Along with all of the talking points of Bob Bratkowski's play-calling, Carson Palmer's inability to take charge of a game and single-handed win football games like $100 million quarterbacks tend to be expected to do, the Bengals as a whole are struggling to truly fire on all cylinders at once. Whether it's a lack of an explosive passing game, or a defensive effort that's at times shockingly soft, the team isn't firing on all cylinders, even though at times (very small times) they appear to be the team that we expected them to be. Still, they've yet to put together their best effort with all three phases of the game.
Their biggest struggle against Tampa Bay, and throughout much of the season? Penalties.
Through five games this year, the Bengals have committed 36 penalties, tied for 9th most in the NFL, fourth in the AFC and most in the AFC North. Since only committing two fouls against New England, the Bengals have been called for at least eight penalties in the past four games. Of the team's 36 penalties, the offense has been called for 12 false starts, which is on average 5.5 false starts more than the league average. Against Carolina and Cleveland, the Bengals committed seven combined penalties that's led to first downs while all five opponents this season have given Cincinnati only five first downs for their own infractions.
The truth is, penalties are crushing this team right now. It's killing their offensive possessions and all three phases of the game were affected by it. That evidence is no clearer than how the game progressed against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last Sunday. Penalties pushed Cincinnati's third down chances from third-and-manageable to third-and-long, which led to Carson Palmer's interceptions or Tampa Bay's superior field position late in the game.
On the Bengals' opening drive of the game, Bobbie Williams and Andre Caldwell were called for false starts that eventually pushed Cincinnati back to third-and-11 at their own 33-yard line. Palmer threw an incomplete pass and the Bengals punted. During Cincinnati's third drive that kicked off the second quarter, Reggie Kelly was called for a holding, nullifying Cedric Benson's four-yard run that would have given Cincinnati some breathing room at own 10-yard line. The penalty instead pushed the Bengals back to their own three-yard line and Carson Palmer threw a pick-six to Cody Grimm, who went unnoticed by Palmer attempting a quick pass to Terrell Owens.
Bobbie Williams' second false start occurred with 9:06 left in the second quarter, pushing Cincinnati's offense back with 11 yards to go on third down. Palmer's attempted pass to Jermaine Gresham was knocked down at the line of scrimmage. Bengals punt was partially blocked. Leon Hall's pass interference with 5:40 left in the third pushed Tampa Bay to the Bengals one-yard line. Earnest Graham ran off the left edge to score a touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
Jermaine Gresham was called for a false start with 2:28 left in the game, pushing Cincinnati's offense back to their own 38-yard line with 13 yards to go on third down. This is the decision that's brought Cincinnati's coaching staff plenty of justified flack. The Bengals, with a 21-14 lead and 2:28 left in the game, elected to pass the football while Tampa Bay had already exhausted their final timeout. It's bad enough that an incomplete would simply stop the clock, but the pass was intercepted. Tampa Bay scored a touchdown five plays later to tie the game. Personally, I don't mind the aggressive play calling. What I'm concerned about is that Cincinnati has often proved that they're still not executing well enough to give anyone the confidence that they'd pick up the first down, or at the very least, a completed pass to push the time into the two minute warning. True, if the pass is completed, the game is over. If it's not completed, then anything goes. The worse possible scenario happened, and thus being aggressive with this squad brings my own suspicions; even though I acknowledge that it could be a catalyst to giving the squad more confidence to be better a unit down the road if the completed pass ended the game.
Finally, with the scored tied at 21 a piece with 21 seconds left, Terrell Owens caught a nine-yard pass that pushed Cincinnati to Tampa Bay's 34-yard line, well within Mike Nugent's range to win the game. Instead Owens was called for an offensive pass interference, pushing Cincinnati back to their own 47-yard line with 25 seconds left. On the following play, trying to pick up chunks of yardage to get back within field goal range, Carson Palmer throws his third pick of the game that would eventually lead to Tampa Bay's game-winning field goal.
Cincinnati's offense, as a whole, tends to receive too much flak. For example, they've recorded over 400 yards of total offense in two games this year, both losses. They've only fallen below the 300-yard offense mark once, a win over the Baltimore Ravens. Yes, the offense right now is a high profile squad with their biggest issue being the lack of points scored, yet to record more than 24 points in a game. However, their issue of not scoring much has everything to do with the penalties they're accruing and, most importantly, when they're occurring.
Once they clean up that part of their game, expect the team to explode with so many points, they'll be a bank of points offering loans to anyone playing the Ravens or Steelers to get back into the mix.