After Roddrick Muckelroy's holding infraction nullified Bernard Scott's 23-yard return, the Bengals began the game's opening drive at their own 14-yard line. It was the first of nine drives that began inside Cincinnati's own 30-yard line and the first of three inside their own 15-yard line. The Bengals average starting field position after a kickoff began on their own 22-yard line, mostly thanks to mediocre blocking and Bernard Scott's unimpressive 19.5-yard average on kickoff returns.
Cincinnati's offense fired out of the gates as an unpredictable, yet rush-first offense, running nine times to Palmer's six pass attempts. They ran the ball four times and passed twice on first down. Of the five second downs they faced, four were runs and every third down was either a called pass or a quarterback sneak. Aside from the play-calling, the Bengals players actually executed. The offensive line held onto their blocks during runs and passes. Wide receivers ran crisp routes and caught passes while Carson Palmer threw about as accurately as he's thrown all year. Cincinnati's opening drive against the Miami Dolphins was exactly what everyone, fans, players, coaches and the media, had expected to see all along.
With the talent this offense supposedly has, which should beat any opponent on the field, there's no reason that this team can't execute any play called, no matter the situation. I feel it's completely justified to blame Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski for his lack of creative foresight, still struggling to use the pieces that's given to him and accommodate the play-calling to his offense's given talents. Whereas many will say he's the problem, I can only go so far as to say that he's only part of the problem. Coaches are only as good as the players that execute the plays called. Players can make a bad coach look good and players can make a good coach look terrible. When the team executes, as they did in the first quarter Sunday, then you see the results. When they don't execute as they didn't in the following quarters, then you see the results.
After back-to-back Cedric Benson runs, the Bengals set up on third-and-three in shotgun. Palmer nailed Chad Ochocinco a few yards past the line of scrimmage, picking up a first down. Another run on first down, followed by a nine-yard pass to Terrell Owens -- who had the first down, only to run backwards to find a lane for more yards -- set up a third-and-one from Cincinnati's 36-yard line. Palmer ran the longest quarterback sneak, a four-yard gain, in his career (not official, just seems very likely). After an incomplete pass to Owens and a no-gain run by Benson, Palmer completed a 14-yard pass to Chad Ochocinco down the right hashmarks for the team's third converted third down of the drive. After Bernard Scott swept around the edge for an 18-yard gain, Palmer hit Gresham for four yards and Scott picked up another four, putting the Bengals at Miami's 16-yard line. Back-to-back runs by Benson set up a third-and-one at Miami's seven-yard line. Palmer takes the shotgun snap and releases a fast ball to Terrell Owens on the right, running a simple slant route. Touchdown. Bengals take the lead.
When asked if the Dolphins changed anything after the first drive, Carson Palmer said:
"Yeah, they did a couple different things. That's what they do. Their coordinator's a guy that does that. He shows a couple things early, then doesn’t come back to them until later. They do a good job of not coming back to things that aren't working and sticking with things that are."
Is that an indirect indictment on Bob Bratkowski? You have to wonder. After picking up nine first downs in the first quarter, the Bengals would go on to pick up seven first downs and only convert two more third downs the rest of the afternoon.
While Cincinnati's opening possession would be their drive of the day, one thing stood out. During both third downs with a yard to go, the Bengals passed the football rather than running. Sure, they converted. But this would be a major problem later in the game on third and short (two yards or less).
With two yards to go on third down with 11:28 left in the third quarter, Palmer in shotgun is forced to throw the football early -- and a bit erratically -- before Cameron Wake takes a shot. Pass falls incomplete to Jordan Shipley and the Bengals punt. On the following drive after Davone Bess' muffed punt return, the Bengals are once against stuck with third-and-two at Miami's 47-yard line. Palmer throws another incomplete pass to Shipley. Third-and-two from the Bengals own 29-yard line with 6:24 left in the fourth quarter, Palmer is forced to scramble out of the pocket, picking up a yard as he runs out of bounds. Benson picks up five yards on fourth-and-one. Hint?
Cincinnati's early success on third-and-short picked up two first downs on the team's opening drive, sustaining a drive that went 15 plays. After that, back-to-back incomplete passes to Shipley on third and short during an epic struggle to prevent five consecutive three-and-outs, has to force anyone to conclude that the coaching staff either doesn't have faith in the running game to pick up a few yards on the ground, or they were in love with Palmer's less-than-accurate arm.
Third and short (defined as two yards or less) is a mixed bag for the Bengals. On third-and-one, Cincinnati runs football 60% of the time this season. On third-and-two, they've passed 86.7% of the time. Talk about predictive tendencies. After losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cedric Benson continued showing his frustrations after responding without a reasonable doubt that he has the power and style to convert third and short.
Is that frustrating? “I suppose, but I remove my emotions from the game weeks ago. You know, the decision that are made for me to not be in on third down or whatever plays are called on third down I have no control over so I totally remove myself from getting emotionally involved in that cause I could throw a fit or do anything, that’s not going to change anything matter of fact I don’t think anybody’s going to listen. So, I’m not the guy to talk to about that. But, if my number is called in that situation I am going to be there and I am going to get the first down.”
Yet on Sunday, Benson didn't see the football once on third and short, with a five-yard run on fourth-and-one late in the contest. Save for last week's loss to the Atlanta Falcons -- we didn't chart that game yet -- Benson has converted 75% of the time he's touched the football on third and short. Yet against the Dolphins, Palmer threw three times, rolled out on a scramble and picked up a first down on a quarterback sneak.