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What we learned from the Bengals’ Week 16 loss to the Texans

Mike Nugent isn’t the only kicker who misses wide right.

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Cincinnati Bengals v Houston Texans Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Another week, another frustrating football game for the Cincinnati Bengals. Randy Bullock’s missed field goal sealed Houston’s victory in a game where neither team really played as though it was deserving of a win. With both teams down at least some of its top playmakers (Lamar Miller on the Texans’ side, A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard on the Bengals’ side) what we saw was one of the worst offensive efforts in a half of football the NFL has seen throughout the entire season. The result was a 3-0 score when heading into halftime.

The second half got better offensively but it was the Texans who managed to come out on top. All in all, the Bengals’ matchup with the Texans was a snooze-fest. But there were still plenty of bright spots and nice moments for a team in desperate need of any semblance of hope.

Darqueze Dennard raised eyebrows by getting the start over Dre Kirkpatrick, but the starter stole the show.

Kirkpatrick only sat for the first four defensive plays, coming in on the last play of the Texans’ first drive (perhaps for some sort of disciplinary reason, though I’m completely speculating) and dominated for the rest of the game. The corner was only targeted two times, allowing a 14-yard catch for a first down to Will Fuller on one play and recording a pass deflection on another. The former first-round pick also drew a penalty on DeAndre Hopkins for pushing off. It was a nice night for Texans corner A.J. Bouye, but Kirkpatrick’s performance in Houston deserves just as much recognition.

After a year in which he was the league’s second-most targeted corner and one of the whipping boys of the Bengals’ fanbase, Kirkpatrick has established himself as a legitimate NFL starter who, as of now, is the best member of the Bengals’ secondary. He has earned a hefty second contract, and hopefully that contract will come from Cincinnati. (For what it’s worth, Kirkpatrick really seems to like living in the Queen City and playing for the Bengals.)

A huge night for the Bengals’ front seven was highlighted by defensive line dominance and incredibly effective blitzing.

Geno Atkins, Wallace Gilberry and Carlos Dunlap have rightfully gotten their fair share of the spotlight following the D-line’s stellar performance in Texas, but the Bengals’ linebacking corps also looked great against the Texans. Karlos Dansby and Vincent Rey were locked in against Houston’s run game, tallying 17 collective tackles along with three pass deflections. Rey Maualuga and Nick Vigil also made some nice contributions against the run.

Paul Guenther’s defense turned up the heat against Tom Savage, hitting the quarterback 10 times and sacking him four times on Christmas Eve. Give Guenther some credit here, as seemingly every blitz the coordinator dialed up resulted in a quarterback hit and/or throwaway.

Brandon LaFell and George Iloka both had huge nights in their hometown.

Iloka was all over the field, recording six tackles. He was an impact playmaker in the run game, generating a Pro Football Focus grade of 84.6, the second-highest on the Bengals’ team.

LaFell, caught six passes for 130 yards, including an 86-yard touchdown coming off a slant route which was the longest pass of Andy Dalton’s career to date. The timing between Dalton and the veteran receiver has been virtually perfect, which has been a huge part of LaFell’s resurgence after a down year. The veteran, like Kirkpatrick, has earned a second contract in Cincinnati.

I think the notion that LaFell isn’t a “WR2” or a reliable pass-catcher, for that matter, is drastically overblown. Two-thirds of the vet’s receptions this year (38) have gone for first downs, while only 50 percent (33) of Marvin Jones’ 2015 receptions went for first downs. LaFell has been a more efficient and more consistent chain-mover this year than Jones was last year, and more impressively, he’s done so in spite of an offensive line that hasn’t been able to keep Dalton upright. Additionally, LaFell has done this in stretches as the Bengals’ number one pass-catcher.

