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Bengals rookie QB Ryan Finley struggling to state case as 2020 starter

CINCINNATI -- Ryan Finley pivoted in the pocket, searched for an open receiver and never saw it coming.

The Cincinnati Bengals rookie quarterback waited a split second too long for a receiver to get open at the end of Sunday's 16-10 loss to the Steelers. That's all it took for Pittsburgh's Bud Dupree to come around, sack Finley and force a fumble that effectively sealed Cincinnati's 11th straight loss to open the season.

It was a sour ending for Finley, who is trying to show he can be the Bengals' next franchise quarterback. But after three starts, that idea appears to be in peril. Finley has completed only 47.1 percent of his passes, thrown two touchdowns and committed five turnovers.

Talk of another quarterback switch still feels premature, even after Finley's latest outing. However, the fourth-round pick knows he must improve in order to cement his long-term future.

"I thought we did some good things, just not enough to win," Finley said. "I've got to play better."

Finley put the ball on the ground twice against the Steelers (6-5), including the fumble on Cincinnati's final offensive possession that started with 2:38 left in the game. Finley and Bengals coach Zac Taylor both stressed the importance of ball security and improved pocket presence, an issue Finley has struggled with since he took over for veteran Andy Dalton in Week 10.

Taylor shrugged off the notion of going back to Dalton, who has one year left on his contract and wants to be a starter again, either in Cincinnati or elsewhere. And while Taylor remained noncommittal about Finley's long-term status as the starter, the rookie likely isn't in jeopardy of getting benched ahead of the Week 13 game against the New York Jets.

"We have to give him a chance," Taylor said. "That's where we're at right now. If you pulled every rookie quarterback after the first three games, there's no future of quarterback in this league because they're all on the bench."

When Taylor went from Dalton to Finley at the halfway mark of the season, the Bengals wanted to get an extended look at how the rookie handled the starting role.

The North Carolina State product was the only quarterback prospect at the draft combine who came in for a private workout with the Bengals this spring. In the preseason, Finley completed 73.4 percent of his passes and was so impressive that he earned the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.

Even though he's shown glimpses of that success in the regular season, he's struggled against first-team defenses.

In the third quarter against the Steelers, Finley had receiver Alex Erickson wide open down the right sideline after Erickson shook his defender on a double move. The ball sailed out of bounds as a potential touchdown was negated.

Finley had a chance at redemption when he completed a 22-yard pass to Tyler Boyd inside the Steelers' 10-yard line in the fourth quarter. But the ball was knocked loose while Boyd was tackled and the Steelers recovered. That play was important for the Bengals and their young quarterback.

"He came in down," Boyd said of Finley in the postgame locker room. "And I went over there and told him, 'Bro, don't worry about it. I put us in that situation. If I catch that ball and I hold on to it, you're the hero.'"

Finley certainly needs help from his injury-depleted receiving corps and a beleaguered offensive line. But he has to improve his side of things, too. Of quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts this season, Finley has the lowest completion percentage above expectation (-13.5 percent), according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

They're not ideal conditions for any quarterback to prove himself as a viable starter, much less a rookie. But it's what Finley has to work with right now. With five games remaining in the season, the opportunities are dwindling.

"We're just going to keep taking it one week at a time right now," Taylor said. "You want to see as many games as you can possibly get."