Remember, dear reader, that whatever ails Cincinnati this season, Andy Dalton is not the problem.… This, of course, was the refrain when Dalton played well in the Bengals’ lone win over the Jets and when Ryan Finley proved ill-suited to the position of NFL starting quarterback. Few are repeating that mantra around the Queen City this week after Dalton’s four-interception immolation against the very beatable Patriots during last Sunday’s 34-13 loss. It was Red’s second straight execrable game, about the eighth this season where even decent quarterbacking would have been enough to get a Bengals W.
There was a reason why I came this close to guaranteeing the upset in last week’s column, before remembering that it was the Bengals we’re talking about. “Why on earth would Bill Belichick need to film the Cincinnati sideline, of all teams?” was the sniggering comment we heard all week with regard to the Patriots’ latest video-related cheating. Well, maybe it’s because the Patriots are a nothingburger of a team right now, outside of their excellent pass defense and winning muscle memory. They struggle to run, Tom Brady has few legitimate targets to pass to, and they can be gashed in the run game (except on fourth and inches, of course). Even their special teams are ordinary. Cincinnati really should have beaten them, or at worst played them tight down to the final gun.
With pass defense being New England’s lone clear advantage, the entire game depended on the Bengals staying out of must-throw situations. During the first half, the plan worked just fine, with Joe Mixon running wild and Cincinnati’s pass rush stymieing Tom Brady and mostly keeping New England in check. Then came the disastrous muffed punt by Alex Erickson that handed the Pats three free points at the end of the half. The situation was still not dire, but when Dalton immediately gave one to Stephen Gilmore to open the second half, suddenly—in the span of three Bengals snaps and under two minutes of game time—it was all over. Now Cincinnati had to pass, and a Gilmore pick-six and two more interceptions for good measure followed.
As ever, the silver lining was that the loss brought the Bengals one step closer to locking up that top draft pick and, presumably, newly crowned Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow. Helpfully, the Giants beat Miami, putting both squads at 3-11, which is important as the Bengals could easily slip up and win this weekend down in Florida. Indeed, nothing would surprise me less than two wins to close the season—including a home date with the Browns to finish this miserable campaign—and somehow botching their shot at the top pick. Because the Bengals’ strength of schedule is so much stronger than all the other three-win teams, any tie will mean Cincinnati would draft behind the others. The nightmare scenario of picking as low as fourth is still very much in play.
But perhaps I’m being too optimistic here. The fact is the team finds so many ways to lose each and every week. Besides Dalton’s Christmas season generosity with the football, there was the inability to take away New England’s lone healthy weapon, James White, whom the Chiefs managed to double-cover into anonymity the week before. Then there was that key fourth down failure in the second quarter. The play was important not merely because the Bengals failed to convert, thanks to former Browns bust Danny Shelton tossing Michael Jordan aside like a rancid ham sandwich, but because of what it says about the coaching mindset.
That Zac Taylor and staff are aggressive is definitely a good thing, especially with one win in a lost season. But yet again, on fourth and short, Cincinnati lined up in shotgun and ran the ball. In and of itself that’s not a bad thing, either—shotgun formations threaten the defense with passes or quarterback keepers—but the Bengals have lined up in that same formation almost every time this year on fourth down.
Breaking tendency is a huge part of success in the NFL, and by now there is a book on Taylor and what he likes to do. His success rate isn’t really the point—it’s his stubborn refusal to show different looks and keep opposing defenses guessing. The Rams were highly successful in 2017-18 by sticking to a solitary formation and set of plays and simply out-executing opponents. This season they’ve been less effective as the roster isn’t as productive. Needless to say, Cincinnati doesn’t have the Rams’ personnel or the experience to be imitating that “we do what we do, try and stop it” approach, so changing things up would seem to be critical. But Taylor thus far has refused.
To his and his staff’s credit, the running game, which was historically putrid over the first half of the year, has massively improved to where we thought it would be coming into 2019, thanks in large part to a systemic shift away from the outside zone schemes that Taylor deployed in L.A. Cincinnati’s O-line, as we’re all too painfully aware, simply lacks the requisite athleticism and togetherness to make the scheme work. So the coaches chucked it midseason, not the simplest thing in the world to do logistically, and replaced it with more rudimentary but viable pulling concepts, which have the added benefit of letting Mixon, whose patience and elusiveness are his strengths, work off his blocker’s angles rather than simply plant and hit the designated hole. Hence, Mixon has been the best back in football over the last month and needs just 75 yards to crack 1,000 again, something that seemed unlikely to impossible at the halfway point.
What is impossible, or so it seems, is the Stripes ever scoring a second half touchdown. The last time Cincinnati hit pay dirt after halftime was, incredibly, week seven against Jacksonville. That was in October! It’s been a mind-boggling 41 possessions without a six. Marvin Lewis, of course, struggled mightily in second halves as well. Perhaps it isn’t adjustments or coaching acumen but something more intrinsic to the organization, like a lack of overall fitness or a team-wide mental roadblock. Obviously, this season Cincinnati has been poor in the red zone, which exacerbates the matter. Still, you’d imagine they would have scored at least a garbage time TD at some point along the way.
Maybe every opponent has been stealing their signals.
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.