burrow undergoes surgery Monday for the torn ligament in his right wrist and that he'll have a full recovery …
Running back Travyeon Williams continues to juice the Bengals' kick return. His 46-yarder was a great response to the Steelers taking a 3-0 lead and set up the Bengals' touchdown. His 41-yarder in San Fran last month also set up a touchdown.
"They gave us opportunity. The guys up front did their thing," Williams said. "If we get 10-for-10 blocks, we can do something special. They gave us the opportunity, and the guys up front did a great job and we did something great, set up a good return and gave our offense a great opportunity with great field position." ...
The Bengals rushed for 25 yards, tied for the fewest under Taylor with his 2019 home opener against the 49ers. The 11 carries were the fewest next to only the ten the Bengals had in last season's Monday nighter in Cleveland. Taylor said the Bengals would have ran the ball more, but they had only 41 plays. He also said it was no reflection on Joe Mixon, who had eight carries for 16 yards, his fewest yards since 2019.
"We only have 40 plays. You're going to look at a lot of them in the two-minute and third downs. At the end of the day, you have to look at normal-down plays from the past. We tried to do our best to keep some balance there but there wasn't a lot of opportunities in this game," Taylor said. "This has nothing to do with Joe Mixon. This is the entirety of the unit coming together. Don't make this about one person. It's not like there was missed opportunities there from what I could see. He continues to run hard and he's given us what we needed this season."
Linebacker Logan Wilson (ankle) appeared fine as he walked out of the locker room.