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The Armchair Quarterback: A game of inches

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The team’s most recent loss exhibited familiar coaching gaffes, questionable decisions on personnel, while creating long-term questions.

Cincinnati Bengals v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

By now, both the team and the fans have moved on from the Bengals’ loss to the Chargers and are gearing up for the Week 15 matchup against the Raiders. Both Oakland and Cincinnati are in the unfortunate quagmire of jockeying for draft position, so that contest has an important, albeit different importance.

Even though we’ve dissected the film from Week 14 against Los Angeles, there are some issues from the contest that have not only been prevalent throughout this disappointing season, but also point to a need for change on multiple fronts next year.

Questionable decisions on personnel continue to give predictable results

It’s hard to keep piling on Marvin Lewis for a number of reasons. After all, he’s generally a nice man and is the guy who also brought the Bengals out of the “Dark Ages”.

Yet, after the team is set for its third straight non-winning record, patience is wearing very thin. There seems to be certain players whom Lewis favors more than others and it continues to be a detriment to the team. I suppose that every coach “plays favorites” in one form or another, but certain stats and metrics just don’t lie.

The latest example of this came on Sunday in the form of Christian Westerman. He was thrown in at left guard because of both Clint Boling’s filling in for Cordy Glenn at left tackle and Trey Hopkins’ struggles at the spot.

The result? Westerman was one of the highest-rated Bengals players on Sunday, per Pro Football Focus.

Look, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: PFF shouldn’t be taken as absolute football scripture. Their metrics are good barometers and often point to viable projections, but there is still room for eye tests and gut feelings in football.

Still, even us dopes who aren’t employed by PFF or NFL franchises can see when certain players obviously affect a game. Westerman is one of those players and aside from high PFF ratings, other tangible results can be seen.

Westerman has been a preseason all-star the past three summers, but that success has leaked into the regular season as well. The third-year offensive lineman started two games last season and, not coincidentally, the team went 2-0.

In Week 16 against the Detroit Lions, Giovani Bernard had a 100-yard rushing day, en route to a playoff-eliminating win over Matthew Stafford’s crew. The duo of Bernard and Mixon took it to the Ravens on the ground in the final week of the season as well, grinding out 148 yards on 28 carries.

Then, this Sunday, when Westerman was finally given a substantial on-field workload (Lewis’ hand was forced because of injuries and poor play along the line), the running game came alive again. Mixon rushed for 111 yards and a score, as the beleaguered Bengals almost came out with a win.

So, what else is it going to take for Lewis and his cronies to change their minds about Westerman?

And, therein lies one of the few major flaws of Lewis. In his tenure here, he’s had a track record of not trusting certain players early on in their careers. Evan Mathis’ stint is probably the most obvious, especially with the positional parallel, but even stars like Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins had to bide their time as rookies before becoming perennial Pro Bowl players.

What’s even more frustrating is how the aforementioned track record is littered with inconsistency. It would appear that the only common denominator of players in his doghouse is in things Lewis sees in practice—AKA “not practicing the right way”. We haven’t necessarily heard this about Westerman, but there have been rumors of a lack of grasping the playbook and the like.

Still, with the struggles Alex Redmond has shown at right guard, the mess that was the line last season and the tangible improvements seen in the limited sample sizes of Westerman’s snaps, why isn’t he getting his shot?

While many will rightfully coin Lewis’ tenure with the Bengals one where he turned around an awful team, it can also be marked with severe orneriness that cost the team.

Questionable in-game decisions and poor execution

Another facet we can look at from last Sunday comes with some awful results in critical situations. Unfortunately, few were immune from blame, as both players and coaches should be under the spotlight.

In speaking of issues in the former category, we can look to two critical moments that not only led to the loss, but also present themselves as microcosms of the 2018 Bengals’ season.

Facing a 14-3 deficit, Cincinnati’s offense was on the move again and were poised to get into the end zone. The Bengals lined up for a risky, albeit necessary attempt on 4th-and-goal from the Chargers’ 1-yard line. But, Redmond jumped early to move the ball back and force Cincinnati to settle for a field goal.

As a team, Cincinnati has the 11th-highest total penalties in the league (which include the Chiefs and Chargers who have played one more game at this point), obviously pointing to both discipline issues and the injuries that have depleted the roster. Redmond is tied for the fifth-highest amount of penalties against him with eight, while right tackle Bobby Hart is tied for the second-most in the NFL with 11.

Yikes.

Speaking of penalties, the Bengals had a doozy late in the second quarter. In what has become one of their favorite past times, Cincinnati once again allowed an opponent to score critical points right before the half.

Cincinnati did finally find the end zone with just 30 seconds left in the first half, cutting the Chargers’ lead to 14-12 (more on the failed two-point conversion in a minute). With momentum seeming to be on their side, the Bengals kicked off to the Chargers and appeared to have escaped unscathed.

However, Jordan Willis jumped offsides on a play where Carlos Dunlap and Sam Hubbard sacked Philip Rivers. It set up what became a Chargers-record 59-yard field goal from Michael Badgley as time expired at the midway point.

Stepping on their own toes has been a Bengals forte since their inception. But, in a year with struggles, these instances become more frequent, as good teams have the knack of creating their own luck.

As I sat in the crowd on Sunday and witnessed this brief, but laughable sequence of events, it reminded me of instances of the 2010 team. If you remember, that squad massively underachieved at 4-12 and spurred the big rebuilding project that took place before the 2011 season.

There was a game in that particular season that came to mind after the Willis penalty. Almost eight years ago from the clash against the Chargers, Cincinnati was 2-9 and facing the New Orleans Saints.

The Bengals had a 30-27 lead towards the end of the game and Pat Sims jumped offsides on a 4th-and-2 to give New Orleans a first down. On the very next play, Drew Brees threw the game-winning touchdown.

Unforced errors. It’s long been a staple of the Bengals, and while the mental mistakes have definitely lessened under Lewis from that of “The Lost Decade”, they still pop up at critical times and/or in the seasons of struggles.

To boot, Cincinnati decided to go for two points on two different occasions on Sunday. Neither play was drawn up well by offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, as the two failures can be questioned in terms of what was called.

Mixon had a 100-yard day, yet he wasn’t used on either play, while the pass to Bernard was predictable. As John Sheeran noted in this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider Bengals podcast, Lazor should have plays stored up for a rainy day and/or a slew of them for specific two-point plays.

We’re probably being a little tough on Lazor, as no team will convert every two-point try they attempt. Still, it’s just a small example of how these past two months have gone.