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Three And Out: Third Down Issues And Keys That Failed The Gates Of Victory

The Cincinnati Bengals third down issues continue and there were three areas that the Cincinnati Bengals needed to take advantage against the Miami Dolphins.

Tyler Barrick - Getty Images

Following Cincinnati's 17-13 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was asked where he believed that the trouble existed on third downs.

“It has been this way two weeks in a row now. I think getting better on first and second down would help that some, but I think we’re just a tick off on third down. We got the ball tipped in the end zone on one drive; we got the ball tipped late in the game and so forth. Those things are what are stopping us on third down. We have to get a tick better, and get that extra inch to win. We made some wonderful plays in those situations, but we have to make them more consistently.”

Uh, yea.

Getting behind schedule is a phrase, made popular to most of us through Dave Lapham of the Bengals Radio Network, used when the offense often does something that makes it extremely difficult to acquire a first down, especially during third down scenarios. For example with 13:18 remaining in the first quarter, Andy Dalton was sacked on first down, forcing the Bengals into a second and 16 and eventually a third and 15. Kevin Huber punts the football and it luckily hits Reshad Jones with Vontaze Burfict recovering the live ball. Andre Smith commits a false start on the ensuing first down and the Bengals, unable to acquire a first from third and 8, converts the 42-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead. With 12:05 remaining in the second quarter, Jermaine Gresham is called for an offensive hold that pushes Cincinnati into a second and 17 and third and 14. Punt.

Dalton is sacked on first down with 6:21 in the second, and Armon Binns puts forth all his effort to pick up the first down. Unfortunately the second-effort gives Koa Misi an opportunity to punch the football out for the Dolphins to recover.

"Any time you turn the ball over, it’s very detrimental to your team, and Coach (Marvin Lewis) always talks about that," said Armon Binns after the game. "We've just got to hold on to the ball. I had a fumble, and that's something that I can’t have. I can't let the team down like that. So it's just something we have to work on and go back to practice and fix it."

Eventually Cincinnati would settle down into a more third and medium routine. Yet it didn't matter one one way or the other. Randy Starks deflected and intercepted Andy Dalton's pass at the line of scrimmage on third and four with 13:19 remaining in the third. Throwing away the plays that involve runs with over 12 minutes remaining in the third, Andy Dalton tosses three consecutive passes and completes a single two-yarder to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Dalton is sacked on third and five from the Dolphins 35-yard line, knocking the team outside Mike Nugent's field goal range with under ten minutes remaining in the fourth.

Even the short distances were problematic. The Bengals had four situations on third down with two yards or less to go. BenJarvus Green-Ellis was stoned at the line of scrimmage and Dalton threw incomplete passes to Jermaine Gresham and Andrew Hawkins respectively. However Dalton converted a third and one at Miami's 35-yard line at onset of the fourth quarter. So at least they got one of those.

But the bane of Cincinnati's existence against the Miami Dolphins was truly third down production. Or lack thereof, we should say. Quarterback Andy Dalton only completed two of 12 passes for 18 yards passing and an interception for a passer rating of 1.7. Six attempts targeted Andrew Hawkins, five were incomplete and one was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Randy Starks. The average distance for all third down opportunities was 6.1 yards. Not epic yardage to overcome, but it'll make you sweat.

"Third down is a big down and we have to get it done," said quarterback Andy Dalton. "There isn’t one thing that’s happened that is a reason why we aren’t converting. It just comes down to execution; we have to be better and find ways to throw the ball and catch the ball and run for a first down. We didn’t get that done today and we are going to try to get better at that; we have to."

Bengals Rush Defense vs. Dolphins Rushing Offense

Coming into Sunday's game the Cincinnati Bengals rush defense, ranked No. 24 in the NFL and allowing 130.8 yards rushing per game, squared off against the league's No. 5 rushing offense, averaging 153.2 yards rushing per game. We clearly made the point over the week that one of Cincinnati's major needs this weekend was containing Miami's rush. And they did.

Miami's leading running backs Reggie Bush and Daniel Thomas combined for 77 yards on 29 carries, averaging 2.7 yards per rush. And as a team the Dolphins generated only 68 yards rushing and a sub-2.0 yard/rush average. Following the conclusion of Sunday Night Football, the Bengals are currently ranked No. 19 in the NFL allowing 118.2 yards/rush.

Continually Improving Rushing Defense

After allowing 202 yards rushing to the Washington Redskins, the Bengals were ranked with the league's No. 31 rushing defense, allowing 155 yards rushing heading into week four. It was a concern, considering that Cincinnati was about to face Maurice Jones-Drew and the league's 10th ranked rushing offense, at the time averaging 121 yards rushing. Concerns dissolved with Cincinnati containing Jones-Drew to only 38 yards rushing and a 2.9 yard/rush average. The performance further improved Cincinnati's defensive rush standing from No. 31 to No. 24, shedding 22 yards off the team's average.

And as we pointed out above, the Bengals further shed their yards allowed average from 133 to 118 after limiting Miami's rushing offense to only 68 yards rushing.

Bengals Rush Offense vs. Dolphins Rushing Defense

File this under "they were who we thought they were". Save for a surprisingly evasive Bernard Scott slipping through the line of scrimmage and easily shedding Dolphins defenders, who somewhat knocked into each other, the Cincinnati Bengals rushing offense was a mitigated disaster. We're giving credit where it's due, with Kevin Coyle's gameplan attacking Cincinnati's rushing lanes and neutralizing the big passing play. Essentially it allowed the Dolphins to play eight in the box, which the Bengals couldn't counter.

Heading into the game, the top-ranked Dolphins rush defense allowed 56.8 yards rushing per game. Though Cincinnati put a dent in Miami's average, it wasn't by much. Rather it highlighted a troubling trend that the Cincinnati Bengals essentially signed a younger Cedric Benson... from 2010.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis Cause And Ineffective

During my video postgame reaction there was a momentary pause when briefly mentioning BenJarvus Green-Ellis asking, "what the hell did we sign him for." Since his 91-yard performance against the Baltimore Ravens, Green-Ellis has combined for 209 yards rushing on 73 carries for a 2.9 yard/rush average and two fumbles. Cincinnati hasn't seen such futility during a four-game stretch since Chris Perry opened the 2008 season as the team's starting running back. Not even from Cedric Benson, whose lowest four-game stretch was 217 yards in 2010 with a 3.0 average. [Obviously we didn't include Benson's early 2008 performance, largely because he was recently signed after having not played football for months].

Passing Offense vs. Bengals Pass Defense

It made sense coming into Sunday's game that we targeted Cincinnati's passing offense as the primary difference-maker for the Bengals. Entering Sunday's game Andy Dalton and the passing offense ranked No. 8, averaging 279.2 yards passing per game. Miami's passing defense, the polar opposite of their rushing defense, ranked No. 30 allowing 297.8 yards passing. Instead Miami's most impressive performance Sunday was their gallant effort against the Bengals pass, limiting Andy Dalton to 234 yards, three sacks, seven hits, one touchdown, two picks and a passer rating of 63.5. Andrew Hawkins was well covered and A.J. Green has no deep lanes, essentially converted from play-maker to possession receiver.

The Issues Surface With Cincinnati's Offense

Though there's been excitement this year with the Bengals' big-play offense, they've had a prevalent issue all season. If they're unable to score on the big 40-50 yard plays, they're going to struggle to score touchdowns. Many of their sustained drives that enter the redzone are often converted into field goals. We'll talk more about this on Monday.