The Bengals lost badly the battle for possession again last Sunday in Nashville, just like what happened the previous week in Jacksonville. In both games, Cincinnati only had the ball for 19 minutes, and only gained 23 first downs total. But somehow, according to their head coach Marvin Lewis, it’s the defense that’s let them down, not their next-to-worst in the league offense.
Cincinnati gave up 424 yards to the Titans one week after surrendering more than 400 yards to the Jaguars, two squads that match up well with the Bengals’ defensive scheme. While that’s far from ideal, context matters.
After a poor first half in which the Bengals fell behind 17-14, their defense stepped up in a big way - and without linebacker Vontaze Burfict - and only gave up 81 yards before Tennessee got the ball back for their game-winning drive. For their troubles, the Bengals’ offense only mustered 24 yards before their two-play touchdown-scoring drive, accounting only for 7:47 minutes of possession, effectively allowing little-to-no rest for their defense.
That’s been a problem for Paul Guenther’s unit week in week out when they’ve faced a team other than the Browns, as we saw in their games against the Steelers, Colts or Jaguars before. Andy Dalton and company produce so little in the second half, that opposing teams can keep pounding the rock against a tired defense that’s not exactly designed to stop the run. If those teams are effective rushing the ball, like Pittsburgh, Jacksonville or Tennessee, it’s even harder for the Bengals to get the ball back. But even when they create turnovers, their offense just doesn’t get them much, unless that turnover actually score six points like Carlos Dunlap did to beat Indianapolis.
Even with all those issues, the Bengals still had a chance to come back home from Nashville with a win, after Dalton connected with A.J. Green on a catch-and-run throw that the superstar wide receiver took all the way for 70 yards and a touchdown. Cincinnati took the lead in just 41 seconds, and the Titans got the ball with more than five minutes remaining only needing a field goal to tie up the score.
We’ve talked a lot this season about how the Bengals’ defensive scheme is designed to not take risks, even if that means fewer opportunities for turnovers. They play it safe, and turn their secondary into tacklers, including their cornerbacks. They trust their front four to bring pressure and either get the sack or force an error by the quarterback. It’s the classic bend-don’t-break mentality that served them well when they had a top-ranked offense. So there’s nothing new in what happened Sunday against the Titans.
Let’s go back to the touchdown play by Tennessee that sealed the deal for the home team. It’s a clear and plain cover 4 defense, and its goal is to prevent a completion in the end zone. Carl Lawson, rushing the passer from the right side almost got Marcus Mariota, who instead of risking a pick with plenty of time left and only needing a field goal, went to his checkdown receiver, running back DeMarco Murray.
Lewis said Murray should’ve never been able to score on a play like that, and while I agree with him, the main problem with the kind of defense they run is they’re one broken or missed tackle away from giving up the first down - in this case the touchdown.
Check down to running back shouldn’t score, Marv says— Geoff Hobson (@GeoffHobsonCin) November 12, 2017
As I said last week, when I analyzed what happened to the defense against the Jaguars:
Paul Guenther’s unit has a few flaws, as we’d discussed in previous weeks after their loss in Pittsburgh and their one-point win at home against the Colts. They can’t stop the run and they’re built to protect a lead, playing it safe and allowing a lot of small amounts of yards underneath. That of course can cause you some pain, as you’re usually one broken tackle from giving up a first down, but it’s easier to fathom when you’re winning and it prevents you from risking a big play on a deep pass.
This time it was cornerback Darqueze Dennard who missed the tackle, allowing Murray to hit paydirt. The Bengals should have been able to stop the Titans from scoring. They held their own for the most part in the second half, despite not getting much help from their offense. That is why context matters. The unit is clearly wearing down because of their limitations to play from behind and the inability of their offense to keep the football and gain first downs to extend drives.
That is why Murray’s touchdown catch is a microcosm of the Bengals’ 2017 season. All their flaws were exposed, from an anemic offense that can give their defense rest, to a defense that can’t stop the run because they lack the personnel and are gassed from spending so much time on the field. There’s also the issue of a coaching staff that’s unable to adjust to a new reality: a team held down by a lack of identity on offense and serious issues at their offensive line and quarterback positions.
Lewis can throw Guenther’s guys under the bus as much as he wants to save his own butt for his team-building mistakes, but the reality is there’s nothing surprising about this defense. They’re what they are, and they’ve held their own for the most part. They’re not the main reason why the Bengals only had the ball for a quarter of the game for the past two weeks.