Much of the talk surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason was about how the team had gotten younger and faster in an effort to overcome some of its major deficiencies from last year.
But when game day finally got here, where was all of that youth that we had heard so much about? They were sitting on the sidelines, where all Marvin Lewis rookies sit on opening day.
On offense, John Ross, the Bengals’ first-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft and the man who set the NFL Combine record in the 40-yard dash with a blazing time of 4.21, was inactive as he attempts to recover from a sore knee. Ross was able to practice and probably could have played.
Josh Malone, a fourth-round pick by Cincinnati this year who himself was one of the fastest receivers at the combine, was inactive.
Cincinnati’s starting offense featured fourth-year running back Jeremy Hill and second-year slot receiver Tyler Boyd, along with the incomparable A.J. Green and tight end Tyler Eifert, who, when healthy, has proven to be one of the best in the business. Who needs youth when you have experience?
But that experience did not help the Bengals on Sunday. Eifert was not even targeted until late in the second quarter, when he made his only reception of the day for four yards, and he got no attention on the Bengals’ three trips into the red zone.
Green finished with five receptions for 74 yards. But three of those receptions came on the Bengals’ first trip into the red zone early in the second quarter. Yet, inexplicably, Andy Dalton did not even look his way before tossing his first interception on a pass intended for Brandon LaFell.
But that’s OK. The Bengals have plenty of weapons on offense, so they don’t need the infusion of youth on that side of that ball, or so Lewis would have you think.
Last year’s defense was old and slow, and could not cover running backs and tight ends. So, Cincinnati drafted speed rushers in Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson in the third and fourth rounds this year, and added the fleet of foot Jordan Evans in the sixth round. And then Lewis left them sitting on the bench when play began Sunday.
Lawson, despite the fact that Michael Johnson went out with a concussion early, saw only limited action, and finished with no tackles. Jordan Willis and Jordan Evans were also limited in the number of opportunities they were given, and both finished with one total tackle.
And the rookies sat, despite the fact that the Bengals’ more experienced group of starting linebackers continued to struggle in coverage. Ravens running back Danny Woodhead was wide open on play after play during Baltimore’s opening drive, which resulted in a field goal. Only a hamstring injury to Woodhead saved the linebacking corps from utter humiliation.
Darqueze Dennard got the start at cornerback in place of the suspended Adam Jones, in spite of the fact that the speedy William Jackson III, who missed all of his rookie season with an injury, had a better preseason showing. And the Bengals paid dearly for that decision.
Late in the second quarter, Dennard had man coverage on the fleet-footed Jeremy Maclin. Despite the fact that he had no safety or linebacker help inside, Dennard gave Maclin the middle of the field, and the play resulted in a 48-yard touchdown and a 10-0 Baltimore lead. Jackson was on the field, but he was spending more time in the slot and on the other side against Mike Wallace, who had just one catch and was rarely targeted. Maclin was clearly the No. 1 receiving option.
But Lewis’ aversion to playing rookies or first-year players was only one of many questionable decisions on this opening-day disaster of an afternoon. Everyone expected all three of Cincinnati’s running backs to see time on the field Sunday, but the idea was that one of them would establish a rhythm, and the Bengals would stick with the hot hand.
Instead, Cincinnati moved its running backs in and out with no apparent reason. Giovani Bernard was able to find the most success, and finished with seven carries for 40 yards. Bernard’s one reception went for 39 yards. His eight touches were not near enough.
Jeremy Hill contributed 26 yards on six carries and Joe Mixon finished with eight rushing attempts for nine yards and caught three passes for 15 yards. As much as everyone is rooting for Mixon to succeed, Bernard found the most success on this day and should have been more a part of the Bengals’ offense.
And then there was Dalton, who finished with one of the worst days of his professional career. But, as bad as he was playing (he finished with four interceptions, including one in the end zone, and a fumble in the red zone), Bengals’ backup quarterback AJ McCarron never even got warm.
When Dalton, on fourth down and goal at the Baltimore 6-yard-line late in the game, threw the ball out of the end zone rather than risk another interception, McCarron still sat.
Bengals’ kickoff return man Alex Erickson, who led the AFC in return yards last season, looked tentative on Sunday. On several occasions, he took a knee on kickoffs that only traveled two yards deep into the end zone rather than taking a chance on running them back and perhaps giving the Bengals some badly needed momentum.
But Mixon, who returned 21 kickoffs for an average of 23.5 yards, including an incredible 97-yard return for a touchdown against Ohio State last season at Oklahoma, never got a chance.
Despite the poor play-calling on offense and the holes on the defensive side of the ball, the Bengals kept plugging away and never seemed out of it, even when Justin Tucker’s second field goal gave Baltimore a 20-0 edge with 1:06 left in the third quarter.
The Bengals took over at its own 30-yard-line with 12:23 left and promptly drove to the Baltimore 43, where they faced a 4th-and-9 with only 9:59 play. Yet, despite the fact that Cincinnati trailed by three scores and desperately needed a touchdown if it hoped to get back into the game, Lewis chose to punt instead of going for it.
If this is the kind of faith that Lewis is going to show in his high-powered offense throughout the year, maybe it is time for some wholesale changes. If Lewis himself does not trust this core of players to get the job done, maybe it is time to give someone else a chance.
The Bengals staked their hope on youth this season, and are the third-youngest team in the National Football League. But youth is not going to serve if it is sitting on the bench, or not dressed at all. Youth and speed will only make the ultimate difference if they are allowed to play, and play often, unlike what happened on Sunday.
What do you think Lewis’ worst decision was on Sunday?
This poll is closed
Not picking a running back and sticking with him
Not letting Willis, Evans and Lawson play more
Not going for it on fourth down in Baltimore territory
Not giving McCarron a chance to play
Not letting Ross and Malone suit up
Not starting Jackson over Dennard