ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 18: Andy Dalton #14 of the Cincinnati Bengals hands there ball off to Cedric Benson #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals against the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on December 18, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Bengals beat the Rams 20-13. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
It wasn’t so much that Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham accounted for all of Cincinnati’s false starts last weekend against the St. Louis Rams. It was that he committed three of them, all during possessions that would eventually lead to punts. A third and 12 is hard enough to convert, especially with wide receiver A.J. Green already dealing with a shoulder injury. It was understandable when the Bengals conceded the possession following Jermaine Gresham’s third false start, that Cedric Peerman took the handoff on a draw that eventually led to a field goal.
The Cincinnati Bengals have been penalized with seven false starts in the past three games, dating back to their devastating 35-7 loss on December 4, 2011. Mind you it’s not false starts directly that loses games. What they do, as Dave Lapham readily points out, is put you behind schedule. What should be manageable third downs turn into Cedric Peerman concession draws. What should be a simple Cedric Benson power run up the gut from the one-yard line, turns into an Andy Dalton must-do-it-all routine and eventually a Mike Nugent field goal.
"The penalties come from different cadences. We’re going to continue to change the cadence. We’ve got to focus in and do a better job of knowing what the particular cadence sequence is on that particular play. There’s no reason for us to put those numbers up there, but that officiating crew has led the NFL in penalties this year. We knew that going into the game, and we have to be conscious of that. But again, the pre-snap penalties hurt us. We have to do a good job of focusing in on that, whether it be a player (not involved in the exchange), whether it be the snapper, whether it be the quarterback. We’ve had error in all three areas, and we’ve got to do a better job at that."
It’s not just Gresham either. A.J. Green, a wide receiver that doesn’t need to know the snap count because he’s looking inward and launching from his wide receiver position once Kyle Cook lifts the football, committed a false start with 10:09 remaining in the first quarter against the Steelers. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time. What was a third and goal from the Steelers four-yard line, turned into a third and goal from the nine. Rather than taking a seven-point lead early against Pittsburgh, Andy Dalton is forced to make a play. Instead Mike Nugent’s field goal is blocked, virtually giving the Steelers all the momentum they’d need to win the game by the end of the first half.
Even a veteran like the Pro Bowl candidate Andrew Whitworth was flagged with a false start with 1:39 remaining in the second quarter from Cincinnati’s 13-yard line. It moved a third and ten from Cincinnati’s 13-yard line inside their own 10. An incomplete pass later and Antonio Brown returned a punt 52 yards for a touchdown, giving the Steelers a 28-7 lead before half time. Game over.
Bobbie Williams, another veteran offensive lineman, hurt Cincinnati’s golden opportunity from Houston’s one-yard line with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter after being flagged for early movement. A Cedric Benson no-gain and two ineffective passes later, Mike Nugent converts the 22-yard field goal in a game that was lost by one point.
With 2:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cincinnati Bengals offense lined up to go for it on four and one from their own 48-yard line. Convert the first down and Cincinnati’s six-point lead over Houston is even more secured as the clock suddenly becomes Houston’s greatest detriment. Mike McGlynn commits a false start and Kevin Huber kicks a 44-yard punt to Houston’s 13-yard line. In retrospect Marvin Lewis admitted that there wasn’t a play called and had hoped to draw Houston off-sides. Whether or not that’s true, we’ll never know.
We’ve been saying it since Sunday night. Cincinnati is in the thick of the playoff hunt, with two must-wins remaining in the schedule and a Jets loss giving them the sixth seed in the playoffs (easiest of the six trillion scenarios). Against a team like the St. Louis Rams, penalties can be overcome. Against teams with a combined 17-7 record, Cincinnati’s season will end prematurely if they can’t clean them up.