Football teams at the highest levels, be it NCAA or the NFL, have an annoying tendency when they have a big lead late in a game. Like a shy turtle, they pop their head and tail back into their metaphoric shell and go into full protection mode. The offense turns completely vanilla by running the ball to chew clock and the defense turns to the "prevent" formation, which humorously also gets coined as a formation that "prevents you from winning".
In fairness, the "turtle mode" works more often than not. Still, there are many examples over the years that prove that conservative play-calling when holding onto a lead can prove disastrous. Last week's Bengals matchup versus the Bills proved that. Thanks to some head-scratching play-calling and even more odd personnel decisions, Cincinnati lost a 14-point, fourth quarter lead. They did this to a squad whose only consistency was being inconsistent and whose quarterback was in his second NFL start.
The coaching decisions that we saw last Sunday, which nearly cost the Bengals the game, can't happen this Sunday versus the Lions.
Are there two quieter 4-2 NFL teams than Cincinnati and Detroit? Likely not. One can claim that it has to do with the market size and/or the track record of the respective squads in recent history, but both franchises are playing good football in 2013. Detroit has drafted relatively well over the past few seasons and were pretty big players in free agency this year. Their big haul, running back Reggie Bush, has been a revelation for quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Bengals will have their hands full with him, Calvin Johnson, and a couple of solid tight ends.
So what are the questionable moves against the Bills that I referenced? Let's review the fourth quarter, as that is when things began to crumble:
Fourth Quarter, 10:15 Remaining, Bengals Lead 24-10:
Seemingly having the game in the bag, the Bengals punted the ball away to the Bills with just under 13 minutes in the game. The Bengals were allowing Thad Lewis to complete some shorter passes and even sacked him on the drive. After taking off just under two and a half minutes on the game clock, the Bills faced a hopeless-looking fourth and eight from the Bengals 22-yard line. If the Bengals stop them, they could hang onto a sizable lead and likely walk away with a multiple-possession win.
Except they didn't. Lewis found tight end Scott Chandler in the middle of the field wide open and he scored a touchdown to cut it to one possession. What caused this game-changing touchdown reception? Upon review of the tape, defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who had been dominating the line of scrimmage against the pass and the run all day, was inexplicably dropped into coverage. His task seemed to be covering Chandler, which is not something that we see out of the 6'6" lineman often (or at all).
Had the Bengals put the right personnel on the field and/or on Chandler, the touchdown may never have happened and a completely different outcome would have likely ensued. Even if Chandler still converted the first down, a touchdown would have been less likely had defensive backs been on him and more time would have been taken off of the game clock.
Fourth Quarter, 2:50 Remaining, Bengals Lead 24-17:
Okay, so the Chandler touchdown was a fluke and the Bengals' offense, who had been effective all day, would wear out the Bills defense and walk away with a seven or ten point win. Wrong. Though the Bengals efficiently ate up clock (six plays and almost three and a half minutes), they got stuffed on a critical third and one and were forced to punt the ball back to Buffalo.
On the third and short, it was rookie running back Giovani Bernard who was stuffed for no gain to force the punt. Before the play, you saw an animated BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the sideline likely upset about not getting the ball in this situation. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, "The Law Firm" had a point--especially since he is now being labeled their "short-yardage guy".
For all of the great plays that Bernard made in the passing game, he wasn't doing much running the football. He had almost three yards-per-carry less than Green-Ellis (1.9 to 4.8) on almost the same amount of carries (15 to 18). Additionally, Green-Ellis was a first down machine all day, converting five first downs on the ground and was consistently falling forward on his runs. Why would Marvin Lewis and Jay Gruden get away from the portion of the running game that had been working the best all day from them on a critical third and short?
Fourth Quarter, 1:15 Remaining, Bengals Lead 24-17:
After the failed conversion attempt by Bernard, the Bengals were forced to punt and hold a one-possession lead. The Bills slowly moved the ball again and used the no-huddle offense against the Bengals' prevent-like defense. As any defensive coordinator will tell you, the no-huddle can give defenses major fits because of personnel matchup problems.
Cincinnati found themselves in this situation when veteran cornerback Terence Newman lined up against rookie wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. The former Texas Longhorn was also a former Olympic Track and Field runner and blew people away at the Scouting Combine with his speed. The Bengals obviously knew of that speed, as they tried to kick the ball away from him a couple of times on returns.
Predictably, the 35-year-old Newman was beat badly by the speedy rookie on a 40-yard touchdown that would send the game into overtime. While most understand that the no-huddle offense doesn't allow a defense to make the best adjustments and personnel matchups, this one was maddening. Though Adam Jones played an awful game on Sunday, his speed against Goodwin would have come in handy. If not Jones, then use Leon Hall, the team's best cover corner. The oldest and arguably slowest corner on the roster should not have been tasked with the coverage here. That's not meant to knock Newman, as he has played well this year, but it's another piece of the puzzle as to why the Bengals let a big lead get away.
Again, the Bengals can't let these issues hurt them against the Lions this coming Sunday. Detroit is a better team than Buffalo and has more offensive weapons, so the game plan must be almost flawless. And, if Cincinnati finds themselves in a similar situation as last week with a nice lead, they had better take notes from last week to avoid a potential disaster.