On Sunday, the Bengals came back down to Earth. After a miraculous four-week run that included an improbable sweep through the division and culminated in an emotionally-taxing week of shock, grief, and jubilation; the luck simply ran out. The Houston Texans, a sub-.500 team, entered Paul Brown Stadium and easily handled the “cardiac cats.” While the Bengals did mount multiple late game comeback attempts, they kept rolling snake-eyes with penalties, turnovers, and poor execution.
No rabbit’s foot or four leaf clovers this week.
Making matters worse, their luck ran out on the injury front as well. Remarkably healthy through the first five games, they lost two defensive stand-outs early against Houston. Antwan Odom, who up until last night was tied for the lead league in sacks, was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, and stout DT Domata Peko suffered an as-yet undetermined knee injury. Odom had blocked a Houston field goal attempt early in the game, and Peko’s presence was sorely missed as one of the NFL’s worst rushing attacks found room up the middle in the second half.
After showing so much heart through the first five games, on Sunday the Bengals had none. At home, and despite holding several tactical advantages, they came out listless and flat. After all the talk about being a “different team” in 2009, they looked very 2007 against the Texans. It was reminiscent of one of those brainless, heartless performances from years past against inferior opponents.
If the Bengals are to become the team they can be—the team they think they are–they must be able to win games like this. Sunday’s performance was a complete failure. By comparison, Pittsburgh got more than they wanted from Cleveland on Sunday- and Detroit the week before for that matter-but they won both contests. They found a way to win. Now despite losing to Chicago and Cincinnati in back to back weeks last month, the Steelers find themselves tied for first with the Bengals in the AFC North at 4-2.
Now that same Chicago unit that beat the Steelers comes to PBS this Sunday, and will be desperate for a victory to stay within range of the undefeated Vikings. If the Bengals intend to win this one, and keep their divisional lead, they’ll need more than a lucky penny. They’ll need more than drama and late-game heroics. They need to show a full game’s worth of heart and put together a more complete football game in all 3 phases.
The defense must learn to contain the big plays. Cincinnati leads the league in allowing plays of 20 yards or longer on defense. “Chunk plays” offensive coordinators call them. These plays for the defensive team change field position at best, and set up scores at worst. This has not been a single game lapse in execution, but a consistent problem throughout the year. On Sunday the Texans had plenty of chunk plays, including their first offensive snap (a 59-yard pass). They confused and befuddled the Bengal defense with quick screens to the perimeter and the short passing game. The run defense was suspect, and the pass-rush was slow. Not a good sign with Jay Cutler coming to town.
The offense, by comparison, needs to find consistency. In nearly every game this season, the offense has gone into extended funks resulting in multiple 3-and-out possessions. The Bengals are tied with Buffalo for fourth in the league in punts through 6 weeks; just below Kansas City, Cleveland, and Oakland. These are wasted opportunities. They give the defense no time to rest or to evaluate their performance, and do nothing for field position. The TE position has been a particularly sore spot, with multiple dropped passes and missed assignments. Two good drives were halted by fumbles by the TE’s, and both in the second half.
Beating Pittsburgh, Green Bay, and Baltimore was fantastic. But it means nothing if they cannot beat the Houstons of the league. “Emotional Letdown” was the theme leading up to and immediately following this debacle. It was expected by several prognosticators and talking heads throughout the league. After the way the first five weeks have gone, I suppose I can see that
Nonetheless, champions win. Sunday was an opportunity for the Bengals to prove they have championship mettle—again. And again, they failed. There should be no excuses made. By contrast, the Steelers lost DE Aaron Smith for the season recently. When asked what they would do about it, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin admitted that it is difficult to replace Smith, “But” he added, “The standard is the standard.”
That comment struck me. Adversity is expected in the NFL. Emotional ups and downs are part of the process. Bad things happen, but the games come every week, regardless of what happened the previous week or the previous play. The Steelers understand that. The Bengals need to.
They must bring all the heart they have this week against Chicago. They must maintain their divisional lead, even if it’s just a tiebreaker, because if given an opportunity, Pittsburgh will show just how heartless they can be.