What was most maddening part for you of Cincinnati’s latest loss, Sunday’s 26-21 play-just-well-enough-to-lose bummer in front of a friends-and-family-only crowd in Carson, California?
Was it the “only the Bengals” application of the new rule that doesn’t give a ballcarrier diving head first the extra ground gained even when untouched? Naturally, back in the 2013 postseason, against these very same Chargers, Andy Dalton dove for a first down, wasn’t touched, and fumbled, giving the ball to (then, and in my mind always) San Diego. Now, in the dubious name of safety, Jeff Driskel was robbed of a crucial touchdown by six inches because the NFL pretends to care about the health of its players.
Was it the infuriating penalties, including a false start on fourth and inches at the goal line moments after Driskel’s non-TD and an offsides that allowed a Chargers field goal just before halftime? How about the (literal) communications breakdowns on the early drives that led to easy Chargers touchdowns? The overall strategic buffoonery and situational lack of awareness? The team’s continued inability to scheme up a workable two-point conversion or an onside kick that has any semblance of working?
Or how about the fact that both the Steelers and Ravens also lost, continuing their sloppy meh seasons that aren’t much different from Cincinnati’s except in the depth of their injury outbreaks? Despite everything, with just a hint of fortune and a couple of plays here and there, the Bengals could actually be leading this division, and certainly would be in the wild-card mix.
Now, as I’ve mentioned numerous times before, sliding into the postseason in that just-happy-to-be-here sixth spot isn’t really the best thing for the Bengals’ long-term health. And even a division title, while never an accomplishment to sneeze at, would come with “Do we really want this?” baggage. Either result would be similar to last year’s brace of wins in the last two weeks, writ poisonously large—Marvin Lewis would unquestionably be back as head coach, and there would be zero impetus for any course correction along the banks of the Ohio River. Instead, the Bengals remain pointed toward a top-10 draft pick and, hopefully, the long-awaited franchise reset.
So maybe we should concentrate on some of the good things to take from Sunday. The Bengals held the ball for nearly 33 minutes, didn’t turn it over, and after committing 25 penalties in the last two games were flagged just six times (although the aforementioned two presnap penalties were killers). For the first time in forever, Cincinnati entered the game with a good plan, stuck with it, and executed it mostly to perfection.
With Driskel at the helm and few downfield weapons healthy, the running game was center stage, and Joe Mixon and the makeshift line in front of him controlled large segments of the game. Mix rumbled for 111 tough yards on 26 carries, and the team overall piled up 144 on 4.5 yards per carry, a performance that allowed Cincinnati to nearly steal a game on the road against one of the NFL’s better teams.
Mixon is arguably the third-best player on the team, after AJ Green and Geno Atkins. He showed off the full package Sunday: patience, power, elusiveness, and good hands. The 31 touches (he added five receptions for 27 yards) were by far the most he’s had as a pro and made you wonder why he’s been underutilized this year. Yes, he was banged up early on, and the fact Cincinnati has trailed hugely in several games took away from his opportunities. But Sunday showed what happens when he is the bellcow back, as offensive coordinator Bill Lazor promised Mixon would be during the offseason. For the Bengals to pull out or even compete in the last three games, leaning on Joltin’ Joe needs to be the primary game plan.
Up front, one performer stood out: guard Christian Westerman, who gave a display many of his champions (including me) thought he had in him. Westerman has long showed promise, but clearly there is something the coaches are (or are not) seeing from him in practice or the locker room, because when CW plays he certainly seems worthy. He was good in the ground game especially, nastily finishing blocks and showing good movement. He did give up the sack on the late two-point conversion, but that looked more like it was Driskel’s fault for not getting rid of the ball quickly—which may explain why Westerman didn’t help his fallen quarterback to his feet after the play. That was upsetting to witness, especially since Driskel had played a gutsy and mostly effective game. That moment alone may explain why Alex Redmond has seen more action, but in terms of blocking Westerman surely deserves more time on the field.
Defensively, after resorting to walkie-talkies due to helmet communication malfunctions, Cincinnati mostly slowed the high-octane Chargers attack (already missing Melvin Gordon). After scoring on the first play of the second quarter, L.A. didn’t crack the end zone again, and really managed just a single drive of significance the rest of the way. The fact they still managed to score a dozen points and pull out a close one speaks to the Chargers’ superior coaching and preparation for important moments mentioned above.
But the play of the Bengals alleged “star” defenders, notably Carlos Dunlap and William Jackson, was encouraging. Both have been mostly invisible as the team plummeted in the standings. Jackson in particular thrived when the Bengals at long last came out of its cover two and deep zone shell looks and started playing more press man coverage. Over and over again, Philip Rivers challenged Jackson on third down, and over and over again, Jackson came up big, often in the red or maroon zone. It was the kind of performance expected of WJ3 coming into the year, the one that gets you labeled as a “shutdown” corner and one that’s mostly been missing as opponents drove up and down the field on the Cincinnati D. Yes, the underneath defenders are far more to blame, and the lack of pass rush pressure hasn’t helped either. But Jackson has admitted to taking a step back this season. Let’s hope Sunday begins a strong closing month that will carry over into next year.
Overall it was a mix of the promising and the frustrating, the kind of game the Bengals have lost so often in my years as a fan I could essentially tell my son what was about to happen before it did. “How did you know they would take the touchdown away, then false start on fourth and goal and miss out on four points, Daddy?” “Experience, son, experience.”
“But how did you know they would score a late TD, then miss the two-point conversion they wouldn’t have needed to attempt if they had just kicked the PAT in the second quarter, Daddy?” “Bitter experience, son, bitter experience.”
Alas, he’s quickly catching on. The club needs to change things up quickly before yet another generation of fans is ruined like I was.
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.