While the extent of the Cincinnati Bengals offensive ineptitude without A.J. Green wasn’t immediately clear in his absence against the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago, it bordered on historic in the first half of the Bengals 24-0 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
First Drive, 14:04 First Quarter: It wouldn’t have been possible for the Bengals first play from scrimmage— a completion to Jermaine Gresham that resulted in a loss of five yards—to be any more symbolic of their entire afternoon. At one point in this game, Gresham had five catches for zero yards, which is the same amount the Bengals gained before punting on 4th and 10 on this drive.
I woke up a little late for the game. It wasn’t by much, just a couple drives—three-and-outs, of course—which I quickly caught up on thanks to the majestic beauty of DVR. I only bring this up because when I turned on the TV, the Bengals were mid-drive, lined up in a four-receiver set, twins to each side. This was immediately alarming because said receiver grouping was made up of Mohamed Sanu and three guys that wouldn’t see the field—save for special teams—on just about any other decent team in the NFL. But there they were: Sanu, the Bengals No. 3 receiver who has been temporarily forced into the No. 1 spot because of Green’s foot/toe problems and Marvin Jones’ season-ending ankle injury; Brandon Tate, a kick returner who shouldn’t even have that job; Dane Sanzenbacher, a former undrafted free agent; James Wright, a seventh-round draft pick and the final receiver to make the roster.
Fourth Drive, 0:33 First Quarter: After incompletions to Wright and Sanu, Dalton was forced into a short check down for 3 yards to Gresham on 3rd and 10 from the Bengals 19-yard line.
Sanu elevated his game in a big way against Carolina, hauling in 10 catches for 120 yards and a touchdown in his first NFL game as a No. 1 target. But the Colts took note and blanketed him for the entirety of Sunday’s matchup. Essentially, the Colts took away Sanu, stacked eight men in the box and blitzed at will for the full 60 minutes. They dared Cincinnati’s other receivers to beat them down field, and they never even came close to responding.
With Sanu neutralized and no real threat from anyone else in the passing game, the Bengals weren’t able to get anything going in the run game—Giovani Bernard carried just seven times for 17 yards—and fell into a futile cycle of failed screen passes and short check downs, as deeper routes failed to materialize and the Colts continued to pressure Dalton, who did well not to throw any interceptions in a game where he had no time and essentially no options.
Sixth Drive, 8:14 Second Quarter: Bernard gets his ribs absolutely obliterated on a failed swing pass to start off the drive, stayed on the sideline for one play, trotted back onto the field and promptly got crushed again on a failed check down. Three plays, -3 yards. Kevin Huber punt. Internal thoughts after watching six consecutive three-and-outs: Do I have to keep watching this? Why don’t I have any beer in the house? And, seriously, have the Bengals even attempted a pass farther than 10 yards?
After injuries to Green, Jones, and versatile tight end Tyler Eifert, and losing reliable slot receiver Andrew Hawkins to Cleveland, the Bengals have played the past two weeks with only three—Sanu, Gresham and Bernard—of their top seven receivers from last season. And, their only additions in those absences are Wright and Greg Little. Yes, the same Greg Little who flunked out in Cleveland two years ago because he couldn’t catch the ball. Yes, the same Greg Little who was cut by the lowly Oakland Raiders earlier this season. And, yes, the same Greg Little whose lackluster play led to headlines like “Why Was Greg Little Released? Because He’s Not Very Good at Professional Football.”
Eighth Drive, 2:31 Second Quarter: Fittingly, Little dropped his first target as a Bengal, denying Cincinnati what would’ve been their first first-down of the game.
Ninth Drive, 0:59 Second Quarter: A mere minute away from going THE ENTIRE FIRST HALF WITHOUT SECURING A SINGLE FIRST DOWN, the Bengals were spared when Colts defensive lineman Eric Walden inexplicably made contact with an official and was ejected from the game. FIRST DOWN!
Twenty-eight plays and a whopping 27 yards later, the Bengals limped into halftime, having attempted only two passes of more than 10 yards before the penalty on the final drive of the half. The second half was really no better, as the Bengals first drive was yet another three-and-out, which included another botched screen and another inconsequential short completion to Gresham. When all was said and done, the Bengals converted on just 1-of-13 third down attempts, amassing just 135 total yards.
Three weeks ago, it was unfathomable that the Bengals would be going into this Sunday’s matchup with the Baltimore Ravens at risk of starting to spiral out of contention in AFC North title race. Now they’re simply trying to put some points on the board. Clearly, with the Colts having just drafted a blueprint for dominating the current Bengals offense, Cincinnati cannot win in the long term without A.J. Green. As of Tuesday afternoon, Green’s status for Sunday is “up in the air.” Until he is back and somewhat productive again, defenses will continue to key on Sanu and take away the shorter passing attacks of Bernard and the tight ends, which will potentially be bolstered by Eifert’s impending return—Nov. 6 against Cleveland at the earliest.
For now, the injuries and lack of production remain. Only the Minnesota Vikings have fewer passing touchdowns (4), than the Bengals (7) so far this season. Unfortunately, the biggest thing the Bengals can do to improve offensively is get healthy, which is as frustrating as it is uncontrollable.