If you thought I was going to rip into the team this week for the seemingly about face effort in Pittsburgh, you were wrong.
Sure, I was disappointed that the team didn't assert itself in a manner that illustrated it is ready to march right onto MetLife Stadium in February. However, the game illustrated a few different issues that brought reality back to the fan's world, and we'll discuss those within.
Let's divide our talk into O, D, STs, and coaching for these purposes.
On Offense we saw the continuance of a disturbing trend in which Dalton starts slowly, we can't establish a running attack, and the early time of possession and field position is alarmingly slanted to the opponent. The other trend we saw was that bad weather seems to bother Andy Dalton a lot more than it does most opposing QBs. The fact for this game is that the OL did not establish itself very well at the Line of Scrimmage - on a windy, cold night in December that's really a deal breaker if you want to achieve playoff success.
On Defense we saw the limitations that now exist when you lose piece after piece of the starting unit. Cris Collinsworth tried to say that Dre Kirkpatrick "held his own" in his first start, but you saw differently. Zimmer was forced to go extremely heavy in zone coverage, and that led to an inability to stop Pittsburgh on several early key downs before the game got completely out of hand. The zone telegraphs what Zimmer knows to be Kirkpatrick's limits in coverage. The other failure of the game was the DL inability to get pressure on Roethlisberger. No, Big Ben didn't light us up. Rather he was very efficient early and then managed the game well once they had the big lead. He didn't need to light us up when the goal was to run the clock. A general recent failing on the D that must be mentioned before moving on involves poor tackling. We saw four guys unable to bring down Emmanuel Sanders in the 4th Quarter on 3rd down before he could outmaneuver them for 4 extra yards and a 1st down that burned out another 2 minutes from the clock.
On STs we saw Brandon Tate have a nice game in kick returns. However, the punt team gave up 14 points, and STs captain Cedric Peerman made a blunder putting another drive start inside our own 10. Those three STs issues led to an early 21-0 deficit, and it was game over before we really got started.
Coaching failed to set tone. The team was lethargic early, while the Steelers were literally breaking our jaws. When they took out our punter, the guys didn't have enough energy to even complain. If you cower to a bully, that usually doesn't work out well. The other unacceptable coaching issue I noted was the lack of urgency demonstrated in the second half when we were down 30-7. There was no "No Huddle" alignment or adjustment towards shorter drives. We used 12 minutes scoring two TDs, didn't try an onsides when down by 10 with 6 minutes to play, and really didn't see Marv Lewis doing anything to shake up his team when it was laying an egg.
This is a short list of failings that won't work for a team that wants to see itself as a player in the post-season tournament this year.
5 Prior Major Conclusions
1. The 5 C's: Consistency, Confidence, Character, Capability, Clarity: We're now seeing the limits of capability when forced to play numerous backups. This impacts the consistency and clarity of purpose. Yet, we're hearing good things from the locker room with respect to confidence and character. The sad thing about today's NFL is that there is little chance that any given team can make it through a whole season without a major injury to at least one of its key players. The way to compete in this light is to maintain good depth, confidence, and leadership from a core of veteran players. The Bengals have that and continue to be able to control their own destiny moving into week 16 with no worse than a division title and a #3 playoff seed if they win out.
2. Special Teams: The emergence of improved STs play had been a driver of the recent winning streak. When that dominance stopped in Pittsburgh, so did the success.
3. TO Differential: The limitation of the TO differential had also been a characteristic of recent success. That stat was a net ZERO in Pittsburgh illustrating that this is an important but not absolute factor in determining outcome.
4. Dre Kirkpatrick: We knew that he was going to be a key player in the Pittsburgh game. What we know now is that Kirkpatrick had no chance to succeed at the shutdown level of Newman, Hall, or even Pacman. Zimmer saw that he would have failed massively in that role, and he played Dre in coverages that protected his man-to-man deficiencies. Now we know that we have to have Newman back if we expect to maintain some playoff expectations. Maybe Dre will get better down the road, but I don't hold a lot of hope for that this season.
