The Bengals lost a key game in Jacksonville on Sunday, making struggling quarterback Blake Bortles look like the second coming of Aaron Rodgers. After an encouraging start to the season, Cincinnati’s defense has taken a few steps back, but their offense didn’t help them in any way against the Jaguars and things went south pretty early.
When you lose the battle for possession like the Bengals did in Week 9, 40 minutes to 20, that usually takes a huge toll on your defense. On Sunday, the Bengals’ offense had the shortest time of possession of any team in the NFL this season. That is not the only reason for giving up 408 net yards and allowing 12 of 18 conversions on third down, but it helps explain Sunday’s debacle. 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.
The Jaguars are built to run the football, and when you can run the football efficiently you open up a lot of other good things, like the play action passes that should’ve put the game away earlier for the home team on Sunday.
Defending play action passes was a nightmare at times for the Bengals defense on Sunday. There was a lot of miscommunication in the secondary and when they tried to simplify things and go with man coverage it was hard to watch. All of this with a Jaguars squad missing its two most talented offensive players, Leonard Fournette (inactive for the week) and Allen Robinson (on IR).
Man coverage was especially hard for Dre Kirkpatrick, the cornerback the Bengals gave a ton of money to this summer. He had some help from the underwhelming Jaguars receiving corps, though. That’s how he only surrendered 93 yards on six passes thrown his way. Per Pro Football Focus, Kirkpatrick allowed an 82.8 passer rating for Bortles when he was targeted. He was the second most targeted cornerback this week, targeted once every 3.1 passing snaps, and he allowed one reception every 5.7 snaps, and 2.74 yards per passing snap.
These plays are from the first half, when the Bengals’ defenders were still fresh, despite two quick punts from Kevin Huber and a very quick touchdown by Joe Mixon that essentially allowed almost no rest for Guenther’s unit. They created a turnover and could’ve easily got another one if Shawn Williams didn’t drop the easiest interception he had in his entire career. And for the most part, they did what they’re built to do: bend but not break, giving up two field goals and coughing up a touchdown after a very long drive.
In the second half they were punished by a relentless Jaguars ground game and their own offensive miscues, as they were only able to muster three first downs in the entire period.
We talked, when we rewatched their performance against the Steelers and Colts, that this Bengals defense isn’t the elite unit that can shoulder their way into wins without enough support from the offense, like the Broncos’ the past few seasons or the Vikings’ for the first half of last year. The Jaguars’ defense could soon reach that level.
It’s not that Cincinnati hasn’t improved its pass rush. Jacksonville has a good offensive line and only five teams have allowed fewer sacks. Nick Vigil is an upgrade over whatever linebackers the Bengals have been trotting out there of late, but he’s not a run stopper. And their secondary, built to play zone, lacks playmaking ability. William Jackson III showed against Antonio Brown that he could become a shutdown corner, but everybody else happily sits back and tries to avoid damage.
The Bengals defense wasn’t terrible on Sunday. It wasn’t good, but the failings of the offense really put a lot of pressure on the defense and an early lead allowed the Jaguars to pin their ears back and pound the rock. With little rest and down on the scoreboard, that’s when you start to see guys losing contain and allowing the running backs to bounce outside and gain more yards extending the drives, which is what happened in the fourth quarter.
I don’t want to excuse them for making Bortles look way better than what he is, but when the Jaguars execute their gameplan, take the lead and let their defense dominate, Bortles has put up respectable numbers this year. He destroyed the Ravens in London, beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and he was pretty good against the Colts, too. When your defense lacks playmaking ability, the game plan counts a lot, as the Bengals saw already last season in their loss at home to the Broncos - albeit without Vontaze Burfict.
Can we expect the Bengals defense to return to their pre-bye level? It’ll be up to the offense to help them out.