The latest installment of the Steelers-Bengals rivalry was an anxiety-ridden thriller, even for those with no rooting interest in either team. A display of football mastery for the ages, it was not. But the 23-20 overtime win by Pittsburgh had more twists and turns than an entire season of Stranger Things.
As such there were several key takeaways, starting with TJ Watt and a ferocious defense bullying a supposedly improved Bengals offensive line. Joe Burrow was sacked a whopping seven times: Watt alone collected a sack, interception and three tackles for a loss (the reigning defensive player of the year would later leave the field with a feared torn pectoral).
As for the man so often on the ground Sunday, well, if we hadn’t seen Burrow at SoFi Stadium in February with our own eyes, it would be hard to believe that he started in the last Super Bowl. At least for the first half. Yes, Burrow was afforded minimal time to throw but when he did, his accuracy and decision making were off base. He was unable to adjust until the second half when his vision became an asset, and his release was quicker.
It also helped Cincinnati that the Steelers offense seemingly lost its pulse in the second half. The Steelers were always going to be conservative with Mitch Trubisky starting at quarterback, but three points and fewer than 100 total yards in the second half is inexcusable.
Luckily for Trubisky, he still got the opportunity to play hero thanks to a bevy of missed opportunities by the Bengals, starting with Zak Taylor not challenging when a clear Ja’Marr Chase touchdown was ruled incomplete with just over 2:00 remaining in regulation. Dwelling on the non-challenge may cause our brains to collectivity explode – Taylor said after the game Chase was in a tough part of the field to see – but idiotic is a very polite way to describe it.
Taylor’s gaffe started a wild series of dominoes that eventually resulted in Trubisky looking like Ben Roethlsiberger in his prime as he led the Steelers from their own 20 to the game-winning field goal.
It also led to a newfound appreciate for Clark Harris and his ilk. C’mon, you really hadn’t heard of Harris until Sunday or even now? For the uninitiated, Harris is the Bengals’ long snapper. He, along with holder Kevin Huber and kicker Evan McPherson are a well-oiled machine, each a cog that must be precise. Harris with the perfectly angled snap from seven yards away, Huber with the perfect hold and McPherson with the perfect leg. That was the team on the field for McPherson’s string of incredible kicks last season, as well as for McPherson’s successful 59-yarder in the first quarter on Sunday.
Then Harris suffered a biceps injury and poor Mitchell Wilcox (usually the team’s backup tight end) had to sub in. McPherson’s extra point that would have sealed the win was blocked by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Then his 29-yard field goal that would again have sealed the win in overtime sailed well right.
McPherson, to his credit, was diplomatic about the failed field-goal attempt: “The operation was fine. I just missed it,” he said. That’s a nice thing to say but with Harris snapping the ball, the operation is actually fine, and the Bengals actually win.
Long snappers are not just essential to special teams. They are the coolest dudes in the locker room, and the good ones are models of longevity. Former Eagles long snapper Jon Dorenbus is a professional magician who reached the final of America’s Got Talent. Don Muhlbach, the long-time Lions long snapper, was the second oldest NFL player (behind a certain quarterback) when he retired in 2020. He also used to cut a banana into 17 pieces ahead of every game and do the same air drum solo before running out of the tunnel. With all due respect to offensive linemen, these are the guys you want to have a beer with. There are endless fun facts about long snappers but no one knows them because they have always been in the shadows.
Until now. Harris’s absence illustrates how crucial a skilled long snapper is to the kicking operation. In the case of the Bengals, it was the difference between a win and a loss.
MVP of the week
Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs. It’s safe to say Mahomes is going to be just fine without Tyreek Hill. In a 44-21 beatdown of the Arizona Cardinals, Mahomes was 30-of-39 for 360 passing yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. All four quarters were a bold reminder that no one has ever played the position like Mahomes. No one has close to his bag of tools. And to boot, he wins good teammate honors for running over to grab the football that rookie Isiah Pacheco used to score his first touchdown.
Quote of the week
“He’s a man of his word. He told us he was going to be aggressive … He did just that” – Giants running back Saquon Barkley on his new head coach, Brian Daboll.
Down 13-0 at halftime to the Titans, the Giants came out a new team in the second half. Daboll made the adjustments that successful coaches make. But he also did something that not many coaches do, he bet on his players. Following a 13-play drive that resulted in a touchdown with a minute left, Daboll had a choice. Go for one to tie it or two to win. Daboll later revealed that he planned to go for the win all along, and his gamble succeeded. Barkley took a shovel pass in the end zone and ran to his coach with a grin to match the moment. Finally, the Giants feel like a winner.
“McDaniel’s gonna need a wheelbarrow for his nuts to carry them around” – Dolphins wideout Tyreek Hill on head coach Mike McDaniel.
Daboll’s not the only one who earned immediate adulation from his players. Pretty hard to argue with the result of McDaniel’s unconventional decision to go for it on fourth and seven with 24 seconds left in the first half.
Video of the week
Not only did rookie Cade York’s game-winning 58-yard field goal secure the Browns an emotional win over Baker Mayfield (oh, and the rest of the Panthers too), it ended one of the most embarrassing streaks in the NFL. The Browns won their first season-opener in 18 years. Seriously. York won’t have to buy a meal in Cleveland any time soon.
Stat of the week
61-10. That’s the amount Green Bay have been outscored in openers over the past two seasons.
Given that Green Bay made it to the divisional round last year and the NFC championship the year before, it’s safe to say they won’t be worrying too much about Sunday’s 23-7 loss to the Vikings.
Elsewhere around the league
— Chicago’s Matt Eberflus joined the party of rookie head coaches who won in Week 1. It looked like it was going to be a long day for the Bears after San Francisco took a 7-0 lead and Chicago kept punting after calling screens on third and longs in the first half. But Trey Lance and the 49ers offense struggled to generate anything in the torrential downpour at Soldier Field. Justin Fields was the better quarterback Sunday, showing off the arm strength on a beautiful 51-yard touchdown pass to former 49er Dante Pettis. As for Lance, there will be inevitable, and very unfair, pondering this week about whether the team should return to Jimmy Garoppolo.
— Josh McDaniels did not win his head coaching debut in Las Vegas in large part because Justin Herbert is extremely good at football. Herbert picked up where he left off last season, except this time his team beat the Raiders 24-19. I’m still not over the Chargers’ exclusion form the playoffs last season.
— Notable performances from Sunday: Saquon Barkley with 164 rushing yards, a touchdown and the aforementioned two-point conversion | Davante Adams in his Raiders debut: 10 receptions, 141 yards and a touchdown| Justin Jefferson, nine receptions, 184 yards and two scores | Jonathan Taylor, 161 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown | AJ Brown in his Eagles debut, 10 receptions and 155 receiving yards (128 of them in the first half while mostly being smothered).
— New Colts quarterback Matt Ryan passed for 352 yards and a touchdown and all he has to show for it is a 20-20 tie against a Texans team he should have beat. Ties in soccer: acceptable. Ties in the NFL: barf.
— Too late to change my Super Bowl pick to Buffalo? I’d be remiss not to mention the NFL’s opener featured Josh Allen picking apart the Rams defense with precision passing (83.9% completion rate), smart reads, and sheer will. Conversely, brash Rams corner Jalen Ramsey played just as he did in the Super Bowl: pedestrian and beatable.
— This has to be related to some seedy Dan Snyder business venture, no?
— In closing, go hug your nearest long snapper.