Unfortunately, even though the Cincinnati Bengals played better this week against the AFC South-leading Tennessee Titans, it wasn’t enough to secure a win. Weird issues with the team that harken back to the middle years of the Marvin Lewis era, as well as even back to the 1990s, seem to be characteristics of this year’s squad.
Cincinnati came close, but ended up folding in critical situations, as they fell to 3-6. Here are the best and worst from the Bengals in their 24-20 loss to Tennessee.
The starting wide receiver duo: Brandon LaFell has had trouble finding a niche this year, but had one of the best games of his career against Tennessee. Aside from racking up six catches for 95 yards and a touchdown, he was also seen talking with John Ross on the sideline in what looked like a mentor-type of role.
Meanwhile, it’s amazing what happens when you feed your best players the football. Green moved the sticks with three of his five catches, but the fifth was a 70-yard beauty that seemed to have grabbed Cincinnati an improbable victory.
The young first round corners: Dre Kirkpatrick had some ups and downs on Sunday and Adam Jones left with a concussion. Darqueze Dennard and William Jackson stepped in and played pretty well in their stead.
Dennard had a pick that set up a Mixon touchdown, while Jackson had a tackle for loss and a solid day in coverage, despite one defensive holding penalty. Even though Dennard struggled with consistency and injuries the first three years of his career, he’s had a solid fourth season, while Jackson looks to be the real deal when he’s out there.
Rushing the passer: Sure, Marcus Mariota had 51 yards on the ground, but his athleticism also got him into trouble on Sunday. He was brought down three times and pressured a few more by a myriad of Bengals.
Chris Smith, Geno Atkins and Carl Lawson all got in on the fun in various capacities. One would think that the ceiling remains high for this group going forward, as Lawson is only 23 years old and Smith is 25, while Jordan Willis is just 22.
Special teams players not named Randy Bullock: Let’s forget the Bengals’ veteran kicker for now. Kevin Huber had a solid day with three of his seven punts landing inside of the Titans’ 20-yard line, while getting a 47.7-yard average on his kicks.
Meanwhile, the explosive Adoree Jackson was largely held in check by the coverage teams, as evidenced by his long punt return of nine yards. Brandon Wilson was a nice addition to the unit, as he helped to pin one of Huber’s punts at the one-yard line.
Rebounding from an awful loss and almost squeaking out a season-changing win: I guess now is the time to try and find moral victories, now that the Bengals are 3-6 on the season. After laying an egg in a very important game last week in Jacksonville, Cincinnati did put forth much more effort and nearly secured a win that could have propelled them back into the AFC playoff picture.
Inability to stop any offensively creative plays: Whether it was in Mariota-designed run plays, Tennessee’s tight end Delanie Walker, or the Titans’ usage of Jackson on offense, Paul Guenther didn’t have a solid answer for his defensive unit in a critical game. Walker was the leading receiver on the day with six receptions for 63 yards, while Mariota, DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry combined for 31 carries, 145 yards and two scores on the ground. Jackson added 30 yards on just three carries as utility player.
Bill Lazor’s abandonment of his stars: It’s weird what happens when you give your best players the football. After a bunch of pedestrian-like plays and a couple of missed throws by Andy Dalton to A.J. Green, they dialed up a slant that the Pro Bowl wideout took 70 yards to the house. Why didn’t they feed Green more—particularly with other safe throws?
Meanwhile, the rushing attack was abysmal once again (more on that later). However, one could argue that Mixon was putting together some of the better runs of his rookie year. Entering Week 10, Mixon was averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, but had over four yards per carry against the Titans.
The problem? Cincinnati only attempted 14 rushes on the afternoon, with Mixon getting nine of them. Yes, the offensive line was struggling, but with some many contested passes getting tipped away from other targets in the second half and with so many three-and-outs, wouldn’t you try to milk a little clock and give the defense a breather with more running attempts?
The offensive line: Somehow, Andre Smith managed to get a 87.6 grade from Pro Football Focus this week, which was surprising, given his illegal block penalty early on and the Bengals’ overall struggles on offense. Cincinnati managed just 53 net rushing yards on 14 carries, which came to a pedestrian-like 3.8 yards per carry average.
And, oh, Cedric Ogbuehi. We hate to pile on players who continue to struggle on a team that is underachieving, but the former first round pick just isn’t cutting it on the left side. He was beaten badly by Brian Orakpo to allow a sack and fumble, which led to a DeMarco Murray rushing touchdown.
The run defense: Speaking of Murray, the once-proud Bengals defense had trouble corralling he, Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota on the ground. The trio combined for 31 carries for 145 yards and two scores.
Mariota ran wild on both designed and broken plays, proving that the Bengals still can’t properly defend a multi-dimensional quarterback. Tennessee’s three biggest ground weapons churned out 4.7 yards per carry against Cincinnati.
Paul Guenther’s inability to inject the clutch gene into the defense: Aside from familiar 2017 issues like failing to stop the run, the Bengals’ defense just isn’t stepping up in big ways this year. Sure, they are often fatigued because of long dry spells by the offense, but this unit is a shadow of itself.
On Sunday, they committed six penalties on third downs, which were mid and long-range situations, to give the Titans free first downs. Additionally, they allowed a touchdown on Tennessee’s opening drive, a field goal on another right before halftime and another touchdown on the Titans’ last possession of the game. You simply aren’t going to win when you allow 17 points on the road in the three most important possessions of the game.
Likely looking to 2018 now: Well, with six losses on the year, including five within the conference and/or division, it appears as if Cincinnati is once again looking to next year. One has to feel sorry for players like Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins and A.J. Green, who are now entering the later stages of their respectively great careers.
For the fans, it seems as if the one, long gut-punch that the base has experienced since January of 2016 isn’t getting any better. Coaching, offensive line and roster construction processes should be part of the re-evaluation process now that the playoffs look like a pipe dream.
Third down efficiency on offense: Lazor’s unit was absolutely brutal on the most important down. With so many high-profile players drafted in high rounds in recent years, it seems totally unbelievable that Cincinnati’s offense converted just 1-of-10 tries on third down.
Yet, that was the case this Sunday in Nashville.
Rushing offense: This plays into what we talked about earlier, but it also presents an issue of a team identity crisis. What do the Bengals truly do well—especially on offense?
Over the past five seasons, Cincinnati has invested three second round picks on exciting running backs.
Yet, save for 2014, the Bengals haven’t ever really been consistently outstanding running the football. It’s been especially bad this year, mostly thanks to Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Whitworth leaving in free agency.
Against the Titans, Cincinnati had just 14 rushes for 53 yards and a 3.8 yards per carry average.