Last season I started a weekly post-game column looking at 5 underlying issues going into the game as well as 5 new developments that I felt were most prominently illustrated during the game. I'll try to do the same this season, and this is my first installment.
Going into week 1 it seemed that a new pattern in Bengal faithful had emerged: for the most part excitement surpassed apprehension. If we had to select five over-riding themes going into the Bear game, I'd say it might be these:
1) The Bengals have a dominant D line and a Top 10 D. This is the strength of the team.
2) Special Teams have gotten better progressively over the past few seasons to where we now are overall league leaders in teams' play.
3) The Offense is transitioning to a team that can spread the field and attack through a number of players. However, nobody is quite sure whether Andy Dalton has the tools to be more than a good field manager and adequate thrower in the short and intermediate passing game.
4) The coaching staff has had a critical mass of continuity and should be ready to illustrate whether that brings a competitive advantage in 2013.
5) The ownership has taken a step back and seemingly has allowed more personnel decision making by persons such as Marv Lewis & Duke Tobin all while opening the check book for several key players. This appears to have resulted in a more stable roster and longer term hope for a winning franchise over time.
To address how these themes played out today in Chicago, I'd say that:
* The D looked dominant in some stretches but was unable to close the book in key situations. Despite some modest pressure on Cutler, the Bear QB was sacked or contained on big plays. In familiar fashion we were unable to pass defend the middle of the field, and overall LB & Safety play did us in.
* The STs coverage units did well, but Kirkpatrick's mental gaffe at the end of the first half ended up being the difference in the game.
* The Bears totally overplayed the short passing zones to start the game because word is out that Dalton can't hurt you deep. Dalton turned around and did hurt the Bears deep on a few plays, but these weren't plays in which the ball was in the air for more than half a playing field distance. When the DBs are not having to respect a QB's arm strength, the playing field becomes much shorter. The Bears were willing to give up 26 of 33 provided that they got two picks and ripped a fumble away from Mohammad Sanu. The (-2) on takeovers was the difference along these lines. When you play the West Coast game, 79% passing is not enough if you turn it over. To Dalton's defense, only one of those three turnovers was his fault.
* Again, the Bengals were outcoached and beaten on opening day by a rookie opponent. Now we're 2-3 in the Marv era under these conditions having lost to John Harbaugh & Josh McDaniels as well. What could have been done better by Marv & Co.? The team was flat to start and didn't maintain an even playing level throughout the game. The use of timeouts in the second half was poor. And the repeat mistakes by players at the end of the 1st (Kirkpatrick) and 2nd (Maualuga) halves illustrated that the team still is not completely focused on playing winning football. What Marv is doing on game days just isn't effective enough, and the organization has to think about more extreme measures to deal with 5th year Captains who body slam opponents to draw an obvious penalty and end a game. That's a Maualuga mistake but is on the coaches who vouched for this guy and who continue to do nothing after the fact. Despite being low on LBs right now, I would set an example right now by suspending #58 for the next game for that act. Period.
* On the ownership front, I'm good with what the Browns have done here in the past 2+ seasons. Although Mike Brown will never admit it, he's now a better owner by allowing his appointees to do their jobs without his obstruction. I do wish that he had more courage in finding a way to get better game day decision making from our head coach, but I'm not sure how you do that.
Now what can we conclude from week 1 in addition to the notes above? Here are five more things to consider:
1) AJ Green is a beast. And Dalton made some really nice throws in the underneath game. We used our TEs decently even if not quite enough. However, the "other" WRs didn't do enough to fully open up this offense. I'm not sure how we correct this issue.
2) What happened to our pass rush? Not enough blitz? Or was the Bear OL better than we thought? Geno Atkins got the bucket o' money and followed up with no tackles and a single QB hit. I didn't have a good enough picture to see how they were blocking him. If he was doubled the whole game, then Dunlap, MJ93 & Co. didn't give us much in their isolation opportunities.
3) What now with Maualuga? He failed in pass coverage several times (the Lamur loss was felt deeply), missed a few key tackles in run D, and made a very embarrassing mistake to end the game. We weren't going to win the game if we got the ball back on our own 10 with 30 seconds to play and no timeouts. But you just don't body slam opponents in WWE fashion. What in the hell was he thinking? How do Marv and Zimmer feel after vouching so strongly for him? We obviously need immediate additional help at LB as we are thin in coverage and depth, while Maualuga might not be what Zim thought he was (or he might be what a lot of CJer's told us he was... God forbid!).
4) Was Chicago good, or were we just bad? I'll give credit to Jay Cutler because he made the big plays in the big moments to win the game. And we failed to make the 3rd down and Red Zone plays that were needed to overcome the turnover differential we ceded. The Bears had a large height advantage at receiver, and they killed us with their Offensive skill players. Marc Trestman did a really nice job of playing high percentage football and letting Cutler use his tools. However, NFL games now frequently come down to a single possession, a single score, or a single mistake. In this game we gave them the final possession and a gimmee FG before the end of the 1st Half. That's two mistakes that sealed our fate against a decent team in an away contest and a tight score. Those add up to a loss.
5) How much of this mess can be cleaned up? How much is permanent?
Chicago is a solid team. Cutler is a top 10-12 QB in the league with one of the strongest arms around. And he's a smart guy. Today he took advantage of our errors. Marc Trestmann looks like he's gonna be a good coach too. That's the "let's make up an excuse" approach.
Maualuga made key errors. Kirkpatrick still is a liability whenever he steps on the field. Dalton's arm is so marginal that teams are loading up on the short routes. Gruden didn't use the new guys enough to make a difference. Sanu & Jones pose no threat as #2's. The Fisher-Price millionaires, er kids, let their wallets slow them down. Pacman struggles in pass coverage and seems to be getting worse each season. We didn't get much help from our safeties. James Harrison wasn't a difference maker. That's the "let's beat 'em down" approach.
Usually the truth is somewhere in between. I think Dalton looks better in his accuracy and reads. The O looks more fresh, but we just had crappy field position all day. Anthony Collins did a great job replacing Whit. The bull-like Vontage Burfict was all over the place (and I hereby christen him as "The Minotaur"). Kevin Huber did a great job keeping us in the field position game and in neutralizing Devin Hester. We lost by 3 in an away game to a good team after making multiple mental errors and having a (-2) turnover deficit. Everyone in the AFC North lost. We're in 1st place! The Steelers better get ready for some football next week!