There’s a little game I play in my head when the Bengals take a big lead, a little mantra I repeat to myself. Not even the Bengals can blow this lead, right? Alas, as history has shown—including this past Sunday in Indianapolis—the Bengals sure can blow seemingly insurmountable leads. Up 21-0 mere ticks into the second quarter, having run the Colts out of their dome in the opening stanza, Cincinnati looked poised to earn its first laugher of the season and just the fourth win in the 22 games Zac Taylor has coached the team, not to mention his first road victory.
Instead, like a team that’s bored with losing in all the standard ways, Taylor’s crew decided to spice things up by losing 31-27. It was egregious in multiple ways, one of which is that given the cap on attendance, there wasn’t much crowd noise to overcome as the comeback gained steam. If anything, given how many Bengals fans actually made the trip to NapTown for the game, it was something of a neutral site.
There are a million places to turn the spotlight after a crushing loss like this, but for me it was the failure over three quarters to score a touchdown after that hot start. And that stems directly from a lack of aggressiveness on a pair of drives in the second half, when Cincinnati settled for field goals, missing one of them. Randy Bullock, who will hit every single field goal when the game is 17-7 in the second quarter but inevitably blow the crucial kicks, hit the upright with the score 28-27 Indy, which meant that Joe Burrow was forced to play for the touchdown late, resulting in a game-sealing interception when he lost sight of a Colts safety screaming back into the middle of the field.
Settling for three is a loss for the offense, but doing so on fourth and short in a tight game on the road is a body blow. Especially when converting fourth downs is something—one of the few things—the Bengals do well! They have kept the drive going 10 of 11 times this season, and if you factor in the last quarter of 2019 they’re 15 of their last 18 on fourth down. I mean, at this point, they should stop kicking altogether.
Meanwhile, Carlos Dunlap, who watched most of the action (“socially distanced from the bench” as he put it on his Instagram account) while a bunch of practice squad players and lowly drafted rookies were on the field getting rolled, has joined A.J. Green in letting his discontent be known. Actually, “The Other Lap” has been griping since the summer, and when combined with Green and the Trae Waynes debacle (along with Cordy Glenn last year), it’s clear that the veterans aren’t in total buy-in mode with Taylor. This is the kind of stuff that happens with losing franchises, and the Bengals have black belts in player alienation, so it isn’t surprising, just depressing.
(That doesn’t excuse the players, by the way. Dunlap has done nada and was deservedly benched, while Geno Atkins is either still hurt, which would hardly be surprising, or using the shoulder injury as a convenient crutch. Glenn, in a league devoid of O-line talent, isn’t on a roster anywhere.)
It all means that the clock is ticking on Taylor, which isn’t something I thought would happen until next season. But when your overall record is 3-18-1 and the lockerroom is grumbling, the heat gets turned up, even though Taylor’s actual performance has hardly been egregious. I mean, think how easily the team could be 3-3 or even 4-2 right now. His main issue, aside from the staff he put together, appears to be communication, which ironically was supposed to be his strong suit. He seems to spend all his talking time with Burrow while blindsiding the rest of the team with his decisions—that’s how the situation has been portrayed by the disgruntled vets, anyway.
This isn’t quite like Dave Shula, who was fired after blowing a 21-point lead, by the way. The players were openly mocking Shula to his face. But the results are what they are, and while I still doubt Taylor loses his job after two seasons, especially with the COVID excuse so handy—and, to be fair, legit—it’s worrying that this is where we are after just 22 games on the sideline.
There were some positives to take from the Colts game, of course. Indeed, as I’ve repeatedly pointed out in this space (and then failed to heed my own advice), this season isn’t especially about wins and losses in the big picture. It’s fair to wonder about said big picture, as elucidated above, but there was a reason the team had the large lead to choke away in the first place. Burrow continues to be strong on intermediate passes, not hesitating to ram balls into tight windows and throwing with anticipation (until his final throw, alas). He’s also displaying a complete command of the offense, several times faking out the Colts with pre-snap motions designed to get the defense thinking one way, only to be hit with a play to newly opened space.
Tee Higgins is quickly blooming into the player he was drafted to be. Sunday’s game illustrated his skill set. No burner, Higgins seldom got much separation on his routes, the deep pass he caught notwithstanding. But he’s outstanding at attacking the ball and expanding his catch radius and is, for a player who isn’t especially fast, extremely tough to bring down before he rolls up yards after the catch. Green got off the schneid on Sunday (though he remains the worst NFL receiver by DYAR by a wide margin), and Tyler Boyd continues to be Tyler Boyd. Tee’s rapid development would allow the dream of this three-wide set becoming the monster we all hoped it could be to achieve fruition in the back half of the season.
On defense, issues elsewhere aren’t affecting safety Jessie Bates, who’s blossomed into a Pro Bowl-level player. His sensational interception showed off the ball skills he brought into the league, while he’s clearly improved as a tackler and has shown tremendous instincts all season. Indy did a good job getting Vonn Bell matched up in coverage and took advantage, but in general the two safeties complement one another’s game quite well.
Cincinnati is in the midst of a brutal stretch of its schedule, which is why losing this one hurt more than usual. Up next are the Browns at home, before dates with the unbeaten Titans and Steelers. Cleveland won’t be the same team that ran all over Cincinnati back in week two, not with Nick Chubb sidelined, but they remain a formidable team offensively, at least when not facing a dominant defense like Pittsburgh. The Browns have had two seasons—a pair of godawful showings vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh and four decent to very good games against the rest of the league. Sounds very Bengals-like, no?
Baker Mayfield is dinged up but expected to play. This is the last chance this season to get some shots in at the mouthy upstate QB. In the first meeting, he was untouched as the Browns O-line whitewashed Cincinnati’s D. Time for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo to restore the luster he earned two weeks ago and design a game plan that will fluster Mayfield, who has shown a predilection toward turnovers and poor play when uncomfortable in the pocket. That probably means a lot of blitzing, as the front line is in tatters.
The Browns defense, Myles Garrett aside, has been as mediocre and hit-or-miss as Cincinnati’s this year. And the Bengals will have a huge special teams advantage, which will surprise everyone still hot over Bullock’s miss. Cleveland, however, is 31st in the NFL in the third phase, so expect a few issues from them in the kicking game.
The goal will once again be to get a lead and force the opponent to throw. Ideally, they’ll be ahead by so much that not even the Bengals could blow it.
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 four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.