It’s been 247 days since Cincinnati’s heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, extending an embarrassing string of Wild Card losses that dates back to 2011. That’s eight months, approximately 21 million seconds, of exhausted disbelief that’s transitioned into weary acceptance. More personally, this was the moment, starting with “the 21st century fumble”, when I decided that “I needed a break.” Other forces, such as my advancing professional career, pulled me even further away. Regardless, for 10 years, Cincy Jungle grew and thrived, but the changing landscape of sports and media cooperation began to dull the passion and it felt like my path needed to shift.
Then on Sunday morning, on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I woke up. Is that related? Probably not. You should reflect on life, realize what you have and press yourself toward something you truly enjoy. Maybe that message is relevant but one thought didn’t lead to another.
The pull to wake up wasn’t the saturating “football is back” Tweets or the masturbatory NFL commercials telling us how great their sport is. Yet, the draw Sunday morning was powerful. Bengals jerseys flooded the local supermarket, where my ambitious plan to grill steaks and burgers quickly fell victim to a desire to watch and write – a feeling that went dark eight months ago.
For the first time in a long time, I sat at my makeshift desk, opened the laptop and cracked my knuckles. It was time to return. It was time to talk Bengals football. It was just time.
Let’s get started... or try to.
Nothing worked early. During the first two possessions of the game:
- Cincinnati had third-and-one from their own 34-yard line. Jake Fisher was flagged for a false start and Andy Dalton was sacked on the subsequent third-and-six.
- New York easily moved to Cincinnati’s 17-yard line with 7:47 remaining in the first. Dre Kirkpatrick grabbed Jalin Marshall as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s threw the football, drawing a pass interference penalty. The Jets scored on the following play from Cincinnati’s three-yard line. This concluded a 10-play, 78-yard drive, giving New York a 7-0 lead with 7:43 remaining in the first quarter.
- Despite a well-executed 15-yard wide receiver screen to A.J. Green on the following drive, Cincinnati’s second possession saw a quarterback sack, incompletion and another interception.
The world was ending. The season was over. A few fans wanted to cut half the roster already.
Then things improved.
New York had a first down from Cincinnati’s four-yard line. Ryan Fitzpatrick attempted three passes into the endzone -- including one that led to a massive shot from George Iloka that I was certain would be flagged. All incomplete. Nick Folk lined up an easy 22-yard kick but Margus Hunt blocked the field goal, forcing the Jets to crawl back to the sidelines beaten, battered and bitter. As a sidenote regarding Hunt’s blocked field goal… finally! This might have been the most important play of the game. Hunt also had a tackle-for-loss and two passes deflected.
The Two Minute Offense Before Halftime
Despite varying moments of success, Cincinnati struggled more than they succeeded on Sunday (yet, a messy win is better than a perfect loss… I guess). New York faced a scoring opportunity during four of their first five possessions and Cincinnati’s offense secured only four first downs during their first five possessions – though big plays helped alleviate a deficit that could have significantly hurt Cincinnati. And it wasn’t as if the Bengals offense played poorly; they didn’t. But penalties, quarterback sacks and busted end-around plays often put Cincinnati “behind schedule.”
With over three minutes remaining in the second quarter, New York took a 16-10 lead. The Bengals needed to maintain New York’s pace, score a few points and limit the Jets, who would receive the opening kickoff in the second half, momentum before half time. Cincinnati, starting from their own 15-yard line with 3:10 remaining, moved 21 yards on a pair of throws to Brandon LaFell. Another five-yard run and a quick toss to C.J. Uzomah put the Bengals at their own 41-yard line at the two minute warning.
Dalton targeted rookie Boyd on two of the next three plays, sandwiching a (confusing) one-yard run by Giovani Bernard, with the latter leading to a Buster Skrine defensive pass interference. A pair of throws to A.J. Green down the right sidelines pushed the Bengals to the Jets seven-yard line with :54 seconds remaining. Unfortunately, a coverage sack forced an 11-yard loss and their final timeout. Dalton flipped the football to Giovani Bernard on a crossing route, wrapped up by linebacker David Harris for a one-yard gain.
Regardless of the setback, Cincinnati made it work.
- 3-17-NYJ 17 (:18): Dalton fired a fastball to Boyd over the middle of the field. The rookie receiver dove for the football, picking up 14 yards to the Jets three-yard line. With no timeouts remaining, Cincinnati needed to replace the offensive unit with their special teams group; Boyd was tackled with 13 seconds remaining.
