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The Bengals hung on to beat the Bucs, but problems persist heading into the bye

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Sunday’s theme was about hanging on for dear life during the Bengals’ 37-34 win over the Buccaneers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images

We needed that.

Yes. Me, we, you, fans. Sure, players needed a confidence boost as well... I suppose. It’s been a dreadful couple of weeks for the Cincinnati Bengals against Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Dreadful. Whether the losses were last second officiating gaffes or clown-show blowouts, losses still carry emotional consequences.

Sunday was different. It was a story of turnovers, a benched quarterback, an explosive first-half offense, and a ferocious Buccaneers comeback. Nothing new was learned Sunday; many of the same troupes surfaced on Sunday. Bill Lazor’s crew personified another Jekyll and Hyde act while Teryl Austin’s defense continues to rely too much on turnovers. What began as a 21-0 second quarter lead, transitioned into an unnecessarily nerve-racking 37-34 Bengals win.

Cincinnati heads into their Week 9 bye with a 5-3 record, slowing their decent into Nothingsville.

Players were composed and professional early on. Tackles weren’t being missed with such frequency. Austin’s defense forced turnovers and pressured quarterback Jameis Winston — one Sam Hubbard pass rush led to a Preston Brown interception.

“I was just standing there,” said Brown of his interception. “It wasn’t doing much at all, and then the ball was just tipped and I looked at it and was like, ‘Guess I’ve got to catch it.’ So I just caught it and went as far as I could before somebody hit me.”

An overthrow earlier in the game was snagged by safety Shawn Williams, who returned the football 29 yards. Jordan Evans secured another overthrow midway into the third and Jessie Bates secured a pick-six to give Cincinnati a 34-16 lead.

Yet, Sunday began as a relaxed affair.

Joe Mixon steamrolled Tampa Bay’s defense with an 18-yard sprint on the first play of the game; Tyler Boyd added a 22-yard reception a few plays later. Unfortunately, the drive stalled around Tampa’s 20 when an unblocked Jordan Whitehead stopped Mixon for a no-gain on fourth-and-one. Cincinnati’s ensuing possession was a quick three-and-out.

“We were into the wind there,” Marvin Lewis said after the game of going for it on fourth-down.

Then it was score, after score, after score, after score. The first occurred after a pair of big plays late in the first, starting with a Jordan Franks 32-yard wheel route and a 28-yard Tyler Boyd gain; he narrowly missed a touchdown with an extended arm through the front left pylon. Lewis elected not to challenge what could have been ruled a touchdown. Joe Mixon squeezed through the goal line anyway, giving the Bengals 7-0 lead.

Cincinnati ended the first half with 307 yards and four touchdowns scored on their final four possessions before halftime. By this point, the Bengals were leading 27-9 with a 100-yard receiver (Tyler Boyd, 112 yards) and 100-rusher (Joe Mixon, 114 yards) in their pocket.

In the meantime, injuries began piling up. Defensive end Carl Lawson suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Clint Boling exited with a back issue. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick took a breather with an Achilles, but later returned.

However, the Buccaneers had established momentum midway into the second, scoring 9 points on a pair of 60-yard possessions — OK, one of them was a 60-yard DeSean Jackson score, embarrassingly burning William Jackson.

Their momentum continued into the third quarter.

Down 27-9, Tampa Bay entered the second half with an array of big plays that overcame long distance scenarios. An Ali Marpet offensive hold pushed the Buccaneers back to their own 32-yard line with 13:39 remaining in the third. Kirkpatrick was flagged for pass interference on the next play, giving Tampa a fresh set of downs. On the next play, Adolphus Washington dropped Winston for an eight-yard loss; it was his first sack with the Bengals. Two plays later, Adam Humphries made an amazing 15-yard reception on third-and-12 with 11:43 remaining.

Then the defense became the pushovers that we know and love. Winston found a wide-open O.J. Howard for 20 to the Bengals’ 20-yard line — splitting about four defenders who were in zone coverage. Two plays later, Humphries powered and dragged defenders to the one-inch line, where running back Peyton Barber scored a touchdown to reduce Cincinnati’s lead to 27-16.

The Bengals’ momentum seemed brief.

Cincinnati promptly opened the second half with four consecutive three-and-out possessions, with interceptions from Jordan Evans and Jessie Bates sprinkled in; the latter resulting in a 21-yard touchdown return and a 34-16 lead. The Evans and Bates interceptions seemed to stall Tampa Bay, and was the catalyst for Winston’s benching.

“I knew he was a little rattled, because just because he threw the first two interceptions to us,” said Bates after the game. “I think that kind of put the fork into him. It was just a good job by us as a defense, getting to him and making him feel pressure.”

Ryan Fitzpatrick entered the game.

What began as a calm, peaceful affair, transitioned into chaos and turmoil.

Cincinnati’s supercharged first-half offense went three-and-out in the first four second half possessions (have we mentioned that enough yet), gaining only 19 yards. Between 2:38 in the second quarter and 4:22 remaining in the fourth, the Bengals failed to secure a first down. Tampa Bay’s pressure on Dalton was amped up. Schemes seemed conservative; play-calling even more so.

With Fitzpatrick in the game, Cincinnati was unable to embrace Winston’s generous gift-giving. In fact, if the quarterback isn’t systematically throwing eggs to Bengals defenders, it’s clear just how bad this defense is. They’ve lost a handful of starters, but the defense has been bad from the beginning. Whether you’re a backup or starter, you can’t screw up so much to allow a wide-open Mike Evans to score a 72-yard touchdown. And DeSean Jackson’s 60-yarder earlier was against Cincinnati’s top cover corner.

Why the big plays?

“They’re trying to do too much at times,” said Lewis. “They’re trying to get out of their job to do something else. Just do your job first and everything will happen. Everything will fit together. You don’t have to (do everything). Make sure you understand the urgency of what (your) responsibility is on this particular play — plain, flat and simple, that’s what it is. Just do (your) particular job with the urgency on this particular play, and let the other guys work and understand it.”

Tampa Bay reached the Bengals’ 18-yard line with 1:10 remaining in the game. Down 34-26, the Buccaneers needed three yards to convert a game-deciding fourth down. Not only did Fitzpatrick convert the fourth down on a quick slant to O.J. Howard, the defense offered such minimal resistance that a touchdown was scored and a two-point conversion followed. The game was tied 34-34 with about a minute remaining.

Fitzpatrick played four possessions and scored 18 points. Overall, in the second half, the Bengals defense allowed 25 points while the Bengals offense punted five times, including four three-and-out possessions.

Brutal.

Andy Dalton attempted to move the sticks on their final drive, chipping away at Tampa Bay’s defense, including a 23-yarder to A.J. Green to the Buccaneers 30-yard line. Officials tacked on another five for a defensive delay of game and Cincinnati used its final timeout after Dalton took a knee to give Randy Bullock a favorable angle for his 44-yard game-winner.

“More than anything, I wanted the opportunity,” said Bullock.

Cincinnati’s bye week can’t come soon enough.

For the players. And fans.

The Bengals nearly beat the Steelers but lost on a last-second illegal pick. Kansas City destroyed Cincinnati on national television. A horrific second-half collapse against Tampa Bay nearly left the city in tatters. Luckily, the Bengals held on.

That has been the theme this season.

Hanging on.

However, is this sustainable?

“Guys have to do their job, plain and simple,” Lewis said after the game. “I don’t (know) how long those touchdown passes were today, but I know they were far... We’re doing it with young guys, and we’ve got some other guys that are not as young, and we’ve got to figure out a way to do it.”