Often when offenses perform poorly, people start pointing fingers at the quarterback. In this case, the passer was the least of the offense’s problems.
Jeff Driskel’s first career start went pretty well considering a lot of things didn’t go his way. All things considered, a 25 for 37 game with 236 yards and a touchdown is pretty good for the backup quarterback’s first start. Pretty much nothing went Driskel’s way, from A.J. Green’s injury to Phillip Lindsay’s career day.
There were a lot of things that went wrong against the Broncos and a few that went right. From the offense to the defense, here’s what we learned in the 24-10 loss.
The offensive line was a bad as ever
First of all, the offensive line was an absolute mess. Granted, it was a hodgepodge of out-of-position starters for the most part; Clint Boling made his first appearance this season at left tackle, while Trey Hopkins made his season played guard on the left side of the line for the first time in his career. But that doesn’t excuse the absolute disaster that was the offensive line on Sunday.
Driskel had to overcome a lot of the offensive lines’ mistakes in his first career start. Not only was he sacked for times, but he was hit a total of nine times. The Bengals’ defense could only muster four quarterback hits and only sacked Case Keenum twice, for reference. Despite having Von Miller and Bradley Chubb line up opposite each other—which normally would cause problems for any offensive line—the Bengals’ line punished Driskel with self inflicted wounds.
By the end of the first half, every offensive lineman had at least one penalty. These penalties were constantly moving the Bengals behind the sticks, making converting eventual third downs nearly impossible. It's a miracle the Bengals converted five of their 13 third downs, because they had more than ten yards to go eight times.
Four of those were because of negative plays, like sacks of negative runs. But four were due to penalties, which is four too many. Miller and Chubb are good players; the offensive line didn’t need to help them.
On drive in particular sums up the offensive line’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
With 7:23 to go in the second quarter, Joe Mixon ran the ball on first down, but only gained one yard because Derek Wolfe blew past Bobby Hart with ease. On second down, Driskel airmailed a pass to C.J. Uzomah, but instead of a third-and-nine, Alex Redmond was flagged for bringing Wolfe to the ground, so the Bengals started again at second-and-19.
Then, Miller and Shelby Harris converged on Driskel for a five-yard sack (but Harris picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone to seal the game in Week 12, so we can’t stay mad at him).
As if third-and-24 wasn’t enough, a false start from Hopkins backed up the Bengals another five yards. On third-and-29, a 17-yard run from Giovani Bernard was negated by a holding penalty on Billy Price (although this call was questionable, but a call nonetheless).
So on third-and-39, Bernard ran the ball for only five yards, but thankfully, the football gods allowed the drive to finally end. Kevin Huber punted the ball on fourth-and-35 with 5:08 left to play in the half. So that drive took almost two minutes off the clock and five plays (including the ones that didn’t count) for what has to be the longest three-and-out in a long time.
The play calling was too conservative to allow Driskel to succeed
Another reason why the loss doesn’t fall on Driskel is because the play calling was so vanilla, there was not much to he could have done better.
In the first half especially, Marvin Lewis and Bill Lazor wanted to make sure that Driskel didn’t lose the game early. In order to prevent Driskel’s inexperience from getting in the way of his success, they gave him some play calls that made things easy for him but didn’t move the ball effectively downfield. So even though Driskel completed 65 percent of his passes and didn’t throw any interceptions, the Bengals had only three points at halftime.
In the first half, Driskel threw the ball 20 times but only averaged 4.7 yards per attempt. In the second half, the Bengals gave Driskel some new plays that featured more of a downfield passing attack, and things got much better from there. Driskel’s rating in the second half was 90.3, compared to his first half rating of 75.8.
But unfortunately, by the time Driskel got going it was already too late. The Broncos piled on two touchdowns early in the third quarter, so when Driskel was finally allowed to play, he was already trailing by three scores.
It's understandable that the Bengals didn’t want to just throw Driskel out there in his first career start and only his fourth career appearance. Since this is the first year Driskel has been on the active roster, he is basically still a rookie. But this kind of vanilla mentality is what makes Lewis’ tenure so egregious to Bengals fans. The Bengals played not to lose, but according to Herm Edwards, you play to win the game.
The Bengals can win games with Driskel. They should actually try to do that next time, because the Chargers’ offense won’t have such a hard time scoring point next week. The Bengals are going to need to keep pace with that offense, and having Driskel throw three yards slants every play won’t help.
The defense is starting to turn things around
Not that the Bengals defense will be capable of playing really well at any point this season, this game is a break from the awful dumpster fires that has been commonplace over the last two months.
There were some encouraging signs. For example, the Bengals ran more plays on offense than the Broncos and had more time of possession. That almost never happens.
Also, the Bengals held the Broncos to under 50 percent on third down. The Bengals have the worst third down defense in the NFL, so keeping the opposing offense to five of 13 is a step in the right direction.
The Bengals gave up less than 400 yards for the first time in about a month and a half. Combine that with Keenum’s mere 150 yards passing and you have yourself a very improved defense.
Now, ignore the Broncos’ 281 rushing yards for a minute. For a team that is dead last in almost every statistical category on defense, keeping only one phase of the offense in check is better than keeping no phases of the offense in check. Even though the Broncos rushed down the Bengals’ throats, which was statistically probable, the Bengals’ awful defense found stops in other places.
The Bengals defense is not perfect, but it is improved, which is all we can ask for at this point.