- 4-3-NYJ 3 (:01): With 0.0001 seconds remaining, the football was snapped and Mike Nugent kicked a 21-yard sand wedge through the uprights, reducing Cincinnati’s deficit to three points. New York was flagged for illegal formation and Marvin Lewis contemplated taking the penalty and attempting a touchdown with an untimed down. Lewis elected to keep the points and end the first half.
“There was a lot of thought but we weren’t getting the ball coming out in the third quarter,” head coach Marvin Lewis said when asked if he thought about taking the penalty and going for a touchdown. “We were going to have to kick off to them. And then the ball was going to be outside the two from what they explained to me a little bit, so it was not clear where the spot was going to be. If we were at the one, we were probably going to take the points off and go for the touchdown.”
“Don’t forget about Dre”
Clearly cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is a player who Cincinnati hanged logical hopes of developing into a consistent contributor by now. A former first-round selection from the 2012 NFL Draft, Cincinnati exercised the fifth-year option last year for obvious depth reasons that rewards Kirkpatrick with $7.5 million this season. Should/would they sign him to a long-term deal? Consider the following:
- William Jackson III, Cincinnati’s first-round pick during the 2016 NFL draft, landed on Injured Reserve after suffering torn pectoral muscle one week into training camp;
- Darqueze Dennard has missed games with a mounting list of injuries and missed Sunday’s opener with an ankle sprain;
- Veteran Leon Hall left during free agency and signed with the New York Giants; the Bengals waited too long to attempt to re-sign him.
This team needs Kirkpatrick to solidify his performances to make a significant argument as a big-time defender if he’s going to earn a new deal with the Bengals. During the first half against the Jets, Kirkpatrick was flagged for a defensive pass interference, leading to a first quarter touchdown, and was the defender during Eric Decker’s touchdown reception that gave New York a 13-10 lead midway through the second.
There’s two amendments that should be acknowledged from Sunday’s game:
- It’s the first game of the regular season and admittedly it takes time for a player to hit their stride;
- There’s redemption to this story that saved/preserved Cincinnati’s win;
With 11:33 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Jets had third-and-goal from the Bengals two-yard line. Eric Decker was wide right. Ryan Fitzpatrick floated the football towards the back right pylon but the football floated away from the intended target. Why? Dre Kirkpatrick forced Decker to redirect his route toward the front pylon, essentially killing the play. Nick Folk converted the 20-yard field goal, reducing Cincinnati’s lead 20-19 with over 11 minutes remaining in the game.
The Pass Protection Issues
Cincinnati’s win wasn’t perfect. Far from it. If not for a Margus Hunt block or a Nick Folk miss, our disposition Monday be significantly different. Regardless, the team’s pass protection is clearly an issue. Andy Dalton was constantly feeling pressure by an extraordinarily talented Jets defensive front, who used a variety of weapons to disrupt Cincinnati’s fragile pass protection efforts. Dalton, who was sacked a career-worst seven times on Sunday took an additional 10 hits. In comparison, Dalton was only dropped 20 times in 13 games last season.
Basic talking points will logically blame the offensive line. That’s easy and partially true. The offensive line struggled (slow to react to stunts especially), however receivers (many of whom struggled to generate separation) blocked during running plays and many sacks could be defined as coverage sacks.
- With 6:59 remaining in the first, Andy Dalton took the shotgun equivalent of a three-step drop and looked for A.J. Green -- lined up in the slot on the left. Unfortunately, Green decided to block linebacker Erin Henderson. Once Green started blocking instead of running a route, Dalton needed to bail and nearly slipped around the left edge before former Steeler Steve McLendon recorded the sack.
- With 9:38 remaining in the second, McLendon bull-rushed Russell Bodine during a running back screen. Normally this works (offensive linemen are responsible for disrupting the pass rush before leaving to block downfield). However, McLendon ended up in Dalton’s passing lane and the quarterback swallowed the football.
- On the next play, Dalton had several seconds in the pocket before feeling an urgent need to escape. Muhammad Wilkerson was conducting a stunt and looped around into Dalton’s lane.
- With 54 seconds remaining in the second, Dalton absorbed the shotgun snap and scanned the field. With enough time to scan the field, at least looking away from two options, Dalton took the sack.
- Cincinnati had first-and-15 from their own 31-yard line. Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams pressed his pass rush inside while Wilkerson looped around Williams. Cedric Ogbuehi played it right, taking on Williams. But, Kevin Zeitler, who followed Williams, failed to reset as Wilkerson exploded past the guard to drop Dalton for the quarterback sack.
