It’s only September.
It’s only the third week of the season.
And yet, if you want to sound the “red alert”, go for it.
For the time since 2011, the same year that Andy Dalton and A.J. Green entered the NFL, the Bengals are starting the season at 1-2. Both of their losses have come against AFC powerhouses in Pittsburgh and against Denver, largely thanks to a collapsing effort late in those respective games.
While both losses occurred in September, they were against teams with probable postseason significance. If we’ve learned anything over the last five years, it’s that while calculating and projecting postseason scenarios, these are the games we will wish Cincinnati had won. The Bengals will get another shot at Pittsburgh, but they are essentially three games behind the Broncos (two games behind, but the Broncos have the head-to-head tie breaker).
Regardless, Cincinnati isn’t there right now and any talk of the playoffs should be tempered.
This team needs to improve and that starts with rookies, high-round draft picks and free agent acquisitions. Outside of Green, Dalton doesn’t have any reliable options until Tyler Eifert returns – and that’s hoping he sticks around without getting hurt again (and again, and again). It even felt like Cincinnati pounded the football so much that the passing offense lacked any rhythm; though it was great to see Jeremy Hill become a productive member of the Bengals offense again.
Denver generated five first downs due to Bengals penalties; for comparison, the Broncos only picked up three first downs on the ground. Mistakes, dropped passes and dropped interceptions led to points for the Broncos. Cincinnati is sloppy right now, and not the product of a playoff-caliber team.
By the fourth quarter, their chances felt like a slow-leak from a punctured tire. Despite scoring a field goal to take a 17-16 lead with 14:56 remaining in the fourth, Cincinnati collectively faltered, starting at the Broncos 16-yard line when a poorly thrown incomplete pass on third down ended a 15-play drive — if you walk away with a drive that extends to 15 plays or more, you better score a touchdown. Regardless, Nugent’s field goal gave Cincinnati the temporary lead.
On their ensuing possession, the Broncos offense attacked with quarterback Trevor Siemian zipping passes to Demaryius Thomas, John Phillips, Emmanuel Sanders and Bennie Fowler, accumulating yards in chunks of nine, eight, 11, 16 and 13 before the Broncos faced second-and-eight from the Bengals 20-yard line with 8:18 remaining in the game. Siemian flipped the football to Sanders, who sprinted 17 yards before Josh Shaw pulled him down at the Bengals three-yard line.
After a minimal gain by fullback Andy Janovich, Siemian found John Phillips in the endzone, securing his third touchdown of the afternoon and a 22-17 lead (the two-point conversion failed).
How did Cincinnati respond?
By going three-and-out, with Green dropping a third-down pass that he should have caught. One might argue that the football was slightly behind him? My response is “you’re A.J. flipping Green… you catch those passes.”
Siemian and the Broncos offense took advantage, starting with a 29-yard strike to Jeff Heuerman and concluded with a 55-yard touchdown throw two plays later to Thomas with 4:23 remaining in the fourth.
On the first play of the ensuing play, Andy Dalton tried muscling the football to C.J. Uzomah. T.J. Ward, providing blanket coverage, tipped the football for Will Parks to intercept the football.
Costly penalties and mistakes leads to deficits
Cincinnati’s opening sequence couldn’t have been scripted any better, with the defense forcing a three-and-out (on consecutive Trevor Siemian passes) and the offense, looking to improve their 31st-ranked running game, calling Jeremy Hill’s number often. Hill, who added an explosive 50-yard sprint to the Broncos three-yard line, totaled 65 yards during the team’s game-opening drive, giving Cincinnati an early 7-0 lead.
Unfortunately, a collection of mistakes, penalties and missed opportunities plagued Cincinnati.
Following Cincinnati’s 7-0 lead, Denver responded with a 14-play drive, covering 73 yards, mostly from costly Bengals penalties extending the Broncos possession.
