Andy Dalton didn't hook up enough with his new weapons Sunday.
PITTSBURGH - The same questions that dogged the Bengals during the offseason surfaced as they left Heinz Field Sunday after their 24-16 loss to the Steelers and thoughts moved to this Sunday's Paul Brown Stadium opener against the Super Bowl champion Broncos.
With Pro Bowl tight end Tyler Eifert iced with an ankle injury, four wide receivers with five career catches before this season, a new right tackle, and a running game that has lacked consistency for the last 18 games, this is an offense that is a work in progress.
"I wouldn't say it's a work in progress," disagreed quarterback Andy Dalton. "We hope guys improve and guys get more comfortable in our offense as time goes on. It's not a work in progress because these are the guys we have and the guys that we're going to try to win games with. I'm confident with everybody we have here. I definitely wouldn't say it's a work in progress."
But never was it more apparent that they are grappling for an identity without Eifert and wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu than on the three red-zone trips that came up with only field goals and decided this one.
"Different defenses do different things," Dalton said. "It's not necessarily timing. It's certain looks that they give you. For us, they defended us well down there."
The timing simply wasn't there. On the first march in there with the Bengals trailing, 7-0, late in the first quarter, Dalton missed one of his new options, a wide-open Brandon LaFell at the 5 for a first down.
"I've got to throw a better ball there," Dalton said.
On the last one, with the Bengals trailing, 17-6, late in the third quarter, they had a first down at the Steelers 1 and couldn't get in with the last two downs going to tight end C.J. Uzomah.
Uzomah, a second-year pro trying to replace a Pro Bowl red-zone target, has plenty of potential but he's developing in the harsh glare of an AFC North race. On Sunday he was targeted eight times and had two drops to go along with three catches. On second down from the Steelers 3 he got his hands on it at the back end line but was muscled out of bounds on a play the Bengals didn't challenge because there wasn't enough evidence that he stayed in.
On third down, with his first options covered and defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt roaring up the inside, Dalton couldn't get on the same page with Uzomah and the ball went short.
The difference in the game? With Antonio Brown blanketed, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found his young tight ends looking to replace Heath Miller with TDs.
"We've got some young guys on this side of the ball and the more they play, they'll be better and better," said Bengals Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I think it's going to take time. You're just not going to run out of the gate and score a ton. Guys have to get used to each other and get to know each other. As good as Andy and LaFell both are, there's a learning period to just to get to know each other.
"And you've got a guy like C.J. playing for the first time and (tight end Tyler) Kroft didn't play this much last year. The more they play, the better they'll get."
There is plenty of hope. Rookie wide receiver Tyler Boyd, the legendary Pittsburgh schoolboy who played his first games at Heinz while playing for Clairton High School, had a fabulous homecoming until his last catch as he caught six balls for 78 yards. He converted two of the four third downs. Rookie wide receiver Alex Erickson's first NFL catch came on third-and-three and was a 20-yarder down the middle. Kroft countered a drop with a big 21-yard catch down the seam that put them in the red zone for the first time. And Uzomah is as big and as athletic and as fast as advertised.
But can they develop consistency quickly enough to keep them in the race? With A.J. Green doubled on his 11 targets, LaFell, Uzomah, and Boyd also got eight. Boyd converted for six, but LaFell and Uzomah combined for just six. Until the other guys get open consistently (and they run the ball better than 2.6 yards per carry), the Bengals are going to see soft zones tilted to Green.
"We've got guys that can make plays all over the field, especially on the deep ball," Boyd said. "Once they strategize for that, we have to settle for the short (throws) and pop some on short yardage."
Boyd looked as comfortable as he did when he patrolled Heinz for the University of Pittsburgh. Until old friend James Harrison knocked the ball loose from him at the Steelers 33 with 1:50 left in the game.
He wasn't happy, but he wasn't devastated.
"Something like that has happened to me before through every level of competition," Boyd said. "High School. Little League. Whatever. It's happened before. It just hurts so badly because you practice ball security and things like that. You practice everything day by day. But we're all human."
But he was pretty sure, like everyone else in the building that his knee was down.
"At first when it happened immediately I really didn't know because it was so quick," Boyd said. "But after I watched it, my knee was obviously down and I still had possession of the ball clearly. But the ref made a call and stuck with it."
Boyd, like his offense, is in the first stages of development. You realize that as he talked about hoping some of his teammates still at Pitt would come to the game but they had to go to meetings and how he followed their game Saturday while on the Bengals charter.
"We were in this game," Whitworth said. "If our defense continues to play like this and we convert a few in the red zone, we're right there and we've got a chance to steal a game at Heinz Field. That's not an easy task."