"We've got to mature. You have to perform. You have to make big catches, big throws, big defensive stops, big plays defensively, interceptions. All those things that got Baltimore into this game," Lewis said on Wednesday after watching the North squad’s package. Baltimore was hanging on by a thread and they make a big interception and the game changes. They made a big play down the sidelines before halftime in the division game to put them in the championship game."
- Marvin Lewis via the Cincinnati Enquirer
Despite the Cincinnati Bengals earning a berth to consecutive postseasons, the cool reality is that when playing in bigger games, Cincinnati hasn't produced promising results. Sure the Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers with an impressive defensive outing that scored more points than Cincinnati's offense, followed by a 23-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens, who played a majority of their backups. Hey. They're small steps, the quiet whisper, before the rattling shout of god's greatest leap. At least that's the hope.
Lewis, as Jason pointed out Thursday, went on to talk about the team's third down efforts.
"Earlier in the year we got a lot of those single looks. Later in the year we didn’t get as many," Lewis said. "We have to make first downs and build those opportunities. You don’t just chuck it down the field into coverage. You have to do other things to get first downs, which gives you other opportunities.
Cincinnati only converted 34 percent of their third downs (ranked No. 27 in the NFL), failing to generate a single first down on nine third down opportunities against the Houston Texans during Wild Card weekend. That's a two percent drop from 2011, which ranked No. 18. Rather than saturating the field with underneath routes to flood the zones and confuse defenders, third and shorts were called passes with Andy Dalton, often under pressure, launching an inaccurate deep ball to the only receiver he felt most comfortable with -- A.J. Green. Wasn't Jermaine Gresham expected to be a huge target with soft hands?
Some will cite the need for a No. 2 receiver. As we've rallied since the offseason began, we're not sure if that player hasn't already arrived. During the three-game stretch in which Mohamed Sanu scored a touchdown, the Bengals converted 46.2 percent against the Giants and 52.9 percent against the Raiders. The following week, after Sanu went on Injured Reserve, Cincinnati's offense still generated a 50 percent conversion against the Chargers, where Cincinnati punted only three times, sadly equaling the number of turnovers.
Yet the white noise gives way to another reality. Youth. Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Jay Gruden are only entering their third season together -- and all three of them are doing their respective NFL jobs for the first time in their lives. Lewis is right. Third downs were a serious offensive problem and if there's a year for these issues to find resolution, it should be this season.
If that sounds like an excuse to you, you're right and wrong. It's the reality, but if this team is in the same boat next season, I'm not sure we won't offer the same excuse. So ensure that this excuse dissolves after this year one way or the other.
+ According to one of Pro Football Focus' signature statistic, Yards per Route Run "evaluates yardage totals solely based on routes run so that the stats are indicative of performance relative to the number of opportunities." In a simplified perspective, the core statistics to know are yards against "snaps in route". Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green ranked No. 7 in the NFL with a 2.31 YPRR.
We're not sure if there's much to be gleamed by that, but there you go.
+ During their five Super Bowls, San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks have thrown 17 touchdowns and zero picks, writes Cold Hard Football Facts. But as you Lewis Billups fans know, that interception figure should have a one attached to it.