Coming into Sunday’s Week 5 match-up against the Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals Head Coach and his counterpart Kliff Kingsbury were still searching for their first competitive win. Thanks to some sprightly play from AZ’s rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, the trusty boot of Cards kicker Zane Gonzalez and some familiar mistakes from the Bengals, the visitors sealed a 26-23 win with a field goal that split the posts as the game clock ran out. Having let a 23-9 lead slip with two minutes left, the Cardinals fought back to snatch the W at the death, leaving the bereft Bengals to slump to 0-5 for the seventh time since 1990.
Seize the Dey? Kyler Murray
Murray’s stats in the air (253 yards, no interceptions) didn’t blow me away but he did more than enough for a QB playing only his fifth career game. Channelling his inner Lamar Jackson, it was on the ground where Murray’s explosiveness bore fruit. Through a mixture of designed runs and improvised scrambles, Murray exploited the gaps left by Cincy’s defensive line to run a career-high 10 times for 93 yards. And his fourth-down, improvised fake hand-off TD run from six yards out that put them 7-3 up was the first time the Cards have led all season.
Murray’s rushing yardage was identical to the season-high gained by Bengals running back Joe Mixon. That total marks a belated return to form for last year’s AFC rushing leader, but also puts Murray’s efforts into even sharper focus. Mixon erupted on the first drive, claiming 57 yards with six carries but then faded, as the Bengals only gained three(!) more running yards in the rest of the half. Despite a lingering back problem, Cardinals RB David Johnson also exceeded 90 yards on the ground – adding a further three catches for 65 yards – while wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (6-of-8 for 58 yards) remained another dependable outlet for Murray.
Groundhog Day? Bengals in the first half
Much like the losses in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, our first-half offensive performance barely troubled the scoreboard, bar a couple of field goals. We flattered to deceive in the opening drive but it was nearly all Mixon. For his part, Cincy QB Andy Dalton notched 4-of-10 for just 22 yards in the whole of the first half.
Admittedly, Dalton didn’t get much help, and got clattered a dozen times (although he was only sacked once, which must make a pleasant change). We went down to our fourth-choice left tackle, John Jerry, when Andre Smith left the game with an ankle injury and only Trey Hopkin (again) emerged with any credit in our porous O-line.
Not surprisingly, Dalton continued to look panicky and erratic, dropped (and recovered) a snap and miscued a would-be TD to tight end Tyler Eifert. Dalton eventually recovered to complete 27 pass attempts for 262 yards and two touchdowns – exceeding 250 for the fourth time in five outings – but in marked contrast to Murray, ran twice for a mere five yards.
For many, our #14 isn’t even meeting our lowly expectations of him, despite having an offensive-minded HC. OK, when down 23-9, he masterminded two hurry-up touchdown drives in three minutes and threw a nice 42-yard TD catch-and-run to Tyler Boyd (123 yards) to tie the score as the two-minute warning sounded. Dalton was 12 of 13 passing, with 158 yards and two touchdowns in the final quarter, but it was all too little too late: the damage had (again) been done in the first half.
With a chance to steal the limelight in the absence of wideouts AJ Green and John Ross – and then stand-in Alex Erickson, who left the field after one reception with concussion – Auden Tate did what most his colleagues did: fail to grasp he opportunity. Despite a two-yard TD that ended the Bengals’ dry spell of almost eight full quarters without one, he finished the day with only three catches for 26 yards. That said, we’re not helped by the injuries that continue to pile up in the WR room. At one point, Wide Receiver Coach Bob Bicknell had to send in two undrafted rookies (Stanley Morgan and Damion Willis) to accompany Boyd and former seventh-rounder Tate.
Who Dey? Zac Taylor
To his credit, HC Zac Taylor has (again) taken responsibility for his team’s slow starts to game and red-zone failures, telling the press: “On offense, I’m the play caller and we’re not scoring enough points. That’s on me.” Yes, it is. But many have noted the increasingly questionable offensive decisions we’re seeing from him.
Since our hope-inducing Week 1, where we bemused the Seahawks with all manner of sleight of hand, the offense has been completely devoid of creativity. Total vanilla for 60 minutes. So much for Taylor being The Quarterback Whisperer. We constantly stalled when we got within a whiff of the red zone and while his team forced a late tie with some exciting no-huddle offense, he still couldn’t seal the win. There were no screens, no play action, no deep-threat throws and, even though Arizona have been torched by tight ends in every game this season, almost no TE involvement. Why?
Summing it all up, on a vital 4th-and-inches – when a good old-fashioned battering ram play or a quarterback sneak is called for – why on earth does ‘Average Andy’ drop back into the shotgun and inevitably get smothered? That call alone has already received a lot of negative attention, and rightly so. And it wasn’t as if ZT was outsmarted by a zen master with decades of experience; he was taking on a fellow newbie with four previous NFL games under his belt.
D-Day? Same old defensive deficiencies
We’re also seeing what looks like the result of poor coaching from Defensive Coordinator Lou Anaumo. We forced Arizona to settle for three FGs in the first half but the obvious problems persist: allowing first downs on long-distance situations, our secondary under-performing, and an inability by our linebackers to cope with runners emerging from the backfield and heading to the perimeter (like Johnson’s 24-yard gain on the game-winning drive).
We also missed a load more tackles on Sunday night, from BW Webb getting shoved to the ground by Fitzgerald to safety Jessie Bates being totally bypassed on a 37-yard TD run by the Cards’ never-heard-of-him RB2 Chase Edmonds (86 total yards on eight carries and three catches).
Although few and far between, there were some bright sparks. Defensive end Sam Hubbard claimed our only QB sack of the day. Randy Bullock nailed all three of his FG attempts and both extra points. And Brandon Wilson – on as a returner after Erickson left the field – took his first attempt back for 52 yards. With Erickson – and Darius Phillips before him – out, it’s reassuring that our third choice can perform to some level.
Stat of the day? Red zone woes
The red-zone offenses ranked 30th (Cardinals) and 31st (Bengals) in the NFL performed as badly as expected, with five of the seven offensive possessions inside the 20 ending in field goals. Cincy have now failed to score a TD on 10 of their 13 red-zone trips this season.
Call it a day? Time to tank
Our season so far has see-sawed from narrow defeats in Weeks 1, 3 and 5 to total blowouts in-between. If we maintain that pattern, expect us to get totally wiped out by the Baltimore Ravens and the LA Rams in Weeks 6 and 8, and run the Jacksonville Jaguars close – but ultimately hand them the cigar – in Week 7.
By the time we hit our bye week at the start of November, we could be the only ‘oh-fer’ team in the league (Washington and Miami this weekend, so one of them is bound to pick up their first win). And having seen the difference a QB taken as the first overall draft pick can make, I feel the ‘Tankathon’ should start right here, right now.
Feature Picture – Credit: Bryan Woolston/Getty Images