CINCINNATI -- Monday night's 23-20 loss to the Steelers followed a familiar script for the Cincinnati Bengals. They built a 17-0 lead in the second quarter, and still led 20-10 in the fourth. But, a franchise-record 173 penalty yards, key drops, and lack of execution late in the game led to yet another second-half meltdown against the AFC North rival Steelers, similar to the epic collapse in the closing minutes of the 2015 AFC wild-card game.
"It kind of feels like deja vu," said safety George Iloka. "Not to the extent, but it has the (same) feel of when we lost the playoff game. The playoff game ... we imploded out of nowhere. This was more slowly."
And, almost as damaging. At 5-7, the Bengals' playoff hopes are slim to none, and already there is talk about head coach Marvin Lewis' future. Lewis is in the final year of his contract.
"It's rough, man," said A.J. Green. "We put in all this work each and every week for six months. It's just not working out. We're losing by a small margin."
--Bengals cornerback William Jackson III was thrust into action Monday night when Adam Jones left the game in the first half with a groin injury. In the third quarter, Jackson produced a lowlight when he allowed Le'Veon Bell to catch a pass and then tip-toe the sideline untouched for a 35-yard touchdown that cut the Steelers' deficit to 17-10. Pittsburgh won 23-20 on Chris Boswell's field goal as time expired. Jackson said he thought Bell had stepped out of bounds, but just stood and watched as Bell jogged into the end zone.
"I thought he was out, and I didn't want to late-hit him," Jackson said. "He's a veteran guy. He turned it up, caught me slipping and scored a touchdown.
REPORT CARD VS. STEELERS
--PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus -- Andy Dalton was effective, aside from a couple wind-blown deep balls that seemed ill-advised due to the conditions at that time. Dalton finished with 234 yards passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Steelers, his chief nemesis. Dalton's night might have been better had it not been for a few glaring drops by his receivers at key moments. A.J. Green had another solid day against Pittsburgh with seven catches for 77 yards, but he was targeted 16 times.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: A -- For the second straight week, the Bengals managed to chew up yardage on the ground against a top rushing defense. And, the 130 yards might have been a much larger number had Joe Mixon not been knocked out in the first half with a concussion. Mixon had 34 yards on seven carries prior to the injury, and Giovani Bernard picked up his slack with 77 on 13 attempts. The Bengals averaged nearly six yards per carry.
--PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- What toe injury? After being questionable coming into the game after missing practice this past week, Antonio Brown had his typical performance against the Bengals with eight catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. Ben Roethlisberger passed for 290 yards and two touchdowns. Adam Jones picked him off once, but Jones was injured on the play and did not return. The Bengals struggled to cover the Steelers' receivers without getting flagged. William Jackson III had a particularly rough day, including one play where he allowed Le'Veon Bell to catch a pass then tip-toe the sideline untouched for a 35-yard TD.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B -- The Bengals held the Steelers to 90 yards on the ground and a 4.2 average. Le'Veon Bell rushed for 76 yards on 18 carries. Only five of Pittsburgh's 24 first downs were accomplished on the ground. The Steelers now rank 20th in the league with an average of 103.1 yards per game.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: B -- Randy Bullock kicked field goals of 35 and 41 yards and was perfect on extra points to put his earlier struggles behind him. Punter Kevin Huber had a solid day, averaging 47.8 net yards on five punts. The most glaring error by this group was Martavis Bryant's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but it was called back due to a holding penalty.
--COACHING: C-minus -- We've seen this movie before: the Bengals in position to beat the rival Steelers only to self-destruct in the end. The fact that the Bengals led 17-0 at one point is a testament to their game plan, which produced 130 rushing yards and solid pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked once. But, Cincinnati's lack of discipline again was evident with a franchise-record 173 penalty yards and defensive lapses with the game on the line. In the final year of his current contract, head coach Marvin Lewis likely will miss the playoffs for a second straight season.
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