It is time to start looking for other places to point the finger.
In the season-opening loss to Baltimore, A.J. Green caught five passes for 74 yards. With 11:16 remaining and the Bengals down 20-0, Green made a 27-yard reception to move the ball to the Ravens’ 44-yard line. It was his fifth and last reception of the day.
On the ground, Cincinnati’s three-man rotation of Jeremy Hill, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard accounted for all of 77 yards on 22 carries, an average of 3.5 yards per carry.
Against Houston the following week, Green had three receptions for 64 yards in the first half, including an acrobatic 50-yard reception into triple coverage. He was targeted once early in the third quarter, for three yards, and was not heard from again until the final play of the game, when he was officially credited with a loss of three yards.
The Bengals’ rushing attack was even worse than the week before. Hill, Bernard and Mixon combined for a whopping 63 yards on 20 carries, an average of 3.15 yards per carry. And the results were the same. Cincinnati got out of the box with an 0-2 record.
Past time for a change
After those first two games, Cincinnati abruptly made a change in its coaching staff, firing offensive coordinator Ken Zampese and replacing him with Bill Lazor.
In his first three games at the helm, Lazor seemed to transform the Bengals and quarterback Andy Dalton into some semblance of the offense that everyone hoped it could be when the season began. Cincinnati lost to Green Bay in overtime, then came back to beat the Browns and the Bills. The Bengals looked ready to challenge Pittsburgh for bragging rights in the AFC North.
Then Sunday’s 29-14 loss to the Steelers happened, and Cincinnati is right back where it started. – Literally.
Green was in the mix early and often. In Cincinnati’s first possession of the game, quarterback Andy Dalton his Green for first downs on gains of 15 and 10 yards, and on the second drive, which ended in a touchdown, found him for 16 yards and another first down. Green saw one more target the rest of the half and had two passes thrown to him in the third quarter, one of which ended in an interception. After that, nothing.
Cincinnati’s rushing attack actually looked like it would be a factor against the Steelers. Despite not getting the start once again, running back Joe Mixon had seven carries for 48 yards in the first half, an average of nearly 6.9 yards per carry. He also contributed three receptions for 20 yards.
Hill started the third quarter, with Bernard coming in for the Bengals’ second series. Although Mixon did eventually get reinserted back into the lineup, he did not touch the ball even one time in the second half. He had one pass thrown in his direction, but the official scorer credited it as an incompletion to Brandon LaFell. And that was it.
The trio of Hill, Mixon and Bernard combined for 63 yards rushing on 14 carries for an average of 4.5 yards per carry. Take away Mixon’s stellar first-half performance and Cincinnati’s other backs had seven carries for 15 yards. And that is exactly what the Bengals did.
“He was in there in the third quarter,” head coach Marvin Lewis said of Mixon after the game. “Whatever plays are called are called.”
Unfortunately for the Bengals, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Earlier in the season, performances such as this cost Zampese his job. Is Lazor next in line? It would certainly seem that was where Lewis attempted to lay the blame. Or should the buck stop where it truly belongs – square on the shoulders of Lewis himself?
Because the offense was not the only group to turn in thoroughly head-scratching performances against the Steelers. Cincinnati’s defense, which came in as the second-ranked defense in the NFL through the first five games of the season, looked absolutely lost in the early going.
The Bengals allowed Pittsburgh to score touchdowns on two of its first three possessions, culminating with a 31-yard scoring strike to a wide-open JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers drove for field goals on its next two possessions to take a 20-14 lead into the half. A defense that was surrendering an average of only 262 yards per game, gave the Steelers 250 yards in the first half alone.
And special teams did not fare much better. Cincinnati was able to limit Pittsburgh’s dangerous Antonio Brown one punt return for seven yards, and Kevin Huber forced numerous other fair catches with yet another brilliant performance. But then disaster struck.
Pittsburgh was facing a fourth-down-and-seven situation from its own 40-yard line with 6:53 left when Jordan Berry dropped back to punt. Robert Golden took the direct snap instead and hit a wide-open Darrius Heyward-Bey for a 44-yard gain to the Bengals 16. Game, set and match – Pittsburgh.
Despite the breakdown in all aspects of the game, there were some bright spots.
William Jackson, III excels
William Jackson, III, who got the start in the place of the injured Adam Jones, showed everyone why he was one of the nation’s top defensive backs coming out of Houston in 2016, and why he needs to be on the field more often for the Bengals.
Jackson was targeted two times in the first half – the first coming on a three-yard reception by Martavis Bryant late in the second quarter and the second on a pass to Antonio Bryant that Jackson broke up at the two-minute warning.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw in Jackson’s direction more four times in the second half, and all were incompletions, including another breakup of a pass intended for Brown midway through the fourth quarter when the outcome was still in doubt.
“I did OK,” Jackson said of his performance. “There is always room to get better, but we can go back to it and watch the film and see what I can do better. I made some good plays out there.”
Michael Johnson stands out
Michael Johnson’s move inside this year has seemed to rejuvenate his career. But he stayed mostly at his usual spot at right defensive end against the Steelers, and had one of his better games in the last couple of years at that position.
Johnson was all over the field Sunday, turning in five total tackles, including three solos, and had a pair of tackles for loss. His hit on Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell on third-down-and one midway through the third quarter resulted in a loss of four yards and forced the Steelers to settle for a 41-yard Chris Boswell field goal that extended their lead to 23-14.
But Johnson did not get a lot of help Sunday. His running mate, Carlos Dunlap, was also solid with five tackles, including three solos, and two tackles for loss. But the emotional leader of the defense, Vontaze Burfict, was all but absent throughout most of the game, finishing with only four total tackles.
Probably the biggest indicator of the defensive struggles the Bengals experienced against Pittsburgh was the fact that Pat Sims, who rarely even makes an appearance on the individual stat sheet and had only eight total tackles coming in, tied for the among Cincinnati defenders with eight total tackles, including four solos.
“We did not tackle well as a defense,” Johnson explained. “We did not execute well enough today. We have to do a better job of getting all 11 to the ball, and tackling, and executing as a defense.”
In short, the Bengals have to find a way back to the style of play that vaulted them to the top of the NFL standings before the bye week.
“It was just a hiccup,” Johnson concluded. “We will find out what we got.”