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What we learned from the Bengals’ Week 6 loss in New England

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Not all was bad in Sunday’s loss to New England, but that said, it’s hard to find positives.

Cincinnati Bengals v New England Patriots Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Sunday saw another tough loss for the Bengals, who are now 2-4 on the season. Where to start? It’s never easy to be optimistic when your team is losing, but this week gave us plenty of reason to do so. Why? Here’s what we learned this week.

Sunday as a whole

NFL fans need to chill out.

I’ve made this point before, but calling players “thugs,” particularly when it comes to guys like Vontaze Burfict — who started playing football to stay out of trouble in his gang-filled Los Angeles neighborhood — is inexcusable.

No matter what someone’s stance on a guy like Burfict, Adam Jones, Rob Gronkowski, LeGarrette Blount, Tom Brady, Colin Kaepernick or anyone else may be, calling them names is downright immature, pointless and oftentimes problematic. That Burfict is being called a “thug” for a questionable football hit and, in Kaepernick’s case, standing up for a cause the quarterback believes is right (agree with him or not), shows how loosely the term is thrown around and how unnecessarily inflammatory fans’ remarks can be. Virtually every player in the NFL has received at least one death threat on Twitter, all for the sake of fans overreacting to a football game.

Football players are people, too. Cheering for injuries, name-calling, celebrating lost jobs and Twitter threats are childish. Enough is enough.

The AFC North isn’t the strong division we once thought it would be.

After winning three straight games against the Bills, Browns and Jaguars by a combined 13 points, the Ravens are now riding a three-game losing streak and are just one game ahead of the Bengals. The Steelers are two games ahead of the Bengals, but Ben Roethlisberger’s health is now in question. The Browns are still the Browns. And in a week during which the Bengals’ loss to the Patriots could’ve been the first nail in the team’s potential coffin, every other team in the AFC North lost.

Cincinnati is still two games behind the Steelers and every team in Wild Card contention, but a stretch of matchups with the Browns, Redskins, Giants, Bills, Ravens, Eagles and Browns (again) has the Bengals’ chances of a potential turnaround looking pretty good. Meanwhile, the Steelers play the Patriots, Ravens and Cowboys in the next few weeks, which may be without Roethlisberger.

Referees and broadcast crews have been awfully disappointing thus far this season.

Referees have been extremely inconsistent in 2016. Conspiracy theories aside, the officiating has been up and down on a seemingly week-to-week basis. An illegal contact penalty was called on Dre Kirkpatrick this week, and a similar call was made in Week 1, but some fairly similar potential penalties on players on the Bengals’ opponents — and even the Bengals themselves — weren’t called this week, or in any other week of the season. Poor officiating hasn’t just plagued the Bengals. Most NFL fan bases have been especially vocal about the officiating this year.

And the play-by-play guys haven’t been much better. One perfect example of this was when the CBS Sports crew said Burfict appeared to trip into Martellus Bennett on Sunday, which simply wasn’t the case. Whether the play was dirty or not is an entirely different argument, but no one thinks the linebacker tripped another player. C.J. Uzomah’s name has been pronounced about 20 different ways this season, and Elandon Roberts’ name was also noticeably different every time he made a play on Sunday.

Even the camera work on broadcasts has been frustrating. Zooming in on Burfict during any on-field skirmish, even if he’s not involved, has become the norm for camera crews. And while capturing the emotions of a game, such as those incredibly high high’s and low low’s from Chargers coach Mike McCoy on Thursday night, makes for a better game-viewing experience, it still seems like a bit much, especially considering it appeared as though McCoy was a bad play away from losing his job in San Diego.

Inconsistency is this team’s issue, on both sides of the ball.

The Bengals’ offense showed spurts of greatness in games against the Jets, Broncos and Dolphins this season. Cincinnati’s defense did the same in New York, Miami and even New England. But it takes more than just a quarter, a half or even three quarters of great play. We’ve seen a dominant performance from start to finish in one game of the Bengals’ 2016 season (Miami). If another similar performance doesn’t happen this Sunday, it’s hard to imagine this team is more capable than its record indicates.

Offense

Run-blocking is now the Bengals’ biggest offensive issue.