- 3-11 CIN 40 (7:09, 1st quarter): Bengals cornerback Adam Jones sprinted to show press coverage, forcing the receiver to clutch ever-so-slightly. The official threw the flag and waved the play dead, just as the snap was exchanged. Few, if anyone, outside of Jones and the receiver who committed the infraction, heard the whistle and continued the play. Linebacker Karlos Dansby collided with quarterback Trevor Siemian, drawing a personal foul (we believe for making facemask-to-facemask contact). Instead of a third-and-16 from the Bengals 45-yard line, Denver had a first-down from the Bengals 25.
- 3-4 CIN 9 (5:03, 1st quarter): Several plays later, Siemian took a third-down shotgun snap and targeted Thomas toward the back of endzone. Despite hand-fighting and arm-wrestling between Thomas and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, the officials flagged Kirkpatrick for illegal contact, giving the Broncos a new set of downs.
Despite the three penalties on Cincinnati’s defense, all giving the Broncos first downs, the Bengals defense eventually forced a field goal.
However, it didn’t end there.
There were multiple instances where Cincinnati held the Broncos, only to make a costly mistake that extended Denver’s possession.
- With 3:19 remaining in the second quarter, the Broncos had third-and-two from the Bengals 47-yard line. Defensive tackle Pat Sims sacked quarterback Trevor Siemian for a six-yard loss. What should have been a fourth-and-eight and an obvious punting situation, the Broncos were gift-wrapped another set of downs after George Iloka was flagged for a defensive hold.
- Two plays later, Shawn Williams dropped an interception. Granted, the Broncos were flagged for having an illegal man downfield but the dropped interception would have, at the very least, given Cincinnati a halftime lead.
Instead, the Broncos converted another third down to the Bengals 18-yard line (after another suspicious review), scoring a touchdown and taking a 16-14 lead just before the half.
Even when Cincinnati benefited from a turnover, the Jones forced fumble with 12:48 remaining in the third, they stumble with two sacks allowed and an illegal block, setting up a third-and-28 from their own 45. Rather than risking a massive mistake, they conceded the possession with a wide receiver screen to Tyler Boyd.
Resurgent rushing offense
Heading into Sunday’s game, the Bengals had 129 plays and, astonishingly, at least 71.3 percent of those were called passes. During their first two games of the season, Cincinnati generated 57 and 46 yards rushing respectively.
Things changed in the first half.
It was clear that the Bengals sought to improve their rushing offense, focusing on it throughout the first half against the Broncos. In addition to the Bengals calling seven runs on the first eight plays, and 14 on the first 17, the formula worked.
Hill rushed for 65 yards during Cincinnati’s opening possession, scoring one of his two first-half touchdowns. Cincinnati’s 104 yards rushing in the first half (they officially had 103, losing a yard on a knee to end the first half), was more than their previous two games combined.
Worthless use of replay leads to a Broncos score
For the second time in as many weeks, the Bengals had a questionable fumble/knee review work against them. Last week, it was Tyler Boyd, who had a knee on the turf when he lost the football. Officials called it a fumble and, lacking an angle for a clear review, didn’t overturn the call. Game over.
This week, it was Jones, returning a punt on the final play of the first quarter. Jones had both knees on the turf as the football was punched out of his possession.
The knee is down (not that this means anything) https://t.co/XtKQQJymiO— Josh Kirkendall (@Josh_Kirkendall) September 25, 2016
The call should have been overturned, but, it wasn’t.
As a result, the Broncos took a 10-7 lead with 13:57 remaining in the first after Emmanuel Sanders beat Adam Jones, with a slight last-second shove, on a deep 41-yard touchdown pass down the sidelines.
With two minutes remaining in the first half, Siemian completed a 10-yard pass to wide receiver Cody Latimer, receiving the 10-yard line. Officials reviewed the play, and despite Latimer appearing to have trapped the football, didn’t overturn the play.
Some will call these “too close to call”, but isn’t that the point of replay? To review the calls that were too close in the first place? If we’re seeing a more conservative approach during these replays, then we’re witnessing a significant downfall of a system that isn’t that difficult to manage.
Get it right (first the replays, then the calls).