There are signs that things are heading in the right direction under Zac Taylor, even if the win-loss column isn’t reflecting it. Cincinnati lost yet another one-possession game against the Browns this Sunday, which was their seventh of the season.
In the 27-19 loss, the Bengals frustrated the Browns, but familiar gaffes and the coaching staff’s inexperience still showed at big moments. Here are the best and worst facets of the team’s loss in Week 14.
Improvement from the offensive line: It’s been a carousel up front for the Bengals, as they’ve tried to manage injuries and see what they have from some younger linemen. Michael Jordan got the start at left guard in front of Billy Price once again, as he has been dealing with a back issues and ineffectiveness.
Jordan had some nice moments, particularly in helping the team net 179 yards on the ground, while others weren’t making the mental mistakes we’ve seen over the past two seasons. The group still needs an overhaul, but they could have some effective players blossoming for them.
mike jordan had a good day blocking in space. he had a few notable blocks after pulling, but i wanted to focus on just climbing to the 2nd level. this is good work considering how he's been in this area thus far. (he trips in the 3rd clip) pic.twitter.com/dvuKqCNzTl— john sheeran (@John__Sheeran) December 9, 2019
The run game and Joe Mixon: Don’t tell No. 28 this team has one win. He’s dealing stiff-arms and lowered shoulders to defenders with regularity. He took advantage of schemes to play to both his and the offensive line’s strengths, namely in the form of pitches, stretches and zone plays en route to a 146-yard day with a 6.3-yard per carry average. He also cracked the end zone on his career-best rushing day.
Linebacker improvement: Nick Vigil may have played the best game of his career, nabbing an interception, knocking away another pass and netting four tackles. Meanwhile, Germaine Pratt continues to show improvement, at least from the perspective of Pro Football Focus’ analytics.
Germaine Pratt's PFF grades since being named the starter. pic.twitter.com/oApjSXo0mX— Jeaux Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) December 9, 2019
Randy Bullock: Don’t ask him to kick a crunch time field goal sniffing 50 yards, but he’s money from everywhere else. The veteran kicker netted 13 of the team’s 19 points on Sunday, including his hitting of four field goals in a windy venue.
Turnover creation, time of possession and yardage disparity: Cincinnati won these categories on Sunday, which usually points to a win. The Bengals had the ball for basically nine more minutes, out-gained the Browns by 118 yards (33 rushing, 85 passing) and had one more turnover.
A swarming pass defense: It was a tough day for Baker Mayfield. He threw two interceptions (almost three) and only got into the end zone once by his legs, but it was tough sledding. Cincinnati had nine passes defended of Mayfield’s 24 attempts, while holding him to a 46 percent completion rate and just 192 passing yards.
John Ross: Expectations were relatively tempered upon Ross’ return, but his ability to stretch the field made some wonder if he could be a catalyst to some late-season wins. He finished with just two catches for 28 yards, but had a drop, a holding penalty (it was iffy) and failed to get out of bounds on his final catch as time was expiring. Knocking off some rust from the time away, I suppose?
The officiating: This crew was all over the place on Sunday. When they didn’t have to correct themselves on the down, or forgetting to ask Zac Taylor what he’d prefer to do on a call against Cleveland, they were busy making league history on a game-changing call. The crew ultimately had a major say on the outcome on Sunday, which is what you want, in a way, but also totally not the objective of their role.
Andy Dalton: In his return start last week, Dalton was very good, despite some egregious drops by receivers. This week, the happy feet returned and his throws weren’t able to cut through the breeze as they did against the Jets.
In the clip below, Dalton bailed out of a third-down play a little early, as both Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd may have been able to convert. Dalton didn’t look at either of them and Cincinnati had to settle for a field goal.
Dalton was also just 3-of-10 passing on third down, which isn’t getting it done. You can look at a number of aspects as to what led to the loss, but ultimately, his poor throw on the pick-six was the one possession score difference.
Coming out of timeout, under 2 minutes in the half, down by a point. Pressure was there & guys weren’t totally getting open, but kind of feel like you gotta hang in there for a tiny bit longer & make a better throw (easier said than done from my couch with toddler toy chiming in) pic.twitter.com/kyA6WVVSZP— Anthony Cosenza (@CJAnthonyCUI) December 8, 2019
Run defense: Lou Anarumo’s unit has been woeful in this year and they allowed a 100-yard rusher yet again on Sunday. Nick Chubb has been one of the best backs in the league this year and he had 106 against the Bengals on Sunday. Still, one of the runs was for 57 yards, so the defense largely limited the damage outside of one big play.
Disparity on third downs and in the red zone: The winning of the aforementioned statistical categories doesn’t matter if you’re not getting it done in the critical situations. Third down was a problem for the Bengals, as they converted just 25 percent of their attempts to the Browns’ 58 percent success rate.
Cincinnati also entered Cleveland’s red zone five times and while they came away with points on four occasions, the were largely of the field goal variety. When Bullock wasn’t kicking it through the uprights, Mixon punched it into the end zone, while the Bengals also turned the ball over on downs. Teams simply can’t expect to win divisional games on the road by taking three points instead of seven.
Penalties and massive free yardage: Coming into Sunday, Cincinnati was actually the least-penalized team in the league. It has been one of the rare things going well for the team this year, but that changed this week.
The Bengals committed eight penalties and they were mostly of the big-yardage variety. Cincinnati gave up nearly a full field’s worth of yardage (99, to be exact), allowing the Browns to take advantage.
Play-calling in critical situations: As mentioned above, Taylor’s decisions in some of the bigger moments of the game were questionable. Two third quarter red zone possessions which netted just three total points were the focal point of most criticism.
On the one possession netting three points, Cincinnati was at the Cleveland 2-yard line on first down. Shotgun formation was drawn up (not the problem), but then three passes were the call—especially after a sack on first down. With Mixon chewing up yardage and the pass-catching group suffering medical attrition, it seemed like a good opportunity to have No. 28 punch it in for paydirt.
The other possession in which they turned it over on downs saw the Bengals get to the Browns’ 7-yard on first down. This time, the logic was reversed, where Cincinnati ran the ball on the first two downs from a longer distance and then threw it on the subsequent two plays.
There were also issues in the challenge department. One was an instance at the end of the game where Taylor threw the flag in desperation in hopes of an offensive holding call, while he failed to challenge a questionable spot on a Joe Mixon run deep in Cleveland territory.
The rest of the special teams unit outside of Bullock: Kevin Huber has been stellar this year, but he shanked a punt early in the game, while Darius Phillips couldn’t re-capture his early-season magic, but did get flagged for a facemask penalty on one of his kickoff returns. I suppose we could also give kudos to Darrin Simmons’ kick coverage units, but it was an inconsistent day from what has been the strongest unit on the team.