The benching of Cedric Ogbuehi was both concerning and revealing; there’s still a lot of work to do along the offensive line. Not to mention, the line’s continuity could take an even bigger hit with the potential loss of center Russell Bodine, who has been a pleasant surprise this season. (More on this in the story linked above.)

Andy Dalton is one of the best running quarterbacks in the NFL.

Prior to Sunday’s game, Bill Belichick noticed Dalton’s success:

Dalton scores a lot on the ground:

Brandon LaFell now has as many touchdown catches (three) as every other Bengals pass-catcher combined.

That’s simply unacceptable for an offense which cashed in on eight passing touchdowns and three rushing touchdowns in its first three games last season, compared to the Bengals’ six passing and four rushing scores through six this year.

It’s not a knock on LaFell as a player — if anything, the receiver’s three scores demonstrate he’s not a catastrophic drop-off from Marvin Jones like many people had originally anticipated — but it still goes to show Dalton doesn’t have the support he needs as a passer. The Bengals are 2-0 in games in which A.J. Green catches a touchdown pass and 0-4 in games in which he hasn’t scored this season. Tyler Eifert needs to get back to action as quickly as possible.

Defense

Cincinnati seems to have the same problems every week in this regard.

Geno Atkins has one game with at least one sack in the past four weeks.

As I’ve said before, quarterback pressures and hits certainly play a role in the defensive line’s success. But sacks change the momentum of a game, Dont'a Hightower’s safety is example number one. Cincinnati’s defense is dominant when Atkins is on his game, and the unit doesn’t find much success when he’s not. Even in a game where Michael Johnson, Pat Sims and Burfict registered sacks, it felt as though Brady had all day to throw.

The linebackers and safeties continue to struggle.

As I predicted (which isn’t that hard to do with the Patriots), Gronk had a field day and Bennett played fairly well. Running back James White, however, took the Bengals by surprise, scoring two touchdowns through the air. Even in a game where Rey Maualuga rarely saw the field, Cincinnati’s linebackers couldn’t cover. This will be an issue as long as the pass rush isn’t getting to opposing quarterbacks as frequently as it did last season. George Iloka’s injury presents a major concern, as the safety play this year has already been lacking. Derron Smith isn’t a bad player, but his most notable play of the 2016 season was getting stiff-armed into a different zip code by Jason Witten.

Fans are still quick to turn on Kirkpatrick.

Even considering a few poor plays on his part, the corner has been the best member of the Bengals’ secondary this season. Yet despite this, Bengals fans are already claiming the team’s decision to extend him on a one-year option, a brilliant move in hindsight, was a mistake. Jones hasn’t been the same player this season (though he’s still an above-average player), Darqueze Dennard and Josh Shaw have been very inconsistent and William Jackson has yet to even see the field. I fully expect the Bengals to re-sign the corner in the offseason.

Special Teams

Mike Nugent has yet to miss a field goal inside 50 yards.

That he’s 0-for-2 from beyond 50 is frustrating, but the Bengals’ decision to keep the kicker around for another season is making more and more sense as time goes on.

Cincinnati’s coverage teams have been lacking.

One-third of Kevin Huber’s punts have landed inside the 20-yard-line, yet despite this, opponents have already tallied 139 punt return yards through six games. Some may be an indictment on the Bengals’ offense and Huber, who has yet to record a 60-yard punt this season, but still — Cincinnati isn’t winning the battle of field position.

The Bengals have a total of zero game-changing returns.

Like him or not, Brandon Tate was capable of breaking off the occasional long return (his long of 45 yards on a kickoff return is nearly more than double that of the Bengals’ longest return this season, of just 26, and his long of 31 yards on a punt return is more than double that of Cincinnati’s longest punt return of 15 yards). Alex Erickson has fair-caught as many punts (eight) as he’s returned. That’s beyond terrible. And who knows, maybe the rookie just needs more time. But as of now, it appears as though the Bengals’ lack of a succession plan behind Tate (granted, it seemed as though they were hoping Mario Alford would earn a spot on the 53-man roster) is haunting this team.

And to be fair to Erickson, he’s not the only one struggling. His 20.6 yards per return on kickoffs are abysmal, but both Rex Burkhead and Jones average fewer than 20 yards. Opponents have zero incentive to kick touchbacks against Cincinnati.

A spark from the special teamers isn’t necessary, but it would be greatly appreciated from a team which is desperate for any positives at this point.