It’s hard to believe the Cincinnati Bengals let that one slip away. After going up 21-0 on the Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis rallied for an unlikely 31-27 win.
Here are the best and worst facets of the contest, from a Bengals perspective.
More points scored and baby steps forward from Week 5:
It would have been hard for the Bengals to not improve off of their three-point outing against Baltimore, but they answered the bell against a No. 1 Indianapolis defense. Sure, Darius Leonard was out of the lineup, but Joe Burrow and Co. made a lot of exciting plays on offense.
Cincinnati appeared to have the Colts on the ropes at the onset of the second quarter, leaping to a 21-0 advantage. The three touchdowns were scored all on the ground and by three different players (Giovani Bernard, Burrow and Joe Mixon, respectively).
Additionally, Cincinnati’s top-three receivers (A.J. Green, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd) combined for 19 receptions, 275 yards, a 14.5 yards-per-catch average and 27 rushing yards. Netting over 300 yards from scrimmage from that trio against a stout Colts defense was a positive.
The early surge:
After getting trounced by Baltimore and facing a daunting task of going on the road to take on the Colts, jumping out to a 21-point lead felt pretty nice. Not only for the sake of improvement, but for the brief belief that Zac Taylor had the team ready to turn a corner after a perceived week of adjustments.
It was short-lived, unfortunately, but it was the formula to get a potential win against a team like Indy.
Jessie Bates III:
One of the lone bright spots on the entire Bengals roster this year has been Bates. He grabbed another big interception late in the game and continues to be one of Pro Football Focus’ top defensive players in the NFL. He played very well on a day where the defense allowed Philip Rivers to carve them up for the big comeback.
Offensive line improvement:
Again, it’s a matter of expectations with the Bengals’ offensive line. Two sacks were given up this week, but one was Burrow running into pressure.
It was a matter of two halves, in terms of running the football, as the team pounded three touchdowns on the ground in the first quarter, but struggled the rest of the way.
Their performance had inconsistencies, but it was far from the worst showing of the year. One could even make the argument that they did enough to allow the Bengals to get the win.
Some elements of offensive creativity:
There were a lot of issues with the offensive play-calling late in the game, but there were also effective elements. In fact, some of those finally resembled the Sean McVay Rams offense that Zac Taylor was supposedly bringing to Cincinnati.
We saw an effective sweep by Boyd, effective passing by Burrow and, as mentioned above, some capable offensive line play. My personal favorite facet to the offense this week was the placement of Mixon and Bernard simultaneously in the backfield.
On one of those plays, it netted a huge pass to Boyd to set up a touchdown. This may be a wrinkle the Bengals want to use going forward in an effort to keep opposing defenses on their heels and allow Burrow to have two capable receiving outlet options when things break down.
Tee Higgins and A.J. Green emerging:
We won’t go much further into detail here, but Higgins had his first 100-yard receiving day and caught a long bomb, while Green was four yards away from a 100-yard day himself. Higgins caught a bomb by Burrow, while No. 18 failed to haul another in, but Green did have a highlight-reel catch on the sideline late in the contest.
The Bengals need to start stringing together wins, if only to heal a seemingly-fractured locker room (more on that later). Higgins emerging as a go-to guy and Green seemingly finding his stride this week are positive signs towards the team getting in the win column.
The pass rush:
Injuries have killed this facet of the Bengals, which was one of their bigger strengths not too long ago. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins have now been relegated to rotational duties, but others garnering snaps aren’t faring well, either.
Cincinnati only had one sack of the very immobile Rivers on Sunday, which was critical to Indianapolis paving their way to a comeback win. Whether it’s gambling with blitzes because of the absences of Mike Daniels, Sam Hubbard and others, or biting the ego bullet, if you’re Taylor and Lou Anarumo, and letting Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins to resume their previous roles, something needs to change for the team to have any success going forward.
Tripping over their own feet with familiar mistakes:
“The Cincinnati Bengals: Finding creative ways to lose football games since 1968”. Too sarcastic?
