"Fun", "exciting" and "depressing" all could be adjectives used to describe the Bengals' 34-31 loss. Cincinnati shot out of the gates and made their former quarterback look like the familiar No. 9 they had under center at times from 2003-2010, but the team hit a lull in the second and third quarters. After falling to a two-touchdown deficit in the second half, the Bengals had a great comeback, only to fall just short.
There was a lot to like from the Bengals on Sunday night, a venue that has plagued them over the years, but there were also moments of hair-pulling madness that led to a familiar prime time ending. We take a look at examples of both in this weekly feature.
The Running Backs Displaying their Respective Strengths: It wasn't a banner evening for running the football, but we saw three Bengals backs help the offense in ways that have helped the team be successful the past two seasons. Giovani Bernard had 18 rushing yards, but dazzled with eight catches for 128 yards as the team's leading receiver. Jeremy Hill ground out the tough yards, including two short-yardage punches into the end zone for scores, while Rex Burkhead added a seven-yard catch. Did we also mention Bernard having two fumble recoveries after his offensive teammates coughed it up?
Andy Dalton in Primetime: The Bengals lost, but you can't fully place this latest nighttime loss on the Bengals' quarterback. Sure, he missed a couple of throws, but evaded pressure often, had 315 passing yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. A lot of factors went against Dalton in this game, including it being on the road and going up against a good team, but he played well for the most part.
Special Teams: It was supposed to be a rough evening for this unit with Adam Jones out of the lineup, but the group played well. Brandon Tate had a 58-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter, and had another 41-yard punt return nullified by a poor block-in-the-back call against Dre Kirkpatrick. Meanwhile, kicker Mike Nugent was 4-of-4 on extra point attempts, and nailed a crucial, tying fourth quarter field goal from 43 yards. Punter Kevin Huber also averaged 44 yards per his five punts, including a 57-yard bomb, keeping the electric Patrick Peterson in check all night.
The Three-Headed Receiving Monster: Much like the case with the team's running backs, the committee approach from the top three receiving options worked well. Green found room pretty sparse with Peterson on him most of the night, but still managed four catches for 79 yards, including a 42-yard beauty down the sideline. Marvin Jones added 60 more yards on four catches, while Tyler Eifert was a red zone factor once again with two receiving touchdowns. All three did a little bit of everything.
The Defensive Line and Run Defense: The Bengals pressured Palmer at times, though it was inconsistent throughout the night. Still, Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins combined for 10 total tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble on their ex-teammate, while also holding the Cardinals to just 82 net rushing yards as a team. Atkins had a particularly dominant night in Jason Marcum's recent film review of his play.
Coming Back: Hey, I'll be the first to admit that I was chirping about the primetime curse on Sunday night, especially witnessing the game in-person and the poor play in the third quarter. However, the defense made enough stops, special teams made their big contributions, while Dalton and Co. scored 17 points in the fourth quarter. Though the Bengals didn't make the statement they wanted with a win, their voices were heard with their performance against a good team on the road.
Winning the Turnover Battle, but Losing the War: The Bengals grabbed two early interceptions of Palmer, which was ultimately the difference in the stat category for the night. Garnering that feat on the road is tough to do, but the team still didn't make the plays nor did they capitalize enough on the Palmer picks to take control and win the game. As I mentioned earlier, there were also two other Bengals fumbles they were able to fall on, which really would have made things worse, while Johnson forced one of Palmer on a sack the defense couldn't pounce on either.
Running the Football: Unlike this time last year, the Bengals are struggling to get consistent yardage on the ground. Hill had just 3.5 yards per carry, while Bernard was at 3.0 and Dalton being the highest at 4.3. They had 92 yards on the ground and, as we mentioned, the backs were productive in a variety of ways, but the Bengals lack consistency in this facet.
Cardinals' Supporting Stars Making Plays: As it works with the Bengals' offense, the depth of Arizona's unit provides opportunities for a lot of players. Michael Floyd was inactive on Sunday night, and the Bengals kept Larry Fitzgerald out of the end zone, but John Brown, J.J. Nelson, Darren Fells, and David Johnson all gashed the Bengals' defense in one form or another.
Dennard Goes Down: This could also be in "the ugly", but the depth at the position behind him should help. Josh Shaw looked capable when thrust into a bigger role, while Leon Hall had an interception Sunday night. Adam Jones should be returning soon, and the hope is that Dre Kirkpatrick begins to hit a late-season stride. Still, as it was with Kirkpatrick, Dennard has had a rough first two professional seasons.
The Late Third-and-Two Play Call: Our own Josh Kirkendall wrote a nice piece analyzing the hidden cleverness behind the long pass call with just over a minute left in the game and Cincinnati trailing by three points. I get some of the logic behind Dalton's decision to go for the win there, but Arizona had zero timeouts at the time. Zero. The Bengals weren't running the ball well, but attempting for two yards on the ground and chewing more clock would have been the right move.
Dalton's Misfire to Marvin Jones in the Third Quarter: Dalton really only had two really poor throws in the game--one being on the above-mentioned play, with another coming a quarter earlier. On a second and 16 trailing by a touchdown, Dalton pump-faked and sailed a pass to Marvin Jones who had a couple of steps of separation on the Cardinals' defensive back. Dalton didn't put enough air under it and badly overthrew a pretty open Jones for what could have been a touchdown. Dalton was sacked on the following play, forcing a punt to give Arizona good field position, and the Cardinals capitalized with a touchdown.
Penalties--Both Deserved and Not: Three major penalties against the Bengals could have easily been questioned, including the aforementioned phantom bad block by Kirkpatrick on a good Tate punt return, a hands-to-the-face call against Rey Maualuga, and, of course, the odd one to give Arizona a chip shot field goal try to win it. It's been a bad year for officiating throughout the league and Sunday night had its examples, but Cincinnati did shoot themselves in the foot often.
Poor Protection up Front: Aside from the team average of 3.5 yards per carry on the ground, the Bengals' proud offensive line gave up four sacks and multiple pressures to the Cardinals defense. Andre Smith had a particularly poor game, as he accounted for sacks, the pressure that resulted in Dalton's fumble and two penalties on Sunday night.
The Back Seven and Arizona's Final Drive: Although he had the early pick, Hall got torched by Fitzgerald on the game-winning drive, while the front didn't apply pressure to Palmer at the most critical juncture of the game. Dre Kirkpatrick had a very poor night, if you take stock in Pro Football Focus' analytics, they're ranking him the second worst cornerback in the league, and Vontaze Burfict was burned on the Johnson touchdown. The long touchdown pass from Palmer to Nelson showed poor angles from Reggie Nelson and George Iloka, while also having the corner beat on the play.
The Third Quarter: After holding a seemingly solid 14-7 halftime lead, the Bengals crumbled after the half, giving up 21 points in the third quarter, and scoring zero. Penalties, a turnover on offense and poor defense all led to a collapse that pointed to the eventual loss.
Losing To Palmer: The Bengals figuratively and literally smashed Palmer the last time they saw him, but that was with the Raiders and a poor supporting cast. You had to know the now No. 3 looked at both the current Bengals and Cardinals rosters and felt like he can be a champion with either. He took it to his old mates, and though this win was far closer than the loss he suffered by Cincinnati in 2012, throwing four touchdowns had to be sweet. It shouldn't sit well with Who Dey Nation to see him pumping his fist in an animated fashion he rarely showed as the Bengals' signal-caller.