Score Early, Often, and Late

Given the defense’s injuries, the Bengals are going to have to win a shootout in Kansas City

Remember last week’s column, which posited that a fourth quarter pass rush would be the key element in defeating, for once, the hated Steelers? I didn’t expect there wouldn’t be any pressure coming from the Bengals’s defense in the fourth quarter … nor in the prior three either.

This latest heartbreak came after what appeared to be another comeback drive of the young season. Even in the moment, you knew the Bengals had scored too soon. But both Miami and Indy, and to a not so dramatic extent Baltimore, were put away with late game turnovers, so the hope was it could happen one more time.

But since the Bengals never sniffed Ben Roethlisberger all game, it was a forlorn hope. Part of the problem was good play by Pittsburgh’s excellent offensive line, but another was scheme. The Steelers could run effectively, and thus didn’t have to put four wideouts on the field to move the ball. They wanted to keep Cincinnati’s iffy linebackers and run-stuffers on the field as much as possible, and it worked.

The snap counts on the defensive line tell the story: Geno Atkins 54 (74%), Carlos Dunlap 50 (68%), Andrew Billings 47 (64%), Michael Johnson 45 (62%), Josh Tupou 29 (40%), Jordan Willis 27 (37%), Sam Hubbard 26 (36%), and Carl Lawson 22 (30%). Even on the few snaps Lawson, Hubbard, and Willis were in there, they made little impact. It was actually testament to the secondary that the Steelers had just 20 points up until the final second.

Now, was the lack of pressure the sole reason the Bengals lost? Absolutely not. The tackling was bad, the dropped passes were killers, and Marvin Lewis didn’t impress with his clock management and especially his decision-making. Not going for it on a pair of fourth and shorts, especially the one right after halftime, was playing scared. Cincinnati has been very good at playing for points and not field position, because in today’s NFL you have to consistently attack. But of course the sight of black and gold turned their guts into guava jelly. Ask yourself this: Do you think the Steelers were happy or not to see Cincinnati punt in those spots? Exactly.

With all that, the game might well have turned out differently had the Bengals played the final minutes with their full complement of defensive players. But mounting injuries, which already have hamstrung the offense, crippled the defense. Who got picked—sorry, “rubbed”—on that final play? Tony McRae, playing for the injured Darqueze Dennard. We love Clay Fejedelem, but Shawn Williams was dearly missed. William Jackson limped in and out, as did Dre Kirkpatrick, though both played heroically. Nick Vigil was long gone by the end. Jessie Bates was knocked out by his own man, Vontaze Burfict. There were scarcely 11 bodies to deploy at the end, making the game-winning drive fairly routine for Roethlisberger and Co.

Vigil is definitely out for Sunday, with Dennard and Williams likely so. So what’s the absolute worst team a depleted defense wants to see next? Pat Mahomes and Kansas City. (OK, you can argue for the Rams or the Pats, and I won’t fight you.) This game was moved to Sunday night mainly because of the sophomore quarterback’s star power—Jimmy G.’s injury had something to do with it too—and his boffo performance a couple of Monday nights ago against the Broncos and this past Sunday under the lights vs. the Patriots showed the move was a smart one. We might not like the idea, but it’s hard to fault NBC on this one.

So do the Bengals have a shot? In many ways, this one will be quite similar to the Falcons matchup in Week 4. Cincinnati’s best (only?) hope will be to somehow outscore the Chiefs, probably by being the team with the games’ final possession. Kansas City leads the NFL in points scored and DVOA, helped in the latter by phenomenal special teams play thus far. However, its defense is downright poor—even worse than the Bengals. More points allowed, worse DVOA, more yards per play allowed, etc.

There are some exceptions, however, mainly in third down percentage, where the Chiefs are surprisingly enough sixth-best in the NFL (Bengals are 31st) and sacks, where KC has put up 17 to the Bengals’ 13. In other words, the Chiefs, while brutal on a play-to-play basis, have had some key situational stops, which have allowed extra possessions, which Mahomes has turned into points. The Bengals offense has been solid in third down conversion percentage (11th in the league), and that particular aspect of the game will be extremely important. It’s simply mandatory to keep the ball and the Chiefs’ explosive offense on the sidelines.

The sample is still small, but the Chiefs D has been very good at covering enemy wideouts: 11th vs. #1 receivers, and best in the league at stopping #2s. But the other eligible receivers have run wild on KC, so the game plan could certainly feature guys other than A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd—or it would if so many weren’t hurt.

Overall, even with several players banged up, the offense has been high quality, if not as turbo-charged as Kansas City. Cincinnati has scored 22 touchdowns through six games—last season, they didn’t get TD #22 until Week 15, if you can believe it. They’ve scored 21 or more points in eight straight games, tying the franchise record. Needless to say, setting that new mark feels mandatory for Sunday night.

Should Cincinnati get beat in Missouri and fall to 4-3, there will be much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments locally, while nationally the team will be written off as pretenders. Neither of these sentiments are fair, of course. If before the season began you could have signed up for a 4-3 record after seven games, there’s no doubt you would’ve taken that in a Queen City Minute. As always, the order of things matters, but so long as the team rebounds with a win over Tampa at home, a loss to KC is hardly the end of the world. 5-3 going into the much-needed bye week is a positive state of affairs.

And should Cincinnati pull the upset and then lose to the Bucs, that same 5-3 would feel awful. Football, man….

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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