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Thursday night Bengals trends and a struggling defense that woke up

Reflecting on the Bengals’ win over the Ravens, a winning Thursday Night Football record and a struggling defense that woke up at the right time.

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The idea that Cincinnati struggles during Thursday night games has some validity to it.

They are well-known for collapsing during primetime games with regularity, often embarrassing themselves in the process — remember when the NFL schedule was released and we’d count the number of primetime games Cincinnati played to validate their success? Now we cringe.

Quarterbacks shudder under stadium lights, superstar wide receivers disappear, and otherwise trusted linemen become untrustworthy — looking at you, Kevin Zeitler (back in the day). The defense hasn’t fared much better, often sheltering themselves from a brewing storm of inadequacy, failing to pressure the quarterback and watching running backs breeze through rushing lanes.

NFL games are all parts for a whole; one quarterback isn’t to blame (there’s 21 other players on the field), and coaches accept a bit too much blame. There’s one consistent presence with the Bengals’ failures in the playoffs and on primetime; all these issues are laid at the feet of the sideline CEO. Failure and success is a team concept in the NFL.

Cincinnati’s historic issues on Thursday Night Football aren’t just losing (though that’s irritating too); it’s how they’ve lost.

  1. In 2013, Miami’s Cameron Wake sacked Andy Dalton in the endzone for a game-winning safety, giving the Dolphins a 22-20 overtime win. It was a rough ending to an impressive comeback. After Brett Grimes returned a pick-six 91 yards to give Miami a 17-3 lead lead, Giovani Bernard answered with a pair of touchdowns — including THAT 35-yard highlight reel of awesome — and Mike Nugent helped get to a 20-17 lead on a 54-yard field goal with 1:24 remaining.
  2. There was the embarrassing 24-3 blowout loss to the Cleveland Browns in 2014; it’s always embarrassing to lose to Cleveland. Amiright? But a blowout? The Browns defensively crushed Cincinnati, holding them to eight punts and four turnovers. Cincinnati staged their vengeance the following month (during a Sunday 1 p.m. kickoff), destroying quarterback Johnny Manziel and wiping out Cleveland 30-0. That’s more like it.
  3. Then there’s the offensive outage against Houston last year where the Bengals concluded 13 possessions with seven punts, two turnovers, three field goals and a last-play prayer. This game, and the one before it, reached an improbable milestone that hadn’t been touched since the 1939 Eagles. Things were so desperate that Cincinnati fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese within 12 hours of this 2017 game — firing a coordinator two games into a season is extraordinary, and usually not the result of on-field performances alone.

It’s easy to understand how Thursday Night Football is a curse for Cincinnati. How we feel uneasy about it, or anything primetime/playoff related. It’s our new caricature.

Yet, with the Bengals defeating Baltimore 34-23 on Thursday night, Cincinnati now sports a winning Thursday night record during the Andy Dalton era.

Go ahead. Absorb that for a moment.

It’s true.

Their TNF reversal started in 2015, with Cincinnati winning three of the last four Thursday games. Those wins came against Cleveland (2015) and Miami (2016), in addition to beating Baltimore (2018).

The Bengals opened Thursday Night Football with a scorching 28-7 lead before the Ravens responded with 16 unanswered points, inching to within five points with just more than nine minutes remaining. Thanks to a struggling defense rising to the occasion (more on that in a second), the Bengals secured two field goals to win 34-23.

For as great as Cincinnati performed against the Ravens on Thursday, I cynically refuse to build on a commentary that they’ve exorcised these primetime demons. It’s a silly narrative. Demons don’t exist. We thought Cincinnati broke its poor primetime performances in 2014 after beating Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. They’ve played three Monday Night games since, all losses, including their 2017 collapse against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Plus, there were Sunday night losses against the Steelers (Week 17 in 2014) and Arizona in 2015.

A win is a win and a loss is a loss.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Despite second half struggles, the defense rose to the occasion. Quarterback Joe Flacco found receivers in single coverage with relative ease throughout the second half, completing 21 of 34 passing for 212 yards and two touchdowns during the game’s final two periods. Many were chunk plays: Maxx Williams for 25 yards, Alex Collins for 24, and John Brown with a 21-yard fourth quarter touchdown. It wasn’t just big plays. Baltimore sustained 12 and 13-play drives, routinely winning field position or going the length of the field. Cincinnati never faced a deficit against Baltimore, but it felt as if the Bengals needed to score in order to win.

It wasn’t just bad coverage, but there was a concerning level of missed tackles. During Collins’ 22-yarder, Dre Kirkpatrick and Nick Vigil had an opportunity to drop Baltimore’s running back for a minimal 2-3 yard gain, setting up a third down. Rather than being tackled around Baltimore’s 29-yard line, Collins was shoved out of bounds just prior to midfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Bengals defenders on Thursday missed 11 tackles.

Even pass rushers struggled to finish plays. With 4:13 remaining in the third, Atkins slid off a lathered-with-butter Flacco, with Andrew Billings nearing and Carl Lawson arriving. Unfortunately, Flacco had the presence of mind to accurately hit a wide open Nick Boyle for 17 yards.

