Losing to Rookie Quarterbacks

The Bengals didn’t handle Lamar Jackson last week; how will they do against Baker Mayfield this Sunday?
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Marvin Lewis stepped in to take over the defense, and all was right with the world. Right? Well, I suppose the Cincinnati Bengals not giving up 500-plus yards of offense and holding their opponent to under a quarter-century worth of points qualifies as improvement. On the other hand, Lewis spent the entirety of the Ravens’ first drive, one that went for an easy score, unable to communicate with the defensive on-field play-caller, linebacker Hardy Nickerson, thanks to unfamiliarity with the headset system.

You just can’t make it up. The Bengals are rapidly skidding toward the 1990s-era clown show before our eyes.

After weeks of getting shredded by modern air-oriented attacks designed by cutting-edge offensive minds, the Bengals went back in time and were cut up by a Paleolithic approach. The Baltimore Ravens, starting a rookie quarterback far more advanced below the waist than above it, ran it and ran it some more—265 yards worth, in fact, the most on the ground versus a Marvin Lewis-coached team since he came to Cincinnati in 2003. And it wasn’t just Lamar Jackson. An undrafted rookie out of Rutgers, someone named Gus Edwards, became the latest no-name back to shred a Bengals defense. It was the first time two rookies in the same backfield went for over 100 yards in the same game since 1976. Only three backs had surpassed the century mark all season against the Bengals. Now it’s five.

In other words, the hits just keep piling up for this team. And yet after the game, Lewis and several players seemed satisfied, noting how much better they played. It’s as though they know they shouldn’t be a playoff team and are quietly relieved not to have to go through the pretense of fighting for a #6 seed.

Losing 24-21 to the hated but so often beatable Ravens deals a hammer blow to the Bengals’ postseason hopes. Cincinnati now only has a 15.1% chance of making the playoffs, compared with Baltimore’s 38.7%. It wasn’t nearly so stark as last year, when the Crab City Crusher (i.e., Dalton to Boyd on fourth and the season) eliminated the Ravens from the postseason. But the Purple Gang got a small bit of payback Sunday, making it highly unlikely the Bengals sneak in to the wild-card round. Indeed, at this point I’d be surprised if Cincinnati bests last season’s 7-9 mark.

Here are the current playoff odds for NFL teams sitting at 5-5, for the record:

Baltimore 38.7%

Indianapolis 36.6%

Miami 18.3%

Cincinnati 15.1%

Tennessee 13.8%

The Ravens also saved John Harbaugh’s job, at least for the moment, and ironically Joe Flacco’s, depending on his hip injury. The game also made clear that Cincinnati playing without A.J. Green is like tying an arm behind the team’s back, especially against Baltimore, a team he kills on a regular basis. That was never more clear than on the game’s decisive play, a fourth-and-three pass that went to Cody Core, he of the 22 career receptions. Core, naturally, dropped a sure conversion, and the Bengals walked off the field with their fourth loss in five games, completely undoing their 4-1 start.

The season-long issue with tackling only got worse against the shifty Jackson and the hard-charging Edwards. The official count on Sunday was 13 missed tackles, the seventh time this season with double-digit missed tackles in a game, the most in the Marv era. As we all feared when Lewis signed his extension in the early winter, his ability to ramp the team up to previous levels of competence has waned.

The scheming on both sides of the ball left much to be desired. How do you let a rookie QB who has no known ability to pass at the NFL level repeatedly run against light boxes, with no apparent spy? Why not let your expensive corner (Dre Kirkpatrick) and budding star corner (William Jackson) play press man on the Ravens iffy wideouts, and dare the Ravens to throw? I believe in Jackson’s eventual ability to be a complete quarterback, but in his debut it was clear from jump that it was gonna be smash mouth ball all the way. Lewis and the Bengals let Baltimore play its style.

Meanwhile, Bill Lazor (with or without the kibitzing of Hue Jackson) hasn’t shown much in the imagination department with his biggest talents hurt. Anyone who watched the Chiefs-Rams slugfest on Monday night saw two offenses at the apex of play design and rhythmic calls. Cincinnati looked a 1970s “three-yards-and-a-cloud-of dust” outfit by comparison. John Ross flashed a little more of his wondrous speed on Sunday, but they still haven’t found a way to use those burners to full effect. You seldom see Ross in the slot or running full tilt sideline to sideline in crossing routes, where his ability to find separation would be crucial. And of course we’re still waiting for the game when Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard, two multi-dimensional backs who should be giving defenses fits, are used with any creativity, separately or together.

Perhaps most frustrating is the inability of the team to play the end of the first half properly. For the ninth time in 10 games this season, the opposition scored in the last two minutes of the half, which is truly hard to believe. And the only time it didn’t happen, back in Carolina in Week 3, the Panthers punched in a touchdown with 2:47 left. In three of the last four games, the Bengals have given up multiple scores! It may not have made much difference against the Chiefs or Saints, but it sure cost them the Ravens game. This is the essence of situational football, and the Bengals under Lewis are regressing badly in this department.

Next up is Cleveland, an automatic W when Hue was coaching in BrownsTown but not so much now that he’s washed up and back down here in Cincinnati. Cleveland appears to be on the verge of at long last getting the most from its talented roster. Baker Mayfield may not be better than Andy Dalton (yet), but Nick Chubb and the Browns’ O-line are playing better than their Cincinnati contemporaries. Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward will be better than anyone on the Bengals’ defense, and the Browns linebackers are miles better than Cincinnati’s limping scrubs. The Browns are second in pass defense DVOA (eighth overall), and they’ve shown that they can simply pound the Bengals on the ground while limiting Mayfield’s exposure. Yes, Green is expected to return, imshallah, but the overall lack of imagination and poor basic fundamental play will permeate the team regardless.

Will Marvin Lewis really lose back-to-back games to rookie quarterbacks? Sadly, I think he will. And then we can all officially start looking toward the draft. Unlike last season, we won’t even have Lewis’ firing to (falsely) get pumped up for.


Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

 

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