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Bengals Look To Emerge From Rollercoaster Ride In Opener

Ja'Marr Chase had a big opener.
Ja'Marr Chase had a big opener.

La'el Collins, one of the last to leave after Sunday's 23-20 overtime loss to the Steelers at packed Paycor Stadium, wanted to assure that Sunday's opener won't hang around like he did at his locker discussing his Bengals' debut.

"We will learn from this. We will learn from this," Collins said before he allowed his bass to softly sing a quick "This train is going to keep on rolling." Then he jammed on his watch at the end of a day the Bengals lost in the last second of overtime.

They had just run the second most plays in team history with 94. Only another overtime game against these Steelers in this building, with 99 on Dec. 30, 2001, had more in the Bengals' 26-23 victory. Someone asked Collins about this edition of the offensive line getting the rust off with its first work in a game.

He smiled and said, "We got some, didn't we?"  

It probably worked out the way people thought after head coach Zac Taylor protected his AFC champion starters and didn't play them in the preseason. They worked out the offensive kinks in the first half, settled down and won the game in the second half. Joe Burrow did something only two Bengals quarterbacks had ever done in 55 seasons, they racked up their third most yards in any opener and they got the longest field goal in team history.

Just no one figured on missing two winning kicks inside 34 yards after the long snapper went down.

 Who would?

"We'll be fine. I'm not worried about this offense or this team. We'll be fine," said Collins, the eight-year right tackle after helping his new team erase a 17-3 deficit. "This is the team I expected it to be. A bunch of hard-nosed guys who don't flinch when adversity hits. We just keep pounding. One play at a time … We got hit in the mouth. At the end of the day, it's all about how you respond. This team is built of the right stuff and we'll respond well."

The adversity piled up like cordwood immediately, just the opposite of the just completed magical run to the Super Bowl.

Burrow threw a pick-six on his second snap and first pass 2:08 into the new season. Wide receiver Tee Higgins went out with a concussion in the first half. Long snapper Clark Harris was unavailable in the second half with a bicep injury. It looked like wide receiver Tyler Boyd cramped up late in regulation, but came back. They gave up three sacks in the first quarter.

After going plus-seven forcing nine turnovers in the playoffs, they were minus-five for just the second time under head coach Zac Taylor when they had five turnovers on Dec. 15, 2019 against New England.

"It's not the way we wanted to start the season. But we're smart enough to know not to react," Taylor said. "When you lose the turnover battle five to nothing, I don't expect to win many games. We almost did. So you've got to find the silver lining there."

That's what they were trying to do as they processed losing a truly weird one.

Collins dressed slowly. Kicker Evan McPherson blamed himself for missing the 29-yarder to win it in OT despite the high snap. Backup long snapper Mitchell Wilcox blamed himself for that one. Ja'Marr Chase talked about pulling the mouthpiece out of the mouth of Ahkello Witherspoon because he taunted him but it was Chase who was flagged for taunting.

Yet, he would have the final word.

"I was surprised we lost the game the way we did, not at the chances we had," Chase said. "We knew what (the Steelers) were going to play, so we came out with a much better mindset in the second half."

Chase agreed Burrow looked more comfortable in the second half against the two-high zone, but he disagreed rust was a big factor in the loss.

"What do you think?" Chase asked. "I don't think so. I don't believe that."

Chase, by the way, is laughing at the sophomore slump. After having the greatest season a rookie NFL receiver ever had, he had 10 catches for 129 yards Sunday, joining A.J. Green, Chad Johnson and Cris Collinsworth as the Bengals receivers to get at least ten catches in an opener.

And he caught the tying touchdown with two seconds left in regulation, but he might have caught the winner all the way back in the previous drive with 2:48 left from 13 yards out.

It looked like he got the ball over the front left pylon as Burrow hit him underneath right to left and they marked the thing at the 1-inch line.

"I knew I wasn't in. I was just trying to make sure I got my feet down on the catch," Chase said. "I wasn't really trying to get that much, I had to go an extra revolution and I was going to be off timing. I didn't see the replay, I wished they had called it, though."

The tying catch was vintage Burrow-Chase down to their last play. It was an out route when the Steelers thought they were running a fade. Naturally it was Witherspoon. Chase saw him go up on his toes for the fade and that was that.

"We faced a lot of adversity," Chase said. "We've got a nice team that's willing to fight. I want to be surrounded by guys like that."

After throwing a career-high four interceptions and losing a fumble, Burrow sat in front of his locker still wearing his game pants and T-shirt a good 45 minutes after the game. That's it. Just sat. No cell phone. No stat sheet.

If he had been looking at one, it would have said he had his four interceptions in the first 25 minutes, was sacked seven times, hit 11 times, mounted two hellacious drives of 129 yards in the final 6:01 of regulation, when he threw the latest tying or winning pass in Bengals history with two seconds left.

"Roller coaster," Burrow said.

Despite the early picks, it was another Kings-Island-thrill-ride-great-screaming-moment-in-the-clutch by Joe Cool. If the snapper didn't get hurt, they would have been writing poems about him.

"One thing I know for sure about him is he's a tough guy," Collins said. "He's going to get up and play the next play. But we've got to make it a lot easier on him."

Collins was hard on himself and that reconfigured offensive line the Bengals chased down in free agency and the draft. Collins faced the defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt and before he left with a pectoral injury, he had a sack, a pick and half of his six tackles were for a loss.

"I felt like I was on the ground too much. I was late off the ball (on some plays)," said Collins, who didn't start practicing until three weeks ago with a back issue. "I don't think it was anything the defense did. It was somewhat self-inflicted.

"We just have to go back and look at the tape, move on, get better, play up to the potential we have. We have everything we need. But without execution none of that means anything. We want to (give Burrow) a comfortable feeling. It starts with me. It starts with the guys up front. We have to take ownership, take more pride into making sure he stays upright. We have what it takes. We have to dial in."

How about rookie left guard Cordell Volson's welcome-to-the-NFL moment? A lot of those 94 snaps came against Hall-of-Famer Cam Heyward and before Heyward left he had a coverage sack and a fumble recovery and a bull-rush on Burrow that blew up a third down. But Volson also had some good moments.

"He's way ahead of me when I had my first start," Collins said. "He'll be a great player for a long time."

Collins knows how close they came to one of their greatest victories and he probably didn't know that before Burrow's heroics with two seconds left, only Andy Dalton, with seven seconds left in Atlanta in 2018, and Akili Smith, with five seconds left in Cleveland in 1999, were the only Bengals quarterbacks to throw a tying or winning touchdown in the final ten seconds. (Dalton hit A.J. Green on a Hail Mary in Baltimore in 2013 with no time left, but they needed to kick the PAT to get into overtime.)

And there was the '09 Steelers game here when Carson Palmer hit Andre Caldwell from four yards out with 14 seconds left to put them ahead, yes, 21-20, after they trailed, 20-9.

"I would have been hugging you guys," Collins said. "I would have been holding the mike and quoting you."

He sees happy days like that.

"The best thing about this beautiful game is somebody has to win and somebody has to lose," Collins said. "But it's all about what you take from it."