As our good friend Joe Goodberry proclaimed yesterday: “When you lose, there’s 100 reasons why.”
Football is best when it’s simple, and teams would love to focus on just a couple aspects after a loss to improve upon. This is just never the case, as a 10-point loss likely points to a multitude of in-game issues that contributed to the defeat: ineffective use of personnel, a notable lack of certain personnel, or simply missed opportunities.
With all that said, sometimes you can point to a specific stretch of plays that pretty clearly turned the tides of the game and set it on the course it would ultimately end at.
The most talked about play from Sunday’s loss at Carolina is quarterback Andy Dalton’s third interception of the game and second that targeted wide receiver John Ross. I’m of the belief that the handful of plays that lead to that fateful play deserve to be mentioned in reflection.
Here are the four plays that essentially decided the Bengals first loss of the 2018 regular season.
Play 1: third-and-11 for Carolina, ball on Cincinnati’s 39-yard line
Trailing by a touchdown, the Bengals have to get the Panthers off the field on this third down to force at the very least a long field goal for the Panthers. The Bengals four-man pass rush deploys two tackle-end twists, with one that works in their favor, and one that doesn’t. Defensive end Carl Lawson and defensive tackle Geno Atkins get great push near the bottom of screen, forcing quarterback Cam Newton to try and escape the pocket to his right.
The problem is that the opposite twisting defensive tackle, Sam Hubbard, tries to finish his rush against the inside shoulder of the right tackle, and ultimately loses contain on Newton. When Newton looks to his right to run, he sees nothing but daylight and gets enough yardage to put his team in reasonable field goal range to make it a 10-point game.
But as Newton saved them, he also temporarily destroyed them.
Newton was called for Unsportsmanlike Conduct after the play was over for an action that we never quite see. Supposedly, he ends up throwing the ball down at Dunlap who tackled him at the end of the play and no one on the Bengals defense was happy to see that.
The flag took the Panthers from fourth-and-four at the 32 yard-line where a 49-yard field goal was awaiting place kicker Graham Gano, to a fourth-and-19 at the 47-yard line, where the Panthers would end up punting.
Play 2: fourth-and-19 for Carolina, ball on Cincinnati’s 47-yard line
It’s hard to not say that this play changed things more than anything else that comes after it. The Bengals got a lucky break that gave them a chance to tie the game up instead of playing behind two scores, but they would presumably have to drive down the length of the field to do so. Hubbard was so close to making up for his break of contain on this punt.
Football is a game of inches right? Sometimes it sucks when those inches aren’t enough for your team. Hubbard is able to burst through the Panthers line basically untouched and has a clear chance of blocking the ball back into punter Michael Palardy’s face. Hubbard gets his fingertips on the ball, and that does enough to knock off about 10-yards worth of distance, but if Hubbard gets a healthy dose of that ball on his hands, he might’ve been able to pick it up and score it. At the very least, the Bengals offense is starting from well inside Panthers territory.
But alas, the punt travels to punt returner Alex Erickson inside the Bengals’ 20-yard line, where they would start their drive with just over four minutes remaining in the game.
Play 3: first-and-10 for Cincinnati, ball on Cincinnati’s 17-yard line
There aren’t many things I’m sure about in this game, but one of them I’ll go to grave with is pulling blockers across the formation in pass protection to handle untouched edge rushers is always an awful idea. The Bengals thought it’d be best to try it with tight end Tyler Kroft on this play action pass. The end result is as sad as it was expected.
Not only does Kroft not stand a chance in trying to scrape across the formation to negate defensive end Efe Obada unrelenting pass rush, left tackle Cordy Glenn gets beat inside at the same time. Glenn had an awful day in pass protection, and if Kroft by some chance makes his block, Glenn gives up the sack regardless.
With the all-22 angle, we can see the routes Dalton is working with downfield are naturally lengthy in development because of the time it takes for the play fake to ensue. Dalton’s best option is to dump the ball off to running back Giovani Bernard in the flat, but there’s just no time for him to do anything. The sack sets the Bengals back 10 yards and decide to take another shot downfield in a second-and-long situation close to their own end zone.
Play 4: second-and-20 for Cincinnati, ball on Cincinnati’s seven-yard line
This is the nail in the proverbial coffin. Hubbard’s nearly blocked kick and the Panthers sacking of Dalton put the Bengals in a tough spot with a lot of field to cover. A lot of you have preconceived feelings about this play and already have the blame set in your minds, but it really was a case of both parties being at fault. Those parties being Dalton and Ross of course.
On first glance, without seeing the whole field and the play developing from Dalton’s perspective, this looks like it’s all on Ross. The nonchalantness of the receiver at the top of his route puts him in a bad light when the ball sails over him while he’s blissfully unaware of what is happening at the moment.
That aspect remains true, because you want your receivers to be looking back at the ball after that much time has passed. But why was the ball thrown so inaccurately to where Ross ended up?
The all-22 has the answers.
since marvin won't answer any more questions about it, we'll do the work for ourselves. pic.twitter.com/2fgKsmnazg— john sheeran (@John__Sheeran) September 24, 2018
The Bengals are trying to run a scissors concept with Ross and slot receiver Tyler Boyd on the field side of the play. The scissors concept involves a post and corner route ran by the two receivers on the same side of the field, when both routes intersect with one another, it looks like an open pair of scissors. Dalton obviously knew what route Ross was running but he threw the ball like Ross was running a go route.
The field side safety had to make a choice on this play: take away the inside of Ross’ post route and help out the boundary corner, or scrape over the route and go towards Boyd running the corner route. The safety chooses the latter, and his path towards there interrupts Ross’ route, forcing an adjustment on Ross’ part. At this point, Dalton wants to get the ball out and sees Ross keep with the vertical stem and not yet break towards the middle of the field. He decides to throw it on that assumption and doesn’t let Ross finish his route.
You can assign majority blame to whoever you want, but the facts are: Dalton and Ross both messed up in separate ways and neither’s actions can be dismissed. However, the circumstances that led to this play were so very vital that it was unfair to pin the entire loss on just one play. And there were even more instances that contributed to this loss, but these four consecutive plays are what really set the Bengals back to a place they couldn’t recover from.