It’s hard to really gauge exactly what a ‘clutch situation’ is in any given preseason opener when the stakes won’t be lower at any point during the rest of the year. But, for the most part, game-changing situations with the end of a drive or points on the line are big. They are some of the highest-pressure situations that will exist in the regular season when the final scores start to matter.
On Friday, the Bengals’ defense, in particular, had a tendency to put together some great, clutch stops before turning right around and collapsing beneath the pressure. One of the most important defensive stops of the game came late in the fourth quarter after Alex Erickson’s punt return touchdown that brought the Bengals within one point of the Vikings and within two points of the lead.
The Vikings started at their own 25 yard line. Over the next two plays, the Bengals only allowed the Vikings to gain two yards on each play. Unfortunately, Marquis Flowers was caught in the Neutral Zone on third and six, setting up an easy third and one. That was a particularly un-clutch play for a player like Flowers who is fighting to make the team. But, the defense stuffed the Vikings on the next play and forced a punt. Had it not been for some extremely un-clutch play by fourth string quarterback Joe Licata on the ensuing offensive possession, that stop on third and one could have been exactly the kind of chance the team needed to take the lead late in the game.
On third down plays, the defense only managed to stop the Vikings’ offense 42 percent of the time. Still, they showed enough for defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to be proud of his unit.
“They played hard,” Guenther told Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com. “We made some good stops on third and short.”
Over the course of the game, the Bengals put together four tackles for loss. Darrien Harris and Geno Atkins both recorded a tackle for a loss on drives that helped to halt the Vikings’ momentum and lead to punts. However, Derron Smith and David Dean recorded the other two tackles for loss that were followed up by some defensive breakdowns. Each one was part of one of the Vikings’ two touchdown drives.
One drive that should have ended in a particularly clutch safety, but ended up being part of a touchdown drive for Minnesota, was the Vikings’ second offensive series of the game. With 11:40 left to go in the second quarter, Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon was coming off a two yard loss when he was nearly brought down in his own endzone by the Bengals. Instead, poor containment and tackling led to him bouncing around in the backfield before putting together a 10 yard gain.
“We were bad on the back-side run fits,” Guenther said. “If we’re where we’re supposed to be, its five yards deep and we win … There’s no one in the cut-back lane, it’s an easy safety.”
The Bengals didn’t know it at the time. But, completing that safety would have resulted in the two points that they would have needed to come out with the lead at the end of the game. Furthermore, the drive would not have led to the Vikings’ first touchdown of the game. All of the momentum could have been shifted in the Bengals’ favor at that point. Had everything else worked out the way it did through the rest of the game, the Bengals would have been up 9-3 at the half and won the game 18-17.
“Yeah, we win,” Guenther said. “We are bad on the back side of our run fits. Paul [Dawson] is supposed to be off the edge there, he’s 10 yards on the other side of the ball with nobody in the cutback lane. It should be an easy safety.”
It’s only the first game of preseason, so there’s no need to panic over a few bad plays when they did flash some really great ones like Jimmy Wilson’s interception or Atkins’ sack. But, Guenther knows his defense will need to be better prepared for these kind of situations going forward if they want to develop the ability to be as clutch as they were at times last year.
“It’s just understanding the situation,” said Guenther. “It’s not like we watched them or game-planned them in anyway. I really kept the coverages vanilla to let us execute. I didn’t have an issue, really. Just the one play.”