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What we learned from the Bengals’ Week 11 loss to the Bills

Another loss against a beatable opponent signals lost hope in the Queen City.

Buffalo Bills v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

At only one-and-a-half games back, the 2016 Bengals are still mathematically in the playoff picture, especially considering their two upcoming matchups with the Baltimore Ravens. However, it’s not the Bengals’ record that has us thinking their chances at even a playoff berth in 2016 are virtually nonexistent — it’s watching the team play that has us feeling this way.

Cue the cliché heat toward the Bengals’ head coach: “Marvin Lewis has lost this team, the Bengals have no discipline, Cincinnati needs a coach with more energy” or whatever else you’re thinking. Now take a step back. The Bengals, as of now, are a broken team. What changed between last year’s 12-4 squad and the present 3-6-1 Bengals, despite the team’s offseason losses in personnel and coaching, is still hard to identify.

Ken Zampese, at times, has out-coached his opponents, giving the Bengals an advantage in games. Take the first half of the Bills game, for example, when an A.J. Green-less Cincinnati offense outscored Buffalo’s offense despite two misses from Mike Nugent. Yet at other times, his offense has looked incapable of doing anything. The second half of Sunday’s game is a perfect example — the Bengals failed to score on six straight possessions, going three-and-out on four of their first five, and ended up losing by just four points.

Paul Guenther has done the same. We’ve often seen his defense get out-schemed, perhaps most notably on Kenny Stills’ 74-yard touchdown catch in Week 4, but we’ve also seen it outperform opponents despite obvious limitations with personnel, especially at linebacker. Despite not having a reliable pass rush, Cincinnati’s defense has managed to keep the team in games, particularly as of late. The Bengals’ defense surrendered just six points in the second half of Sunday’s action, forcing three straight punts on the Bills’ final three drives. In fact, the Bengals have limited opponents to seven or fewer second half points in six of 10 games this year. We’ve also finally seen an emergence from Dre Kirkpatrick as the best member of the Bengals’ secondary, something that’s long overdue.

The offensive line has had its ups and downs as well. At its best, it created holes for Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, who collectively gained 248 yards on the ground along with two touchdowns against the Browns. At its worst, the line has surrendered as many as seven sacks in a game, putting Andy Dalton in a position where he can’t succeed in the pocket.

We’ve seen similar ups and downs from players all over the Bengals’ roster. Brandon LaFell, Michael Johnson, Vincent Rey, Karlos Dansby, George Iloka, Shawn Williams — heck, even Dalton, Andrew Whitworth, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins — come to mind as guys who have been inconsistent at their respective positions. Some weeks, they heavily impact a win, others they don’t make much of an impact at all.

When you know you have talent — not only in the players on the field, but also in the coaching staff — yet the wins aren’t happening, something needs to change. And Marvin Lewis hasn’t been able to elevate the Bengals in a time of transition — something Cincinnati desperately needed him to do this year. With Dalton, A.J. Green and a number of the Bengals’ playmakers in their prime, the team’s ownership faces a difficult decision: back Lewis and hope the 2016 failures are an anomaly, or move on from Lewis.

Here are three things we learned about the Bengals on Sunday.

1. This version of the 2016 Bengals will not make the playoffs.

That’s not to say the Bengals have been eliminated from playoff contention. The only way this year’s Bengals team can turn around ship is if it makes changes. That doesn’t necessarily mean benching or cutting half the roster; rather, it means the Bengals will not make the playoffs if they keep playing with the same mentality they’ve been playing with or continue to make the same mistakes they’ve been making. The only chance Cincinnati has at a playoff berth is if it becomes a different team than the one it is now.

2. The cynical analysts were right about the Bengals this past offseason, but they weren’t right for the reasons we thought they might be.

Here’s exactly what NFL Network’s Adam Rank had to say about the Bengals when he claimed they’d go 4-12 this past offseason:

I was bullish on Jeremy Hill during his first two seasons. I'm out now that Hue Jackson is in Cleveland. This Bengals team is going to be 4-12 bad. Which means a lot of throwing the ball. Which means more Giovani Bernard and less Hill.

Was Jackson’s departure the reason for the Bengals’ 2016 failures? The answer is no. Jackson’s success as a coordinator was attributed to his creativity with formations and scheme. The Bengals’ scheme has hardly changed with Zampese calling plays. Cincinnati still heavily implements those signature plays initially implemented by the departed coordinator. The Bengals’ run scheme has also hardly changed. Hill and Bernard, as previously mentioned, have been incredibly successful when the offensive line has blocked well. I’m not sure losing Jackson — a guy credited as being a quarterback guru who helped Dalton rejuvenate his career — was the reason why the Bengals’ offensive line regressed to the point it has, because that’s been the Bengals’ biggest offensive flaw this year, by a long shot.

3. Nugent has been bad — and needs to eventually be replaced — but he’s not the reason why the Bengals lost on Sunday (or in any game he missed a kick this season, for that matter).

Sunday’s loss was not on Nugent. I was quickly labeled as a Nugent defender for saying this, but I don’t think anyone who is employed by the Bengals would tell me I’m wrong. And for what it’s worth, I’m not alone in this sentiment.

Nugent’s miss definitely hurt Cincinnati on Sunday, but that doesn’t explain the zero points Ken Zampese’s offense scored in the second half. The Bengals gained 37 yards on their first five drives of the second half, before finally tallying 73 on a last-ditch drive where the Bills were playing prevent defense knowing Cincinnati would need a touchdown to win. The broadcasters were quick to pin the blame on Nugent, assuming the Bengals’ offense would be capable of driving down the field on its final possession to set the kicker up for a potential game-winning field goal. But why assume the Bengals could move the ball down the field in that alternate scenario, even when they would be given four downs to do so? Prior to their garbage time drive, the Bengals averaged 2.18 yards per play in the second half. That alone says it would’ve taken some sort of change or luck for Cincinnati to miraculously turn around the game and put together a game-winning drive — and even then, Nugent would’ve had to kick a field goal to win the game. I’m just not buying it. On a Sunday during which 11 extra points were missed in the NFL, the state of kicking is being greatly questioned, and not just in Cincinnati.

The Bengals are 2-2-1 in games when Nugent misses a kick, the two losses coming on Sunday and in Dallas — a game the Bengals wouldn’t have won if Nugent converted his only miss, or even if he added on three more field goals for good measure. And while it’s easy to blame Nugent for the Bengals’ tie in Washington, it’s just as easy to forget Dustin Hopkins, the Redskins’ kicker, missed just as many kicks as Nugent in London. The Bengals were lucky to even squeak out a tie in that overseas game.