I felt for Zac Taylor on Sunday around 3:20 p.m. The Bengals were trailing 20-10 early in the fourth quarter and facing fourth and 6 at their own 48-yard line. Down two scores in the fourth quarter around midfield, logic dictated that Cincinnati had to go for it. But the Bengals’ offense had the attacking power of a peashooter, even against a Ravens defense playing backups across the field.
So punt and pin ’em deep, right? The Ravens had run the ball at will all day, though, and Lamar Jackson was drooling at the chance to swerve around and kill the clock along with Cincinnati’s hopes.
So what is a coach to do? His offense can’t be trusted to get six yards. His defense can’t stop opponents from running the ball down their throats. Special teams was about the lone bright spot on Sunday (with Brandon Wilson providing the team’s only touchdown until garbage time via a kickoff return to open the game), so Taylor might as well run them out there. Maybe the Ravens would fumble the punt.
They didn’t. Instead, Lamar & Co. went on an entirely predictable 18-play, 83-yard, clock-sucking, soul-destroying drive to kick another field goal and virtually end the game. Cincinnati’s backdoor cover in the waning moments was about the only good thing to happen all day outside of Wilson’s return.
Cincinnati’s offense on Sunday was basically reduced to Andy Dalton throwing the ball in Auden Tate’s general vicinity and hoping he’d come down with it. To the former FSU wideout’s considerable credit, Tate made several spectacular catches. He might have the best catch radius of any Bengals receiver since Marvin Jones left, and even MJ couldn’t make some of the 50-50 catches Tate did Sunday.
Unfortunately, this isn’t backyard football, where one special athlete can win a game for you. This is the NFL, and a pro offense needs to be able to do something other than chuck and pray.
Remember, this wasn’t the Ray Lewis/Ed Reed/T-Sizzle Ravens D they were working against. Baltimore had been lit up for more than 500 yards in back-to-back weeks and last week struggled mightily against that Duck Dynasty third-string Steelers QB guy. Sure, it hurt the Bengals not to have A.J. Green, who has built a career on killing the Ravens, but this offense is so anemic it should be hospitalized with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Nearly half of Cincinnati’s rushing output for the day came on an end-around to Alex Erickson to begin the fourth quarter. Kinda says it all.
It is apparent that the league has figured out the Sean McVay play-action schemes that Taylor brought to Cincinnati, using mainly six-man fronts to stymie the wide-zone runs and force Jared Goff to make reads. (The Rams had 78 yards passing on Sunday, which in its way was more shocking than the Bengals’ rushing output.) Our guys are struggling not because of strategy, though, but because of physicality. The O-line just gets whipped play after play after play. And—good news!—starting guard John Miller is down for this week, leaving Alex Redmond to come back in and try his hand. It’s not like Miller was getting it done, so it can’t get much worse. Can it?
I suppose the good news was that the Bengals improved slightly in defending Jackson’s called runs after somehow allowing him to get 70 yards on three carries to start the afternoon. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said it himself after the game: “That’s absurd.” But as both Jackson and Ravens head coach John Harbaugh pointed out, they were getting looks from the Bengals D that would allow for big chunks on QB keepers, so they kept going there. Lamar was doing that in his college days when Louisville hosted Directional U. for Homecoming Weekend, but it should never happen in the NFL.
Of course, when the pocket broke down, the Baltimore quarterback remained maddeningly elusive. He turned huge losses into incomplete passes and no gains into decent pickups, always avoiding meaningful hits and leaving Cincinnati defenders guessing and gasping. The Bengals have struggled to contain running quarterbacks forever, tied directly to their unsolved issues at linebacker. Jackson broke into the league last year by running at will on the Stripes, and it was pretty much identical Sunday. Boy, do I miss Joe Flacco….
The third-and-14 conversion in the fourth quarter was typical and so, so frustrating. By some miracle the Bengals remained in the game, and a defensive stop would give them a crack at pulling out a victory. Lamar dropped back, saw nothing open, and whooooooooshhhhhhhh he zipped ahead for 16 yards and a first down that drained the clock and sent Cincinnati home defeated once again.
Meanwhile, the Bengals are averaging 56.5 yards rushing per game. Take a second to read that again: 56.5 yards. Joe Mixon alone averaged 83 yards per game a year ago. Per The Athletic, you’d have to go back to 1942 (!) to find a season-ending number lower than that. In the modern era, the lowest number is 66.3 YPG by the 2000 Chargers. By contrast, the Ravens are up to 205 YPG, or about four times more than the Bengals. Boy, do I miss Joe Flacco….
One more stat to make you nauseated: Baltimore outgained Cincinnati 269-33 on the ground, a difference of 236 yards. You have to go back to a game in the second year of the Bengals’ existence, 1969, to find a worse result (Kansas City, which went on to win the Super Bowl, put up 313 yards on the ground to Cincinnati’s 65 that day). The third-worst differential came a few weeks ago, when the 49ers ran all over Anarumo’s defense. Not that it’s all him—the fourth-worst came in that Ravens game a year ago when Jackson introduced himself to Cincinnati’s helpless defenders, most of whom were on the field again last Sunday.
I will say this for the defense: Except for the San Fran and Pittsburgh games, somehow it’s managed to hang in there and keep the games within reach. Considering that Sunday was the third straight game without an offensive touchdown in the first half, the fact that all three contests came down to the final seconds is something of a miracle. Cincinnati is now seventh in the league in Red Zone defense, a crucial element to keeping games close when the offense is so terrible. Of course, when the chips were down and the Bengals absolutely needed a stop, they let Buffalo drive the field for the winning TD, Arizona drive the field for the winning FG, and Baltimore drive the ball down its gullet and out its rear end. Mobile quarterbacks making big plays with their legs was the common denominator on all three of those costly drives.
This is now the ninth time in franchise history Cincinnati has begun the season 0-6 or worse. The dying embers of the Marvin Lewis Era didn’t feel like the Disastrous ’90s, but the hollowness of recent drafts as led us to a similar place. I spent the weekend contemplating the idea of Tua Tagovailoa or Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert in stripes, and it’s barely October.
Sadly, I also spent much of the weekend remembering Akili Smith and David Klinger.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.