Bernard showed why the Bengals
made him the first running back taken in April's draft. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The decline has been gradual at times, jarringly sudden at others. Ever since losing a wild-card playoff game to Denver two years ago, though, the Steelers have been stuck in neutral, a team hamstrung by myriad obstacles -- injuries, the salary cap, a tough division.
Pittsburgh has not so much been rebuilding on the fly as it has been stuck in the mud. Monday night, Bengals running back Giovani Bernard hammered that point home in a 20-10 win, with the help of some teammates.
Bernard scored the game's first touchdown, plowing up the middle from seven yards out after a 61-yard reception from fellow rookie Tyler Eifert. Later, with the game tied at 10 in the third quarter, Bernard took a short pass from Andy Dalton and outraced the Pittsburgh defense around the edge for his second TD.
The Bengals are far from a finished product. They have plenty of their own issues, right down to an inconsistent Dalton, who never really managed to find a rhythm Monday. But make no mistake: As things stand, after Week 2 of the 2013 season, Cincinnati is better set up to contend for a title than are the Steelers, both now and for the immediate future.
Most of that stems from what the Bengals have been able to do over the past four drafts, landing starter after starter. The latest examples come from Eifert, their first-round pick in 2013; and Bernard, their second-round add.
Where the Steelers looked weathered, Bernard especially put on display the spark that can come from youthful talent.
"He did a great job," Dalton told ESPN of Bernard, who made the most of his nine touches. "It's nice to be able to throw a little check-down and have him take it for a touchdown. He ran the ball well -- that's what we expect out of him."
Before we throw dirt on the 2013 version of the Steelers, let's recall that this franchise was a Week 16 win over Cincinnati away from getting to the postseason in 2012. The talent, aging though it may be, remains ample enough to at least compete in the AFC North.
And yet, two weeks into the season, Pittsburgh has scored 19 points. The Steelers' offensive line was overmatched on Monday, a problem that failed to aid a stagnant running game. A dismal showing from Ben Roethlisberger only exacerbated the problems.
There is very little time to get all of that corrected, because teams like the defending champion Ravens and this deep, balanced Bengals squad are unlikely to implode.
"It starts with that acknowledgement that they were the better team tonight," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "The margin of error was small ... We've got work to do. We don't hide from that. We accept that and embrace that."
Somewhere down the line, the Bengals may run into the same sort of conundrums that pushed Pittsburgh out of the playoffs last season and threaten to do the same again. Already, they have committed huge amounts of money to defensive stalwarts Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. A.J. Green, Vontaze Burfict, Bernard, Eifert and all the rest of Cincinnati's young stars will need new deals eventually, if the Bengals wish to keep them.
Those are problems for another day. With 15 weeks left in the regular season, the Bengals and their fans ought to be excited about the foundation that has been laid.
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"We did what we needed to win this game, and it's great to see that," Dalton said. "An all-around team victory."
The stats certainly bear that claim out. Though Bernard was this game's breakout star, he finished with 37 fewer rushing yards than starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. In fact, it was Green-Ellis who helped ice the game late, breaking tackles on a 3rd-and-6 run to move the chains. Similarly, though Eifert's catch cranked the Bengals' offense into gear, three other teammates -- A.J. Green, Jermaine Gresham and Mohamed Sanu -- finished with more catches.
The Cincinnati defense more than held its own, too, despite Pittsburgh committing plenty of resources to (successfully) neutralizing Atkins. Instead, it was Burfict with 14 tackles, safety George Iloka with a huge third-down stop and Reggie Nelson providing a game-clinching pick.
The Steelers do not have the benefit of such depth at the moment. They did an admirable job in some facets of this game, namely in slowing Green, who was held to 41 yards receiving mostly by Ike Taylor. When they really needed a play, however, the well came up dry.
That is quite a different position for Pittsburgh to be in, three years removed from a Super Bowl bid. The Steelers are used to being the ones dictating the physical aspects of games, taking the punishment to Cincinnati. The shoe currently resides on the other foot, a nod both to what the Bengals have accomplished in turning their fortunes around and to the Steelers' slightly helpless situation.
The changing of the guard in this AFC North rivalry happened long before Monday night. Bernard, Eifert and the precocious Bengals merely offered Pittsburgh a reminder that it may be treading water.
"There's a certain amount of misery with the position that we're in," Tomlin said. "We'll wear it. We don't like it, but we'll wear it."
Right now, they have no other choice.