That’s not to say the Bengals couldn’t benefit from a player of Jones’ skill-set — a guy who does a better job stretching the field and keeping opposing defenses honest. But it appears as though Cody Core could be that guy, though the timing between the rookie and Dalton still needs some work (which is understandable, given that he hadn’t seen the field until the second half of this season). All of that said, I wouldn’t have a problem with a high draft pick being spent on another wide receiver — LaFell, after all, is 30-years-old — but I think there are more immediate needs in Cincinnati.

I’ll leave this here, for what it’s worth:

The Bengals are loaded at the tight end position.

Down Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft, the Bengals turned to C.J. Uzomah, who once again proved why Cincinnati has one of the deepest tight end groups in football. The second-year player reeled in three first down catches on the final drive of the game. He ended Christmas Eve with five catches and 28 yards on six targets.

Offensive line issues were to be expected, and they continued.

I’ve written enough about it this season, and I’m not going to address it any further this week, as it’s a painful topic to write about. But the offensive line has easily been the Bengals’ biggest weakness in 2016 and it needs fixing this offseason.

Rhetorical question: Does Jeremy Hill trust his offensive line?

I’m not trying to make excuses for the guy. He HAS to be better, as it looks like the back is falling out of favor. Hill cuts far too often, but have we ever asked why? In college, he didn’t look so indecisive. In 2014, he didn’t look so indecisive. Personally, I don’t think Hill trusts his offensive line. If this were true (which again, it’s complete speculation on my part), this would be a major problem. Rex Burkhead, over the past few weeks, has indisputably been the better of the two backs, and a major part of why he’s been so good has been that he runs where he’s supposed to run. Sure, he’s going to hit a wall once every few plays, because the line doesn’t hold up. But those other plays give Burkhead opportunities to make opponents miss and gain extra yards.

The notion that Burkhead will sign with the New England Patriots in free agency is ridiculous.

The Patriots have enough players like Burkhead on their roster. Dion Lewis and James White, both similar players to Burkhead, are signed through the 2017 season. That’s not to mention the Patriots have one of the NFL’s most productive backs in LeGarrette Blount also on the roster. I’d bet my life savings that there’s no chance New England signs Burkhead in free agency unless the team cuts Lewis and/or White (which, barring a major scandal or unresolvable dispute, won’t happen, considering the two are signed to massively cheap deals).

It was a tale of two halves for the Bengals’ defense.

The lack of offensive production was inexcusable for the Bengals, but it was somewhat understandable considering Green’s injury, along with injuries to Eifert, Bernard and even Clint Boling. However, the Bengals’ defense was the team’s Achilles heel in the second half.

In the first half, we saw some semblances of the Bengals’ 2015 D-line, with virtually every member, Domata Peko included, making significant contributions. But in the second half, Cincinnati’s defense allowed the Texans to score a touchdown, something the team shouldn’t have been able to come close to accomplishing without Miller. After punting on all six first half possessions, the Texans scored on three of their five second half possessions, with all three drives going for at least 68 net yards. That’s unacceptable, even with the excuse that Vontaze Burfict was curbed with a concussion.

Alex Erickson is the real deal.

Another big return (35 yards on the opening kickoff), and I’m sold. The guy is a playmaker, and even in a year where Brandon Tate has been thriving for the Bills, Erickson has been better. It took some time, but it appears as though the Bengals have found a diamond in the rough. If you told me in July that Erickson would be on the active roster, let alone one of the best kickoff returners in the NFL, rather than someone like Mario Alford, Jake Kumerow, or Rashaun Simonise earning that roster spot, I would’ve told you that you were crazy.

Blocking field goals looks painful.

Props to Margus Hunt for his third blocked kick of the season. But dang, that looks painful:

As the week wraps up, we're left with another disappointing loss for the Bengals that puts the team in a position where Cincinnati could pick as high as seventh overall or as low as 11th overall in the upcoming draft. Sure, it’s never fun to lose (and I’m still a believer that late-season losses can be a detriment to team chemistry), but it at least makes this offseason more intriguing.

Oh yeah, and another kicker missed a field goal wide right.

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