As bad as the Bengals looked at times, the fact that they walked out of U.S. Bank Stadium as 10-point losers is actually kind of encouraging.
Yes, there were some bad moments, but the Bengals had a chance to tie the game with three minutes left before disaster struck.
A loss is still a loss, but this one wasn’t so discouraging.
The Bengals will head into Atlanta next week to face off with the Falcons. But before we start thinking about the next game, here is what we learned from the close game with the Panthers.
The defense misses Brown and Burfict
When the Bengals finally get Preston Brown and Vontaze Burfict back in the lineup, this defense will look completely different.
Right now, the linebacker corps of Nick Vigil, Hardy Nickerson, and Jordan Evans scares nobody.
First of all, the defense seemed unprepared to handle the Panthers’ offense. At times, they seemed surprised that the Panthers have a quarterback that tends to run the ball. It would be one thing if Cam Newton just beat the defense with his athleticism and competitiveness. But it seemed like they had no idea how to defend him, as if they didn’t have ten days to prepare for this style of offense.
Second of all, there were so many missed tackles in the game and most of them were from the linebackers. Nickerson in particular was a repeat offender, allowing five-yard gains to turn into 10+ yard gains several times. It didn’t help that by the time running back Christian McCaffrey got to the linebackers, he had a full head of steam—but we’ll get to that later.
Jordan Evans was the only linebacker that had a good game, as he didn’t miss any tackles and wasn’t even targeted in coverage. But he was off the field every time the defense was in the nickel formation, which was part of the problem. He was the best linebacker on the team on Sunday, and the Bengals didn’t even let him see the field as often as he should have.
As good as Evans is, though, he is no Burfict. No. 55 is just one of those players that you can’t replace. His intensity and aggression might have made a huge difference in this game and been a major boost for the linebackers.
But the Bengals will be without Burfict for one more week, so they have to figure something out until then if they don’t want to get picked apart by Matt Ryan.
The defense also missed Michael Johnson
The veteran defensive end and team captain was inactive due to an injury he suffered last Thursday against the Ravens. While, optimistically, this meant more snaps for the young and talented pass rushers behind him, it also meant that they would be missing his leadership on the field.
The defensive line was in shambles compared to where it should have been on Sunday. Yes, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins played like we are accustomed to seeing as they combined for 11 tackles, but the line as a whole took a huge step back.
The Panthers’ offensive line was missing three starters, so it should have been an easy day for the linemen. Instead, they recorded one sack, one tackle for a loss, and one quarterback hit. Throughout the whole game, there was a lack of pressure on Newton, which helped him score a passer rating of 108.
In the rushing game, they played a huge part in allowing McCaffrey to rack up a career-high 182 yards. The defensive line got manhandled by the Panthers’ banged-up offensive line. Too many times, McCaffrey would make it five yards past the line of scrimmage before making contact, which is a large part of why the linebackers played so poorly.
The only missing piece of the line was Johnson. Perhaps it was his experience that the Bengals missed, or maybe it was that he is an extra coach on the field. Either way, something needs to change on the defensive line before the next game in Atlanta.
John Ross needs to get his act together
John Ross is catching passes in 2018, so he is technically doing better than he did last year. But the bar is much higher than that for first-round draft picks, so he still has a lot to do.
Dalton targeted Ross seven times, completing three of those passes for 16 yards and throwing two picks.
One interception that Dalton meant to throw to Ross was just a terrible pass. But that play, along with several others, showed that Dalton and Ross are not on the same page. Dalton missed Ross deep earlier in the game with a ball that looked totally playable. But Ross didn’t switch to that last gear, and the ball fell incomplete.
While Ross has been an effective decoy and helped other receivers get one-on-one coverage downfield, Ross has been uninspiring when the ball was thrown to him. He doesn’t seem to be finishing his routes, which is something that A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd criticized him for after the game.
Finishing the play could have been the difference between an interception and an incomplete pass on Dalton’s first pick of the game. As it stands, the Panthers scored 10 points off of interception thrown while targeting Ross in a 10-point game.
The whole John Ross picture is becoming more clear now. Marvin Lewis insisted on benching Ross last season because he wasn’t ready to play in the NFL. Now, Lewis is finally playing him, and it turns out that Ross still isn’t ready to play in the NFL.
Green and Boyd will work with him on whatever issues he is having, but it might be wise to limit Ross’ snaps until he works through it.
Tyler Boyd is emerging
While A.J. Green draws a lot of well-deserved attention, Tyler Boyd is quietly becoming one of Andy Dalton’s favorite targets.
Boyd recorded his first career 100-yard game, with 132 yards on six catches and a score. With Green out with a groin injury for a large part of the game, Boyd really stepped up and kept the game close.
Not only do Boyd’s stats look good, but it looks like he is really forming a bond with Dalton. Boyd’s two longest catches, one of which was a touchdown, were when Dalton was scrambling and Boyd followed him to the sidelines.
Dalton is clearly putting his trust in Boyd, who is now leading the team in receiving yards this season and is only one reception behind Green.
Tyler Eifert is back to his 2015 self
Speaking of Tylers, another huge piece of the Bengals offense is back.
Tyler Eifert had his best game on Sunday since Week 10 of 2016. He caught 6 passes for 74 yards, but the catches he made were impressive. He was contacted on nearly every reception he made, but he had a good grip on the ball every time. His ability to highpoint the ball and hold onto it with his strong hands is what makes him such a threat in this offense, so it’s good to see him back.
While Marvin Lewis wanted to bring him along slowly, the Bengals’ offense is now going full Eifert. He is healthy for the first time in nearly two years and not afraid to get hit.
This will be good, as the Bengals are in the middle of a tough stretch of games and clinging onto first place in the division.