It’s going to be hard to win a game with a minus-five turnover margin.
Still, the Bengals have a lot to be proud of. Better teams have scored fewer points against this prolific defense. The offense looked great in the first half before they started turning the ball over. The defense played about as well as you could have asked them to.
But the one thing that was “not the problem” with this offense lost the game.
Andy Dalton tossed four picks, which tied a career high. Despite the Bengals receivers getting “bullied,” none of the interceptions had anything to do with that. They were either ill-advised throws or just plain misses.
The Bengals looked evenly matched for the most part. Yet they found a way to blow it anyways. It only took about ten minutes for the Bengals to go from tied to down by 17 points.
We actually learned a lot from this disaster of a game.
The running game is the staple of the offense
Joe Mixon may be afraid to ask Tom Brady for his jersey, but he’s not afraid to cram the ball down the defense’s throat.
One of the ways to beat quarterbacks like Tom Brady is to keep them on the sidelines. Winning the time of possession battle is a huge help, and the running the ball can play a significant factor.
The Bengals have put a lot of emphasis on the run game of late, and it’s paying off. Not only is Mixon playing the best football of his career, but Giovani Bernard has also greatly improved over the last few weeks. Both rushed for 5.4 yards per carry against the Patriots.
Unfortunately, as the game wore on, the Bengals’ the run game could do little to help the offense.
In the third quarter, Andy Dalton was four for eight with three interceptions. You would think that the Bengals abandoned the run game and put too much responsibility on Dalton. Mixon ran the ball seven times in that quarter for 43 yards.
Even though this is pretty close to evenly balanced, Mixon ran the ball twice as much as Dalton threw it in the first half. Mixon had 16 carries in the first half for 109 yards, compared to Dalton’s eight passing attempts for 55 yards.
The Bengals dug themselves into a hole with 5 turnovers, and fell so far behind that they had no choice but pass. However, four of those five turnovers were interceptions, so you could say bad passing forced them to keep passing.
The Patriots scored 20 points in the second and third quarter, and 14 of those points were off of interceptions.
Is this to say that the Bengals should just stop passing? You could make that argument, but that’s not what I’m trying to say here. The point of all this is to say that the Bengals are now a run-first team. If they can’t run the ball well, then they won’t be able to score points.
The offensive line has improved dramatically
The offensive line has been the bane of the Bengals over the last few years. Some injuries, some early retirements, and some whiffs in free agency has crippled the line, and by extension the team.
The Bengals have put in a lot of work on the line recently, and it has paid off. Part of it was getting Cordy Glenn back, part of it is scheme, and part of it is coaching.
This line is so much better that even Bobby Hart looks like a serviceable tackle.
Bobby Hart is experiencing his best three game stretch of his career. He's allowed just one pressure in the last three weeks (117 pass snaps).— Jeaux Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) December 16, 2019
The line is a huge reason why Mixon has had an explosion of production, but it is also doing what it can to help the passing game. Dalton was not sacked at all and pressured very little. This is not at all what we have come to expect from this group.
If this line looks this good, imagine what the staff can do when Jonah Williams comes back. What could happen if they decided to sign a free agent lineman, or add one via the draft?
The defense is far from worst in the league
Earlier this season, the Bengals’ defense was without a doubt the worst in the league.
But if before the season I told you that Brady would complete barely half of his passes for 4.4 yards an attempt, would you take it? Of course you would.
The Patriots wide receivers who caught passes only gained 37 total yards in this game. The passing game was barely a factor.
The Patriots did a better job running the ball, grinding out 5.5 yard per carry. But if you take Rex Burkhead’s 33-yard touchdown out of the equation, then they only gained 4.6 yards per rush. Not great, but below the season average.
The real killer were the screen passes. This is the Patriots’ bread and butter, so it was going to be hard to stop no matter what. But even then, Patriots running backs only combined for 60 yards receiving. Could have been a lot worse.
If you take away the points off of turnovers, the Bengals’ defense only gave up 17 points. The fact that they kept Alex Erickson’s muffed punt to just a field goal is another win for the defense.
This isn’t the defense that will win the Bengals’ championships, and there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. But the defense isn’t losing any games for this team. If the offense didn’t give away the ball five times, this defense would have done enough to win the game.