Like we’ve seen in other big moments, be it under Marvin Lewis or other head coaches, this team shrinks when they have a good win in their grasp. This past Sunday was no different.
An inability to come up in clutch situations continues to plague this team. Randy Bullock doinked a would-be go-ahead fourth quarter field goal, the defense allowed the Colts to convert on 63 percent of its third down tries, Green couldn’t come down with a critical deep ball and even Burrow caught a case of last-minute “Bunglitis” with a turnover on a potential game-winning drive.
Someone needs to start grabbing this team by the collar and willing it to wins. “Learning how to win” remains tough to stomach.
As mentioned above, Bullock missed a critical kick in this one. While he nailed a 55-yarder and has had a stellar season, his only two misses were at pivotal points in contests.
Kevin Huber has had a great season, but he shanked a 28-yard punt in the fourth quarter to set up the Colts nicely for a potential go-ahead score. Bates bailed him out with a great interception.
The return game was also blah, with Alex Erickson fielding two punts for 12 return yards and Brandon Wilson returning two kickoffs for a pedestrian 40 total yards—one of which was just to the 12-yard line. A spark there would have been nice for the offense and could have been a catalyst for a win.
A handful of coaching decisions:
Oh, boy—where do we begin here. We all loved the aggressiveness Zac Taylor showed in the beginning of the game by going for it on fourth-and-goal in the first quarter and some of the other facets we mentioned above in “the good”.
However, in the fourth quarter, Taylor made the inexplicable decision to call a fullback dive to Samaje Perine on a third-and-1. Perine hadn’t had a regular-season carry since Week 7 of last year with the Dolphins and, while he is a bigger, north-south runner, he isn’t a traditional fullback.
Obviously, this was one of those occasions where Taylor tried to get tricky and it becomes a massive success/failure situation. The latter occurred and then the Bengals’ head coach compounded the issue by sending Bullock out for a 47-yard try, only to have him miss it.
On the other side of the ball, Lou Anarumo’s unit went into cruise control mode when Cincinnati was up 21-0. The unit went to zone coverage and didn’t really attempt to blitz Rivers.
Zone or man coverages without pressure can be disastrous, but this zone/no-blitz concept was particularly lethal to the Bengals with a Hall of Fame quarterback under center. Rivers constantly exploited holes in the coverage and with his immobility, one has to wonder why Anarumo and Co. didn’t mix up the looks.
We’ve talked about it a lot throughout this post. There isn’t much more to say except that this was a game in which Taylor and his staff could have silenced a lot of critics. Now, there are more questions than answers and a number of players seem to be disgruntled about their roles and the constant losing.
Some dubious records:
Some fans are content with the Bengals being poor-to-mediocre this year. Their reasoning resides in more high draft picks to surround Burrow and fling the championship window open in 2021 and 2022.
But, with this recent loss, Cincinnati is 1-11-1 in one-score games under Taylor and are 0-16-1 in their past 17 road games. If Taylor and the Bengals were to just win half of the 13 games in the first statistic, we’re talking about a much better building block of a 2019 season and a 2020 campaign where playoff chatter may be a long shot, but still a reality.
The player fallout:
There are a couple of ways to look at the recent slew of reports on Bengals players being disgruntled with their roles this year. On one hand, some of the better players in recent years simply aren’t performing to standards and/or aren’t healthy, with the vast majority of complaints stemming from holdovers of the Marvin Lewis regime.
On the other, Taylor and his head coaches deemed many of these upset players captains over the past couple of seasons. When taking over for Lewis last year, Taylor wanted to keep the Lewis cornerstones, while purging the bulk of the roster for “his guys”.
Just exactly where are we now?
The necessary quarterback move has been made, but practice squad call-up Amani Bledsoe and brand new acquisition Xavier Williams received more snaps on Sunday than Dunlap and Atkins. The ongoing saga of John Ross and Auden Tate also becomes a weekly talking point.
We know that Atkins is being eased back into the lineup, but does this message appear to be one that shows everyone you’re giving your team the best shot at winning? Particularly on defense, when the unit was largely responsible for blowing a three-touchdown lead?