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What we learned from the Bengals’ Week 5 loss in Dallas

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It’s time to appreciate what LaFell is currently doing for the Bengals; Rey Maualuga shouldn’t be on the field during obvious running plays, plus more of what we learned in Week 5.

Cincinnati Bengals v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Cincinnati’s loss in Dallas wasn’t pretty. It was one of those games, which happen every so often, that make you want to turn off the TV after the first half. It was that bad.

During the game, I tried to remain optimistic, reminding everyone (but mostly trying to remind myself) that in the Andy Dalton era, the Bengals have shown they’re more than capable of coming back from any deficit, no matter how seemingly insurmountable it may be. But as Mike Nugent missed a 50-yard field goal and Ezekiel Elliott broke off a 60-yard touchdown run on the next play of the game, giving the Cowboys a 28-0 lead, I knew it was over.

Yes, the game was over. But fortunately for the Bengals, the season is far from over. Cincinnati is one game behind the current sixth seed Ravens, with a soft schedule and plenty of time left to dig itself out of the hole it initially dug itself into with a 2-3 start. In a devil’s advocate scenario where the current top five AFC teams (Steelers, Raiders, Patriots, Texans and Broncos) make the playoffs — and there are still plenty of questions about at least three or four of those teams — the Bengals’ competition for the sixth seed is the aforementioned Ravens, the Bills and the Chiefs. That is, unless someone thinks another AFC South team can put itself into the mix. Is anyone really that sold on the Bengals being a worse team than any of those three teams? I’m not.

Anyways, let’s get to what’s important here. This is what we learned from Week 5 of the Bengals’ 2016 NFL season.

Offense

The Bengals’ offensive line problems need to get fixed. I feel like I’ve made this point every week of this season so far, yet the problems have yet to dissolve. Here’s a full breakdown if you’re interested.

Andy Dalton has completely separated himself from the “Bad Andy” moniker. In a 2013 matchup between these two teams which transpired in a similar manner, the quarterback would’ve surely made a boneheaded decision which would result in a turnover, simply because he wasn’t the calm and collected passer he’s become. Even down 28 points, Dalton played with poise, testing Dallas’ defense deep while simultaneously being conscious enough to focus on making safe throws.

Giovani Bernard is the starting running back. I don’t have much to say on the matter. Both he and Jeremy Hill looked good on Sunday, but incessant penalties against the offensive line and Dallas’ quick taking of the lead didn’t really allow Cincinnati any opportunities to run the ball as I’m assuming they had planned on doing against a vulnerable Cowboys defensive front.

Ryan Hewitt has been virtually absent from the Bengals’ three losses, while he was at least a minor contributor in the team’s two wins. The H-back, when on his game, is a very effective player. It still doesn’t make sense to me why the Bengals have avoided I-formation so insistently this season, especially considering Tyler Eifert’s absence.

Penalties are a major offensive issue, mainly along the offensive line. A.J. Green drew two late penalties on Dallas corners, but apart from garbage time, the Bengals were the more penalized team — and rightfully so. The offensive line struggled in several facets of the game. It’s worth noting prior to the Cowboys game, the Bengals were 2-0 when they committed less penalties than their opponents.

Brandon LaFell continues to defy expectations, and people continue to discredit his production. I understand people’s frustration with Marvin Jones’ departure, but at this point, yearning to change a past event isn’t going to do anything. LaFell has already tallied 21 catches, 276 yards and two touchdowns — both of which came in the red zone on Sunday — through five weeks. Last season, Jones had 15 catches, 226 yards and as many touchdowns in that same timespan. Mohamed Sanu, meanwhile, had just 33 catches for 394 yards and zero touchdowns throughout the entire season. Like it or not, LaFell has been far better than seemingly anyone expected him to be, myself included. Rather than wishing Jones wouldn’t have bolted for Detroit, it’s time to appreciate what LaFell is currently doing for the Bengals.

Defense

Carlos Dunlap is a dominant player. It would be nice if he could convert more pressures into sacks, but it’s hard to complain about a guy who has been one of the five best edge defenders in the NFL this season.

