In just about every game there are maybe a half-dozen plays that really determine the outcome.
This was certainly true about all the close games the Bengals have been in, but it was true this weekend as well. The Bengals lost to the Cowboys 30-7, but even in the 4th quarter, the game was still within reach.
Here are eight plays that could have drastically changed the outcome of the game if they had gone differently.
We’ll start with the three most obvious plays, the three fumbles that led to 17 points for the Cowboys in the 1st half.
After passing for a nice gain on the first play of the game, the Bengals went to the ground.
Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence got off the block of right tackle Bobby Hart. This shouldn’t have mattered because, Lawrence went outside of Hart and Giovani Bernard should have been long gone by the time he got there.
Unfortunately, the offensive line failed to open up a hole for him, so Bernard was still at the line of scrimmage when Lawrence came from behind and knocked out the ball.
This gave the Cowboys the ball at the Bengals’ 32-yard-line, already in field goal range for Greg Zuerlein. The Bengals defense gave up a first down, but tightened up in the red zone and forced the Cowboys to settle for a field goal.
The Bengals’ offense bounced back and moved the ball effectively on the next drive. Quarterback Brandon Allen was 4/4 on the as the team crossed into the red zone.
On 2nd and 3 from the 20-yard-line, they handed the ball off to Trayveon Williams. Lawrence, once again played a key-role in this turnover. He stunted into the B-gap which forced right guard Quinton Spain to block him.
As a result, the front-side combo block between Spain and Trey Hopkins failed to reach the second level and the linebacker went unblocked. As Williams followed his pulling tackle, Hakeem Adeniji, into the hole, there were two linebackers, and Adeniji was the only blocker. There was nowhere to go.
Williams got tight to Adeniji, looking to pick up as many positive yards as possible, but he got too close. As he ran into Adeniji, the ball came out. Defensive end Aldon Smith picked it up and ran it back 78 yards for the Cowboys touchdown.
At this point in the game, the Bengals’ defense had given up only one 1st Down, and yet the Cowboys had scored 10 points. The fumble resulted in seven points for the Cowboys, but since the Bengals were already in field-goal range, it was at least a 10 point swing.
The defense did not have a chance to respond to the second fumble, but the offense did. They put another strong drive, steadily moving the ball down the field. They got all the way to the 15-yard-line where they faced 4th and 1.
They could have kicked a field goal and come away from this drive with three points, but trailing by ten at the beginning of the 2nd quarter, Zac Taylor decided to go for it.
The Cowboys stuffed the box and crowded the line of scrimmage. From under center, Allen sent Alex Erickson in motion and gave him the ball on a jet sweep.
This is not a popular play call and not one would I generally like on 4th and 1, but it made sense based on the defense’s alignment. The linebackers were playing tight to the line of scrimmage so the only player in position to flow and make a tackle was safety Darian Thompson, but he was too deep to prevent Erickson from gaining the one yard he needed. In fact, Erickson did gain enough yardage to pick up the 1st Down. The problem is that when Thompson got there, he managed to knock the ball out of Erickson’s hands.
The Cowboys scored on the ensuing drive, but while you can blame the offense for not coming out of their drive with at least three points, you can’t put the blame for the Cowboys’ score on them. Quarterback Andy Dalton had to take his unit 88 yards for the touchdown. Unlike the 1st fumble the defense had an opportunity to prevent a score of any kind, but they failed to do so.
The defense cannot be let off of the hook for this one, but turnovers by the offense directly caused the first 10 points of the game and prevented the Bengals from coming away with at least six points from field goals.
At this point in the game the Bengals zero punts and zero points on 3 drives. Conversely, the Cowboys scored 17 points without putting their kickoff return or punt return team on the field once. If the Bengals could have held onto the ball, it easily could have been 7-6 instead of 17-to-nothing.
The offense responded on the next drive. They finally managed to hold onto the football and drive 77 yards for a touchdown before halftime.
3rd Quarter Hold
Not unlike what happened in the 1st half, the second offensive play of the 2nd half cost them dearly. Bernard ran for 2 yards, which should have set up a convertible 3rd and 5, but Hart was called for a rather obvious and unnecessary hold. This pushed them back to 2nd and 17.
With a limited quarterback and who they struggle to protect, they cannot put themselves in 10-plus yardage situations. The Bengals gained positive yards on 2nd and 3rd Down, but not enough to move the chains.
3rd Quarter Drop
They managed to pick up 1st Down on the next drive. Then on 2nd and 6 Allen threw a slant to a wide-open Tee Higgins for what should have been a 1st down, but Higgins dropped the pass.
Higgins took his eye off of the ball, trying to run with the ball before he had secured it. It’s important for receivers to gain yards after the catch, especially when you have a limited quarterback, but they cannot afford drops when you know your opportunities are going to be limited.
The resulting 3rd and 6 was certainly not an insurmountable situation to be in, but they failed to convert.
The Bengals have not scored in the 3rd quarter since Week 4, but this week’s failure after halftime had nothing to do with scheme adjustments. The Bengals made two big mistakes on 2nd Down that killed these drives.
As the 3rd Quarter neared its end, safety Jessie Bates III had an opportunity for an interception with a ton of room to run, but he couldn’t make the play.
The Bengals were trailing 20-7 after giving up 17 points off of turnovers and being shut out in the 3rd quarter once again. This was an opportunity to address both issues with one play. If Bates made this play and took it to the house, the Bengals would have been down one score heading into the 4th Quarter.
4th Quarter Hold
I know why they called a hold on Spain here, but Perine was long gone pic.twitter.com/C9TYWc5NLh— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 14, 2020
The Bengals got the ball back as the 4th quarter started and put together a nice drive. They took the ball 80 yards for a touchdown, making it a one-score game, but wait... there was a flag on the play. Samaje Perine’s 13-yard touchdown run was called back as Quinton Spain was flagged for holding. The penalty was legit, but Perine was long gone by the time it occurred. Spain should have just let go as the defender got off the block.
This penalty pushed them back to 1st and 17 on the 20-yard-line.
He had so much success going to AJ over the middle in this game, I don’t know why Allen didn’t look at him on 4th and 7 in the Red Zone pic.twitter.com/AWUFIzaCBp— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 13, 2020
On 4th and 7, Allen could have gone to A.J. Green on the slant route, a connection that had been very successful throughout the game, but feeling the pressure, he sailed a ball out of the back corner of the end zone.
If the Bengals scored a touchdown on this drive, they would have been down by only six points with over seven minutes remaining (close to nine minutes if the 1st touchdown had counted), two timeouts, and a defense that was playing well.
This game was very much within their reach despite losing the turnover battler 3-0 not being able to do anything offensively in the 3rd Quarter.
The Bengals need to figure out how to get out of their own way and make the plays they need to make to win the game.