These two exuberant rival Pittsburgh and Cincinnati fans were among the reported 65,090 that endured the cold, rainy conditions at Paycor Stadium on Sunday (Photo Credit Dr. John Huang).
By Dr. John Huang
(CINCINNATI, Oh.) – One man doesn’t make a franchise. Unless you’re Joe Burrow.
When the Bengals declared “Joey Franchise” out for the rest of the season with a torn ligament in his throwing wrist, all hopes for another Cincinnati Super Bowl run dissipated like a bad Marvin Lewis sound bite. After all, how do you replace a fourth-year pro who’s already cracked the top five for career completions, touchdown passes, and 300-yard passing games in team history?
The answer is you can’t. But the Bengals (5 – 6) did the best they could with backup quarterback Jake Browning. In a soul-deflating 16 – 10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (7 – 4), the former quarterback from the University of Washington—making his first professional start—completed 19-of-26 passes for 227 yards and a touchdown.
Although respectable, it wasn’t nearly enough as the Steelers throttled any semblance of a Bengal rushing attack, limiting Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon to a pedestrian 16 yards on a mere eight carries.
“We just didn’t have any opportunities,” explained Bengals head coach Zac Taylor in a subdued postgame presser. “Mixon had eight carries. We need more snaps. We need to get more first downs that give us more snaps. That can be defensively getting them off the field a lot quicker, so we get more possessions. But at the end of the day, I think the offense has got to find a way to generate more production, get points on the board, keep the defense off the field, and take some of the pressure off.”
Browning didn’t help his own cause when he threw the first interception of his NFL career early in the second half. With the Bengals leading 7 – 3 against the NFL’s 28th-ranked offense, they had the perfect opportunity to go up two scores. But on third-and-seven from the Steelers’ 18-yard line, Browning tried to hit Ja’Marr Chase in the flat. Pittsburgh safety Trenton Thompson undercut the route and came up with the huge pick. As if twisting the knife, the Steelers would then methodically march 79 yards on 14 plays to take a 10 – 7 lead.
“Yeah, I knew we had points, so we called basically just a slot curl concept,” Browning said when asked about the critical play. “I felt like it was cover three, but it ended up being two-invert. I was just trying to get the ball to Ja’Marr (Chase) quickly and not go backwards, get an easy field goal. The guy just kept buzzing out there, and I made a bad read.”
Two Chris Boswell field goals (34 and 33 yards) and one Evan McPherson field goal (47 yards) would round out the scoring as the Pittsburgh terrible towels twirled in celebration.
For dejected Bengals fans, they know that Jake Browning is no one-and-done starter. They also know that Joe Burrow’s not coming back, nor are there any other saviors on the horizon. Browning’s here for the long haul, and the California native appears to have the full support of his head coach.
“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 [I] still have all the confidence in the world [in him].”
Meanwhile, in the Bengals’ locker room afterwards, the mood was a bit more funereal. These players know the writing is on the wall. They’re still winless in the AFC North and hopes of making another playoff run are basically on life support. Everyone spoke in hushed tones with emotions on full mute. As professionals, I’m sure they’ll continue to put in the work and the effort.
At 0 – 4 in the division and a losing record eleven weeks in, however, it does feel like things are slipping away.
“I don’t know,” said a dejected Ja’Marr Chase to a gaggle of reporters in front of his locker asking him to describe his emotions. “It’s my first time feeling like this, so I really don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Neither does anybody else. But the truth is that the Bengals can’t run. Nor can they hide from the reality of a season on the brink. Tough times are coming. Be prepared.
Cincinnati heads to Jacksonville next week to face the 8 – 3 Jaguars.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. He currently covers the Bengals’ beat for Sports View America. He is the author/coauthor of five books—Cut To The Chase, Kentucky Passion, From The Rafters Of Rupp, and Serving Up Winners. Check out his just-released new book, They Call Me Mr. Secretary, here https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CMPN9W8P