These are plays are infuriating. DROP HIM!

Two plays later, Atkins is wearing Flacco like a seatbelt. And again, Flacco successfully nails Allen for a six-yard gain and another first down.

Infuriating. Atkins should have had as many as four quarterback sacks in this game alone.

Yet, for as much as they struggled, Cincinnati’s defense rose to the occasion and sealed their victory against Baltimore.

Baltimore began chipping away at Cincinnati’s lead once the Bengals offense stalled; Kevin Huber punted on four consecutive possessions to open the second half. Eventually Andy Dalton’s offense recovered with two fourth quarter Randy Bullock field goals, but it was a relatively exhausted defense that rose up.

1) With 6:45 remaining in the third, down 28-17 on the Bengals’ 44-yard line, Baltimore went for it on fourth-and-two. Flacco hit Javorius Allen’s crossing route just beyond the line of scrimmage. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard, a sure-handed tackler, white-knuckle gripped Allen’s right ankle before the running back desperately stretched toward the first down marker. Turnover on downs.

The recent rise of Dennard articulates his importance in Cincinnati. He was the Bengals’ second-best coverage corner last year (per PFF) and the second-best tackler on defense.

2) With 2:08 remaining in the third, down 28-17 on the Ravens’ 47-yard line, Flacco took a shot from Carlos Dunlap, causing Mr. Elite to knuckleball a floater. Safety Shawn Williams settled under the fly ball for the interception.

“Oh my God. I went back to center field in freaking high school,” Williams said. “I waited on it and waited on it. I was hoping nobody would come out of nowhere to knock it down. As long as it was in the air for 38 seconds, I didn’t take my eyes off it.”

3) John Brown’s 21-yard touchdown — with blanket coverage from Dre Kirkpatrick — reduced Cincinnati’s lead to 28-23. The Ravens elected to go for two. Flacco took the shotgun snap and targeted Allen about three yards deep in the endzone. Williams disrupted the pass just enough for the incompletion. This crucial defensive effort prevented Baltimore from possibly tying the game with a Justin Tucker field goal; in other words it forced Baltimore to score a touchdown. There are no easy touchdowns in Cincinnati, son.

4) Perhaps the play of the game: With 2:52 remaining in the fourth from their own 25-yard line, down 31-23, a blitzing Williams dislodged the ball behind Flacco. Jordan Willis secured the fumble and Cincinnati secured the win with a Randy Bullock 40-yard field goal.

This game presented a similar “tale of two halves” to last week, when the Bengals started slow and came on at the end. The biggest difference here is that whereas Indianapolis collapsed, the Bengals recovered late.

“Coach preached about being a fourth-quarter team all year, and being able to win the battles when they count,” Kirkpatrick said after Thursday’s game. “We did a great job of rallying to the ball, finishing plays and making the corrections on the sidelines, and we got the win today.”

Welcome to the NFL, kids. It wasn’t long after Cincinnati released veteran George Iloka that rookie safety Jessie Bates found his footing. During last week’s opener against Indianapolis, Bates allowed three receptions for only two yards and made eight tackles.

He quickly set the tone for Cincinnati’s outbreak against Baltimore. After both teams exchanged punts to open the game, the Ravens resumed from their own 18-yard line with 12:24 remaining in the first. Michael Crabtree, split wide left, ran a crossing pattern with William Jackson shadowing him step-for-step. Bates, playing center field, breaked on the route just before Flacco inaccurately led Crabtree too far.

Bates’ first career interception is the dream Cincinnati’s turnover-driven coaching staff is preaching this year. If you watch carefully, Bates’ instinct impressively kicks in, jumping on the route before Flacco released it — Flacco might not have even been looking at Crabtree before Bates broke. The second round rookie finished with three tackles, an interception, a pass defensed, and no receptions allowed.

Rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard had a memorable debut at Paul Brown Stadium as well, posting his first career quarterback sack, five tackles, two for loss, and an additional quarterback hit.

This kid is good.

It isn’t just quarterback pressures either.

The Ravens have second down from their own 39-yard line with 11:15 remaining in the second. Flacco took the shotgun snap and handed off to Allen. Baltimore’s running back proceeded down the line of scrimmage before finding a lane where Hubbard was waiting for him. The rookie grabbed the running back’s shoulders and whipped him around for a seven-yard loss.

While Hubbard was awarded with the stop, this was a combined effort — Hubbard gives me an excuse to talk about this play. Ryan Glasgow demolished center Matt Skura, forcing Allen to run parallel to the line of scrimmage. Hubbard, swatting away James Hurst, compounded Baltimore’s issues by congesting the area with ineffective Ravens blockers. Dennard, blitzing off the edge, sealed Allen’s fate by stalling his progress entirely, allowing Hubbard to finish the job.

It’s possible Baltimore attempted to get cute with a design that had Allen pitching to Lamar Jackson. Baltimore will never learn... you don’t get cute against the Bengals.

“It was a blast,” Hubbard said after the game. “It was a little bit hot but it was a blast. The first primetime game.”