5. Andy Dalton: Good guy. Good fighter. Having a decent year that now looks to be on target for 4000+ yards, 60+ % passing, and 30+ TD passes with a 2:1 TD/INT ratio. Those aren't done deals, but he has a realistic shot at hitting those marks. From pre-season discussion the only target that Dalton has slightly missed on is the desire to hit closer to 65% on passing efficiency. Why is that important? Dalton is a rhythm and possession passer with limited deep pass abilities, so he needs to succeed through a high ratio of completions rather than accumulation of chunk plays. Given what we've seen here with two games to play, I would say that Dalton has made progress this season and is positioned to continue elevating his game in 2014. I think that Dalton will end up being a $9-10 million per year QB in a long-term deal, that this deal won't be offered until the end of the 2014 season, and that this may end up being a positive (in that Dalton is not eating up the huge cap space like others such as Flacco and Roethlisberger) or a negative (if Dalton improves substantially and then leaves for another team after the 2014 season). The key for Dalton moving forward is to get his completion % up a little more, maintain the 2:1 or greater TD/INT ratio, and learn to navigate special situations such as the away hostile crowds and poor weather that have slowed the team in 2013.
5 New Conclusions
1. The Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle: We aren't really a Super Bowl hopeful this year, but we aren't the "Bungals" either. Could we make the Super Bowl? Sure. If we win the rest of our games (that could be something like MN, Balt, and NE at home followed by Den away and Seattle in NJ), we'd be Super Bowl champs. That supposes that NE loses at least one more, that Den wins its first playoff game, and that Seattle wins the NFC championship game. However, we're 3-5 on the road with a loss to each intradivisional foe as well as close losses to Chi and Mia. We have looked inconsistent on the road this year, so we shouldn't carry dreams of suddenly reversing that in post-season. Nonetheless, you play one game at a time. You can't beat Baltimore this week when you're playing Minnesota.
2. It Feels Better to Be A Bengal Fan in Defeat than It Would to Be a Steeler Fan in Victory: After watching Kevin Huber have his jaw broken in a clearly illegal hit and then having Pittsburgh coaches, players, and fans defend that play (even though it is clearly illegal by NFL rules), I sense that there are some things worse in life than losing.
3. Injury Situation: The count is quite high, and we have to find the bright spots in this. We are finally getting a lot of experience for Kirkpatrick and Brandon Thompson. We got to see what DiManche could do at Pittsburgh. Our OL has developed depth. We know Sanzenbacher can play when needed. That's the consolation prize when you lose Hall, Atkins, Mays, Lamur, Geathers, and Sean Porter for the season on D; Boling on O; and Huber on STs. Throw in significant lost time to Maualuga, Still, Newman, and Hawkins. There really isn't any plan for this except to maintain depth and a "next man up" attitude. The team has done quite well given the circumstances.
4. You Never Really Know Where You're Going: We'd like the guarantee that we're winning a Super Bowl in 20??, and we'd just show up then for the parade. However, the hunt is the joy in this game. The hunt is still on in this season, and we have as good of a shot on a week-to-week basis as anyone on the other side of the field at least for the next 2-3 weeks (provided that there are no further limiting personnel developments).
5. The Steeler Loss Wasn't as One-Sided as It Felt: We were down 21-0 before the 1st Qtr was up on the basis of 3 STs snafus and a few failures to limit Steeler 3rd down attempts. The final stats remained relatively even (but stats are for losers, right?). Pittsburgh didn't blow the D off the field, and the O did finally move the ball even if it wasn't an overwhelming demonstration. Bottom line here is that we can go to the playoffs for a 3rd straight year while the Steelers sit at home for a second straight provided that we win our last two home games where we're 6-0 thus far. I like that opportunity.
Tighten your chin straps. MN is coming to town with that weed trafficker Jerome Simpson, revamped QB play, a rested Adrian Peterson, and a recent string of consistent quality efforts against good teams. We're up one game with two to play over Baltimore which finishes with NE next week in Baltimore and then at PBS. We could end up as the 2, 3, 4, or 6 seed depending on what happens to us, Baltimore, and Miami over the next two weekends. Beating Balt in the finale irrespective of the outcome vs. MN would win us the division. Winning the division with another loss might drop us below Indy into the #4 seed; winning out coupled with a NE loss in one of two games moves us to #2 seed; winning the division under status quo puts us in at #3 seed; losing to Baltimore but winning the WC berth puts us at #6 - that only happens if Mia loses one if its final two against Buff and the NYJ.
Looking at the big picture here, the franchise needs a playoff win this year to consider itself to still be moving upwards. Anything else would be a step down. Missing on the playoffs this year, which could happen even with a MN win followed by a loss to Baltimore, would be devastating to the team and fanbase.