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A surprising defensive resurgence nearly carried the Bengals to their first win

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Cincinnati may be becoming what we hoped they could be.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Oakland Raiders
Jessie Bates
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

To paraphrase former head coach Dennis Green, maybe we truly are what we thought we were.

For the first time since the season-opening loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the Cincinnati Bengals showed the kind of ability that we all had hoped they were capable of when they held the Oakland Raiders to just 17 points, including a lone field goal in the second half.

Unfortunately, not even a quarterback change could help the anemic offense look anything like what Tyler Boyd and others envisioned before the season, and the Bengals dropped an encouraging/discouraging 17-10 contest Sunday afternoon for its 10th straight loss, and their 19th loss in their last 21 games.

“I thought overall that the defense played with the energy that we’ve expected them to play with all year,” head coach Zac Taylor told reporters after the game. “They were swarming to the ball which we challenged them to do as a group, rushing attack we were facing, and then they created the turnovers that really should have given us an opportunity to win the game and we just couldn’t get it done.”

Cincinnati’s defense forced a pair of turnovers. The first came when mammoth defensive tackle Josh Tupou punched the ball out of the arms of Raiders running back Josh Jacobs, and linebacker Nick Vigil recovered. The Bengals were able to turn that break into their only touchdown of the day.

The second came on a Jessie Bates III interception that proved to be the first third-down interception Derek Carr had thrown all season. It was also Bates’ second game in a row with an interception.

The Raiders came into the game with just eight turnovers all season on four interceptions from Carr and four lost fumbles.

“We didn’t do anything different,” Bates explained. “We didn’t put in any new defense or anything. I just think we played very well as a whole defense. We played very physical. We controlled the front. Like I said, it’s a testament to us how well we can play and the potential that we have as a defense.”

The defensive effort wasn’t perfect, but it was so much better than it had been. Sunday marked the second week in a row that the Bengals have held the opposing offense to under 400 yards. Oakland managed 386 total yards and was just 2-for-4 in the red zone.

Against Baltimore, total yards didn’t mean a lot. But Sunday was a different story, and the Bengals were in this one right up to the very end—thanks to that defense.

Carr had another impressive performance, completing 25 of 29 passes for 292 yards and a touchdown, and an overall passer rating of 105.7. But the Bengals harassed him throughout much of the afternoon, and didn’t make it easy getting throws off.

Cincinnati, going up against an Oakland front that had allowed only 12 sacks all season, sacked Carr three times and recorded a total of seven quarterback hits. Geno Atkins was credited with 1.5 of those sacks to go along with a pair of quarterback hits. Carlos Dunlap got credit for a half sack and a quarterback hit, Carl Lawson had a sack and two quarterback hits and Sam Hubbard accounted for the other two quarterback hits.

Jacobs gashed the Bengals’ defense for 112 yards on 23 carries, an average of 4.9 yards per carry, but his costly fumble allowed Cincinnati to keep things close. Overall, however, Oakland managed just 113 yards on the ground on 34 carries for an average of 3.3 yards per carry.

Jacobs’ longest run was for 21 yards, but was one of nine plays of at least 20 yards that the Raiders posted on the afternoon.

“That’s something we still need to work on, eliminating explosive plays and we’re not doing that right now,” Bates said. “So, you know we got the turnovers, we got the sacks. Now the next thing is, is eliminating the explosive plays and continuing to stop the run.”

And the middle of the field continued to be a problem. Raiders’ tight end Darren Waller boasted five receptions for 78 yards and fellow tight end Foster Moreau was wide open for an easy touchdown in the second quarter. Slot receiver Hunter Renfrow broke free for 66 yards on five receptions.

But the effort was there, and the optimism that the play of the defense generated actually seemed to be authentic.

“Guys were just playing football,” said rookie linebacker Germaine Pratt. “Flying around playing football. Running to the ball, just trying to get win.”

And maybe, just maybe, the offense will finally decide to hold up its end of the bargain. If and when that happens, and if the defense continues to make progress, the Bengals should finally be able to break into the win column. Then the Bengals may even start to become what we all hoped they would be when this season started—winners.