Bizarre Bengals Loss Was a Real Kick in the Butt

While Cincinnati was hardly overmatched by the Green Bay Packers, they were the lesser team last weekend. A rebound opportunity awaits Sunday in Detroit.

Sometimes you just aren’t meant to win a football game. When the opposing kicker misses three field goals (including two game-winners) and an extra point, you have to feel like you should walk away with the W. Especially when the unstoppable Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams were gifted multiple opportunities to seize victory from the mandibles of defeat.

Whatever became of future 10-time All-Pro Evan McPherson? No, it’s hard to be angry with him despite the fact he missed a pair of (long) potential game-winners in a truly bizarre 25-22 overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers at a sold-out Paul Brown Stadium Sunday. The first kick hit the upright two-thirds of the way up from 57 yards out, a colossal boot few kickers in recent Bengals memory would have made or even attempted. The second seemed so perfect that McPherson himself was celebrating, until the football gods sent a gust off the Ohio River to push it just wide over the goalpost. That’s what I meant by saying the Bengals just weren’t destined to win this one.

Of course, mere mortals had plenty to do with it, too. Had Zac Taylor and the offense been a bit more aggressive and gotten closer to the uprights, especially before the overtime miss, perhaps we’d be in celebration mode right alongside McPherson. I still think Joe Mixon got the first down on that critical third-and-short in OT, by the way. Taylor couldn’t challenge it, but he should at least have screamed for a review. I suppose he felt fine with just letting EMcP go out and win it, but given the placekicking horror show that was unfolding, every yard was crucial.

There was a lot of talk after the game about moral victories and proving Cincinnati could play with the league’s best. Miss me with that talk. Not just because there are no shoulda woulda couldas allowed in the NFL, but because the Bengals were pretty clearly outplayed Sunday by a Packers team that was far more banged up entering the day. Just in terms of DVOA for the game, the Pack finished at 1.3% (dragged down mightily by the special teams fiasco), while Cincinnati was at -25.4%. The eye test certainly confirmed that, while the Bengals were hardly overmatched, they were the lesser team Sunday.

What kept the game tight, beyond the field goals, were good Bengals defense in their own territory and the offense’s continued ability to score touchdowns. The Bengals are third from the top of the league in red area touchdown percentage, but also third from the bottom in three-and-outs. It’s a strange boom or bust dichotomy that’s been masked by big plays to Ja’Marr Chase.

Cincinnati’s problem on offense remains insistency in winning every on-field battle. They use outside zone runs consistently, which calls upon the interior line to get a strong push, something they haven’t done well. Trey Hopkins continues to be “back” rather than back, while Jackson Carman is going through expected rookie struggles. At least Quinton Spain has played well at left guard, especially in the passing game.

Speaking of passing, Taylor continues to pass from empty sets that spread the receivers wide instead of bunching or motioning in order to help create open spaces in the defense. Everything is “our guys are better than your guys,” which would be fine if a) they actually were on a more regular basis and b) you didn’t hire an offensive guru who was supposed to create easy yards via scheme. This is the NFL; their guys are good, too. You can’t proceed under the notion that every down is going to be like LSU vs. McNeese State.

Cincinnati’s continued refusal to employ the heady pre-snap actions and play-action passes that Taylor supposedly learned under Sean McVay is baffling. They arrive in flashes, but because they aren’t a core element of the offense they aren’t executed particularly well. This was clearly seen on Joe Burrow’s interception to begin the second half: The Packers D out-executed the Bengals’ O, and Burrow was forced into an off-balance Rodgers-like hero throw that had little chance of success.

The result is that the offense, despite spectacular weekly plays from Burrow and Chase, isn’t in any way a strength. Cincinnati ranks 18th in passing DVOA and 19th in rushing—not godawful numbers, but given expectations and draft status of the players on that side of the ball, they’re certainly underwhelming.

Again, Burrow has yet to play a full season. Occasionally, for all the comparisons to Joe Montana, he makes poor decisions, like diving for a first down when he was five yards short of the sticks. I know we worship that ultra-competitive side of Joey B, but he simply cannot do that. If he isn’t on the field, the team is kaput, simple as that. Even Rodgers told him that when they met at midfield after the game.

On the other hand, Montana got a great deal of help from the ground-breaking West Coast schemes of Bill Walsh. Burrow isn’t getting that sort of boost from his coach at the moment. And the crazy thing is that, even with the mistakes, Burrow is playing at an extremely high level—but the Bengals still struggle to score more than 24 points per game.

Equally frustrating is that the defense is playing well enough for the Bengals to be unbeaten. Yes, the Rodgers-Adams connection was indomitable on Sunday. Short of a pre-game mugging, that was always going to be the case. And the long run Aaron Jones pulled off near the end of regulation that seemingly was a game-winner hurt, but the defense bowed up once again and kept the team in the game. The term “complementary football” is a well-worn cliche by now, but it’s applicable here. The seesaw is too far in one direction right now, and until harmony is achieved it will be tough for Cincinnati to take any giant steps.

That’s particularly true now that a three-game road trip looms. It begins with Sunday’s perhaps deceptively soft landing spot, Detroit. Yes, the Lions are winless, themselves the victims of a crushing defeat at the hands of Minnesota last weekend. Yes, the Bengals have beaten them six straight. Yes, Dan Campbell is the coaching equivalent of the Tasmanian Devil.

Nevertheless, take the game lightly at your peril. Playing winless squads is always a nightmare, especially for a solidly middle-class team like Cincinnati. They won’t be able to simply overpower the Lions in any one area, leaving motivation and recovery from Sunday’s dueling disappointments to be important factors. The Lions have played extremely hard and looked highly physical so far, despite the poor final results. Campbell’s fiery approach has its limits when wins don’t follow the bombast, but this early in his tenure he should be able to get his guys to play hard. Cincinnati’s charge will be to match that intensity.

Detroit will be thin at wideout after injuries on Sunday, and center Frank Ragnow, a player whose name still stabs deep into the heart of all Bengals fans, is out for the season with a bum toe. Meanwhile, we’ll get a close up look at another “almost Bengal lineman,” Penei Sewell, who is off to a mediocre start as the Lions’ left tackle. He may flip sides to the right with the return of Taylor Decker. Regardless, Cincinnati needs to get pressure from someone other than Trey Hendrickson or their stalwart defensive effort through five games will go south in a hurry.

The good news: The football gods owe the Bengals after Sunday. Alas, the Lions feel the same way. It will be up to the players to decide which side the gods truly favor.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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