PITTSBURGH - Bengals head coach Zac Taylor came into his first foray into the Bengals-Steelers rivalry on Monday night looking for the key that would jump-start his lethargic offense early enough to dictate the rest of the game.
He left Tuesday morning still looking for it at the bottom of a 27-3 loss that, like the AFC North, was there for the taking in the game's first 25 minutes.
"We had plenty of chances to score," said running back Joe Mixon and wide receiver Tyler Boyd kept looking at the drive they were on the Steelers 18 down 7-3 with 5:49 left in the first half.
"Sickening. We left our opportunities out there on the field," said Boyd, held to three catches and 33 yards in his homecoming. "If we had scored that drive, it's a whole different ballgame. We'd go into the half evened up. We got us a ballgame. They just out schemed us basically. We always have success passing the ball. But this time we didn't have success running or passing."
Taylor wants to build his program on communication, but two communication gaffes, one on each side of the ball, killed them Monday night. The first one came on offense on their first drive, a nifty array of plays that looked like it would break the NFL's longest streak of not scoring on the game's opening drive at 11 games. For the first time all year they got Mixon involved early with three carries for ten yards and quarterback Andy Dalton hit the two Tylers over the middle, tight end Eifert for 14 and Boyd for 13 out of the slot. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham had called that early in the week, since the Steelers had given up the most yards in the slot in the league.
📸 Check out some of the best snapshots from the Bengals' Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But on second-and-five from the Steelers 40 came the first miscommunication. Rookie linebacker Devin Bush came in untouched for his first NFL sack and they set the tone instead of the Bengals offense.
(And, by the way, that's the fourth straight game the Bengals got a dose of superb backer play. Bush finished with that sack, nine tackles, a pass defensed when he bodied up Eifert and three tackles for loss.)
Then came the defense's version of a miscommunication in the third quarter, a wide-open 43-yard touchdown pass with cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Jessie Bates III standing next to each other in the middle of the field and wide receiver Diontae Johnson all by himself in the corner.
"The first thing we have to do is stop giving up wide-open big plays," said linebacker Nick Vigil. "We're giving up one a game. It's all of us and we all have to be accountable."
Tyler Lockett in Seattle (44) for a TD. Marquise Goodwin of San Francisco (38) for a TD. Dallas Knox in Buffalo (49) in the winning drive. Now Johnson.
"It's no different than miscommunication with the protection on the sack and the offense. It's unfortunately for DB's, it happens on a much grander scale," Taylor said. "It really is the equivalent, we take a sack that knocks us out of field goal range, and unfortunately when you're a DB back there, you have miscommunication, the whole world sees a wide open receiver.
"Those are things that we can take care of. It's not things that the opponent is doing to us. You know, and there's really only one example of I think on offense where it's clear miscommunication and then one on defense. But unfortunately both of those probably cost us 10 points."
Taylor is frustrated. He never thought it would take him this long to get his first win. There was the opening drive. And then there was a series in the red zone on the next drive, courtesy of Vigil 's forced fumble and Bates' recovery at the Steeler 15. But Taylor ignored Mixon, threw three straight passes and got only five yards and a field goal. Never mind that Tyler Eifert dropped his first pass in four years in the end zone.
"We took a shot in the end zone, took two shots in the end zone, two one-on-one shots and didn't make the plays there, so ended up kicking a field goal on that drive. It was a three-and-out," Taylor said.
Then there was the drive Boyd talked about. First-and-10 from the Steelers 18 with a little more than five minutes left in the half. With left tackle Andre Smith given no help against linebacker Bud Dupree, it was no contest. Sack. Strip. Fumble. Steelers ball.
"Just the inefficiency on offense in the first half," said Taylor of what concerned him the most walking out of the building. "Our first drive of the game, we drove down, we had a miscommunication on a protection and we gave up a sack, knocked us out of field goal range. Second drive, felt like we had an opportunity there, and we didn't get it done. We kick the field goal. Then the third drive, again, another drive, we were driving the first half, and we had an issue with the protection and we had a sack fumble."
The Bengals are like their coach. Frustrated.
"The most frustrating thing for me is not getting a W," Mixon said. "For everybody on the team, the coaches, the Cincinnati community, it's frustrating not to come through and deliver. I have to play better. We have to do better as a unit."
Mixon is keeping his cool. With wide receiver A.J. Green (ankle) on the sidelines, he's their best player. But he only got the ball seven times in the first half, 15 in the game.
"We've got to get it together, man," Mixon said. "We've got six days until we play Arizona at home and we have to be ready for them. Just keep your heads up high. We have to get through this."
Boyd, who saw some double teams against the league's second worst pass defense, had a rude homecoming.
"I can deal with losing close games, bit getting embarrassed like that?" Boyd said. "That hurt. Too much pride to showcase that. I feel we're a better team than that . It just felt like nothing. That hurt me the most . Hard to say we're going to win the next game. We have go prove to people we can win. We have to execute every time the ball comes our way."
The offensive line took the biggest beating of all Monday. The eight sacks they allowed was the most Dalton has ever endured in his career during what was clearly the line's toughest day of the season.
"The biggest thing is the play that's called, we have to do it no matter the situation," said center Trey Hopkins. We have to be stouter and give Andy time no matter the situation. Andy's always a good leader. He's always poised and doesn't flinch."
But Dalton is definitely getting tested. It's the first time he's been 0-4 and the first time the Bengals are 0-4 since 2008. He's been sacked 19 times this year after getting sacked 21 times in his 11 games last season. And they keep him chucking. He hasn't thrown fewer than 36 passes all year and he's got a career losing record throwing it 36 times.
"We have the right guys here, like I was saying. We have the right type of people here," Dalton said. "Everybody is going to stick together. We have this from the beginning, regardless of the circumstances of these games, we've stuck together. And so I don't expect that to change."
Although Taylor is Dalton's fifth play-caller in his nine-year career, Dalton is watching everybody get acclimated to a new head coach. No one on the team has had anybody but Marvin Lewis as a head coach, but Dalton says a transition has nothing to do with the start.
"I think for us, we just have to make plays," Dalton said. "We've got to execute better. That's everywhere. You know, it starts with me. So like I said, we've got to look at what we're doing and what we can do to improve upon what we've done up to this point because it's nowhere near the level that we want to play."