These issues are correctable. However, Dalton won’t survive the season if Cincinnati’s pass protection issues aren’t resolved soon.
The Drive of the Game
It goes without saying that Cincinnati’s third quarter touchdown drive was their best of the afternoon. It contained an impressive mix of passes and runs, starting with a 29-yard wide receiver screen to A.J. Green behind impressive blocking (that could have gone the distance if Green stayed in bounds). Regardless, the play moved Cincinnati from their own eight to the 37-yard line with 6:36 remaining in the third.
A failed James Wright end-around led to an eight-yard loss and an incomplete on second down setup a third-and-18. Unfortunately, this was a theme on Sunday. For every two steps forward, there was a step back.
Facing a significant third down conversion, you usually chalk this up to a draw or a screen – usually a low-risk play that gains yards with a prayer or two for a missed tackle.
Not Ken “freaking” Zampese.
Andy Dalton locked onto Brandon LaFell and released an arching throw over his receiver’s shoulder. The single-covered LaFell secured the football, in stride, completing the 49-yard reception and moving Cincinnati to the Jets 22-yard line.
After another third down conversion – a James Wright run from the wild cat formation – Jeremy Hill torpedoed around blocks to fall into the endzone for a touchdown, taking a 20-16 lead.
The possession went nine plays for 92 yards.
Hill finished the game with nine rushes for 31 yards and a touchdown.
The Deciding Moments
When Jets placekicker Nick Folk converted an easy 23-yard field goal, giving New York a 22-20 lead, only 3:23 remained in the game. By this point in the game, the Bengals fleeting offense had found their rhythm with one exception, one lingering question: Can the Bengals avoid the big losses from the quarterback sacks, an unnecessary penalty or the failed execution of an end-around?
- 1-10 CIN 16 (3:18): Quick screen to A.J. Green, generating six yards. It was the type of adjustment we witnessed during the Hue Jackson regime. If the pass protection, for any reason, isn’t effective, reduce the amount of steps during the drop back and force quicker releases.
- 2-4 CIN 22 (2:52): Handoff to Jeremy Hill, gaining six yards to the Bengals 28-yard line. Two objectives are required here: Position yourself for a game-winning field goal without giving your opponent too much time.
- 1-10 CIN 28 (2:30): Quick toss to A.J. Green, who gained nine yards. Marcus Gilchrist was flagged for a face mask, moving the Bengals offense from their own 28 to the 48. Now the Bengals were near midfield with, dare we say, too much time?
- 1-10 NYJ 48 (2:22): Jeremy Hill picked up four yards, crossing midfield.
- 2-6 NYJ 44 (2:00): Then there was a wide receiver screen to James Wright, picking up seven yards behind a C.J. Uzomah block. Despite the overwhelming urge to move quickly during a “two minute offense”, Cincinnati beautifully incorporated a blend of quick passes and runs to ensure the clock moved and that Cincinnati wasn’t in a position to lose significant yardage. Yet, their insistence to run the football nearly bit back.
- 1-10 NYJ 37 (1:55): Hill got the handoff but since Bodine was destroyed, a recurring theme since being drafted, Hill had to redirect to the left, creating a one-yard loss
- 2-11 NYJ 38 (1:17): Hill was then stuffed for a two-yard loss. There was plenty of time on the clock for the Jets to position themselves for a game-winning field goal. However, two plays that lost three yards were concerning.
- 3-13 NYJ 40 (1:11): Green caught the football on a zig-zag route, faking an inside slant and bouncing outside toward the sidelines. The 11-yard pickup was critical, joining anyone’s “important play of the game” lists.
Now is the moment where your heart stops beating and your lungs stop breathing:
Mike Nugent, who had already missed a 52-yard field goal earlier, with business-like gusto, jogged onto the field with 58 seconds remaining in the game and split the uprights on a 47-yard conversion.
The Shaw Factor
Cornerback Josh Shaw, a former fourth-round pick from the 2015 NFL Draft, submitted the biggest play in his young career. With 46 seconds remaining in the game, the Jets had third-and-10 from their own 25-yard line. Eric Decker was in the slot on the right with Shaw covering and ran a “7” route.
Shaw, aware of the situation (little time remaining and no timeouts), pressed hard toward the sideline and undercut the route, hauling in his first career interception. Not just any interception either… a game-winning turnover that handed Cincinnati a 23-22 win over the Jets during kickoff weekend.