Frustration surfaced on the Bengals side of the ball Sunday as Cincinnati (1-2) suffered a second consecutive defeat, a 29-17 loss to the defending Super Bowl Champion Broncos.
The loss puts the Bengals two full games behind undefeated Baltimore. Pittsburgh’s loss to Philadelphia puts the Steelers at 2-1, but with a game in hand on the Bengals.
A quick turnaround may be just the thing to help cleanse a sour Cincinnati palette. The Bengals host the Miami Dolphins on Thursday Night Football.
A frustrating loss of an otherwise winnable football game is the dictionary definition of what is endearingly known as Bungling away a game.
On a day when a special teams fumble cost six points; five different penalties extended drives that also yielded points; and the secondary surrendered four touchdown passes to a quarterback making his first professional road start, it was the kind of loss familiar to Bengals fans.
A rightful commitment to the running game came at the expense of a passing game that seemed like it was playing inside an auxiliary gym. Even with only eight second half rushes, all those Andy Dalton passes in the third and fourth quarter came on short and intermediate routes. Dalton’s longest completion Sunday was a 27-yard completion to receiver Brand LaFell.
After throwing for over 360 yards in each of the first two games, Andy Dalton completed 21 of 31 passes for a comparatively small 206 yards. Still, combined with 143 yards rushing, 200 yards through the air could have been enough to win the game.
What Sunday’s balanced offensive attack lacked was a big play. A.J. Green became visibly frustrated after he and Dalton misfired on an intended pass downfield along the sideline. Dalton slammed the ball onto the Paul Brown Stadium turf just before going to retrieve his helmet following one of what were four Denver sacks on the day. Dalton has been sacked 12 times already this season, and has generally not had enough time to drop back and find receivers down the field in the passing game.
So, whether it’s a miscommunication between quarterback and receiver, or it’s the offensive line not giving that quarterback enough time to throw, this offense hasn’t gained enough yards in chunks to sustain drives or score points in the red zone.
Ominous signs though these may be, the competition has been stiff so far as the Bengals’ two straight losses (and all the mistakes and offensive shortcomings that accompany them) have come against two of the best teams – and defenses – in the NFL.
However tempting, it’s more cynical than necessary to cast these off as the same old Bengals so early into the season.
A convincing home victory Thursday to level the record at 2-2 ahead of a 10-day layoff would go a long way towards easing concerns about the postseason viability of this team.
In the same way it was premature to print Super Bowl tickets last year when this team was undefeated into late October, it’s probably not fair to scoff, “same old Bengals.”
Besides, with 13 games left in the season, and road dates looming with the Patriots and Giants jumping out from a remaining schedule that also includes home games against the Eagles, another showdown with Pittsburgh and two divisional games each with the Browns and Ravens, there’s plenty of chances to say that later.
Or not; fresh off his suspension, maybe a newly-matured Vontaze Burfict rejuvenates the Bengals defense that rounds out to be among the top-five football.
Maybe Dalton’s 27-yard completion to LaFell is a good sign of progress that the free agent receiver is integrating into the offense. And Tyler Eifert will be back soon. The All-Pro tight end is a legitimate intermediate and red zone threat, and was among the league leaders in touchdown receptions last season. His return to the offense will mean a lot to Andy Dalton and the potential of the passing game.
Omitting personal foul and defensive holding penalties that extend drives for the opposing offense are also integral to the team’s success.
That’s why the quick turnaround is so important.
These points can be cleaned up, and the opportunity to get back on their home field and find a rhythm against a Dolphins team with its own quarterback and defensive issues could be just what the Bengals need to boost their confidence ahead of a difficult stretch of games through October.