During a game in which the Bengals desperately needed Geno Atkins to dominate, the defensive tackle had a quiet day. It’s understandably difficult for any player facing Travis Frederick and Zack Martin to make any plays, let alone take over a game, but that’s pretty much what the Bengals needed Atkins to do on Sunday. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out in Cincinnati’s favor.

Keeping Rey Maualuga on the field was a strange move for Paul Guenther to make. I get it; the Bengals needed to stop the run, no matter what, and Dallas ran the ball on almost every play. But if the defense isn’t stopping the run with Maualuga on the field, what’s the point in keeping him there? Vincent Rey came back down to earth this week, but he’s still the superior player in coverage. If the dropoff in terms of run defense from the starter to his backup is that significant, I can understand Maualuga’s playing. But from what I’ve seen, I’m not so sure he should’ve been on the field for as many snaps as he was, especially after seeing Cole Beasley separate from the linebacker with ease en route to a touchdown catch.

Vontaze Burfict still isn’t back to 100 percent. In his return last year, the linebacker made an immediate impact against the Steelers. Burfict was relatively quiet against the Dolphins, and his slow start continued with a down week in Dallas.

It appears as there’s no debate anymore: Dre Kirkpatrick is the best corner on the Bengals. Unless Adam Jones is able to turn around his season — which I’m not so sure he’ll do — this isn’t a bold statement to make anymore.

Bad day for Derron Smith. On the one defensive snap that he saw playing time, Jason Witten stiff-armed Smith into another zip code. Not a great look. Speaking of...

Another bad week for the Bengals’ safeties in general. Neither Iloka nor Williams were able to significantly impact the game, particularly in run defense. Both players have been touted as guys who can lay the wood and assist in run support, but neither player seemed to show up on Sunday.

Special Teams/Coaching

It’s hard to blame Mike Nugent for his 50-yard miss. Marvin Lewis was too conservative in his play-calling on Sunday, and the Cowboys were able to capitalize on it as a result. Cincinnati should’ve gone for the fourth down at that point; in fact, they probably should’ve gone for it on fourth down as soon as things started to get out of hand. Not only have the Bengals been incredibly effective on fourth down, but it was painfully obvious how much momentum Dallas had on Sunday. Kicking a field goal to make it an 18-point game wouldn’t necessarily put an end to any momentum.

The Bengals need an electric special teams play sooner rather than later. When I brought up last year’s Seahawks game as a reason to remain optimistic as long as the game is still within reach on Sunday, people were adamant about the fact that the Bengals’ offense was the unit which got Cincinnati back into the game during its Week 5 victory over the team which, at the time, was coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. But to me, what brought the Bengals back — more than the offense — were the electric special teams plays, from Kevin Huber and company pinning Seattle inside the 20-yard-line to Jones’ memorable 35-yard punt return and then Nugent’s two kicks, the second of which won the game in overtime. The Bengals’ special teams unit was a major contributor to the team’s 2015 success, and so far, it appears as though Cincinnati is desperate for someone to make a play along that front.

Sunday’s conservative play calling was difficult to watch. Lewis’ approach when down 21 seemed an awful lot like the John Fox approach: just keep punting and hope your opponent makes a game-changing mistake. Unfortunately, when you’re on the road and down 21 points, it takes momentum to win a game. You’re not going to get any momentum by not taking chances.

The Ravens can’t close, and I don’t think they’re a great team. I know this isn’t directly related to the Bengals, but with Baltimore and Cincinnati in contention for a potential Wild Card appearance, I think it’s relevant. The Ravens threw away several chances to put away the Redskins, and they’re now riding a two-game losing streak with the more difficult portion of their schedule coming up.

It’s easy to be frustrated — I’m frustrated myself — but the Bengals’ 2016 season isn’t close to over. Even with a loss to the Patriots next week, Cincinnati will still be two games out of the Wild Card race, at worst. Considering how streaky this team has been during the Dalton era, a turnaround is far from out of the question.