In two of his last three games (and his team’s last two wins), Steelers halfback Le’Veon Bell had carried the ball over 30 times, combining for 323 yards and 3 touchdowns in the two outings. He did the same thing in Cincinnati this past Sunday, taking 35 handoffs for 134 yards, as well as notching 58 yards with 3 catches.

It’s the script that the Bengals’ defense knew they’d try to stick to, and they failed to stop it from being executed. Dalton led the offense valiantly in the first half, matching Pittsburgh’s offense blow for blow, and the Bengals went to halftime only six points down to the home favorites.

Then the first two drives of the second half ended in a combined six plays — the first a typical three-and-out, the second after a bobbled pass to A.J. Green turned into an interception for Joe Haden. Pittsburgh turned the following possession into their fourth field goal in four consecutive drives, broadening their margin to 12 points and turning the tide of the game heavily against Dalton’s unit. Unable to stand tall in said tide, the unit converted only one first down after that point — a pathetic showing encapsulated by Dalton throwing the ball away on fourth down to end the team’s last possession.


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Four Quick Notes

• Linebacker Kevin Minter left the game relatively early with an injury, and while it’s not clear that his presence would’ve helped the unit contain Bell any further, it was clear that the unit wasn’t up to the task without him. It’s one thing to be outmatched by a superior athlete in isolated coverage — seeing Nick Vigil or Vincent Rey trailing behind Bell would’ve been understandable. Unfortunately, we didn’t see that; we saw Bell catch the ball in the open field and stiff-arm Dre Kirkpatrick.

From a coaching perspective, the solution isn’t matching a linebacker up with Bell — again, that would’ve been an athletic mismatch. It should’ve been to put George Iloka or Shawn Williams in the right zip code to make a play. Sure, there’s a catch-22 from that perspective in that it requires leaving corners to cover Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant in downfield isolation, but that would’ve been a good, calculated risk to take. It’s a bulletproof bet in 2017 that Bell can run without a concerted effort to stop him, it’s far from the same that Ben can win a game with his arm.

• Relevant to the above point: cornerback William Jackson III had himself a game, grading higher on Pro Football Focus (92.3) than any other Bengal by 13 points and second among cornerbacks league-wide to Marshon Lattimore (93.6). While a clear cornerback hierarchy has seemed elusive in Cincinnati, Jackson can lay claim to the highest peaks of any player in the group. He wasn’t asked to cover Brown or Martavis Bryant on an island much in this game, but he might assert himself as that kind of player by the Bengals’ next matchup against them.

For what it’s worth, ‘behind Marshon Lattimore’ is hardly a bad consolation prize. The 11th-overall pick has looked like an elite player at the position in his rookie year, playing first banana in a suddenly competitive New Orleans secondary. Among some other young corners in the league (fellow rookie Tre’Davious White in Buffalo among them), he’s making a case that cornerbacks can ascend to dominant levels in less playing time then they’ve historically been expected to. Not saying that’ll happen with Jackson, but telling you there’s a chance.

• On Dalton’s first interception: as described, the ball was ahead of Green. That being said, it hit him in the hands, and the interception was caught off his back. For Green, with the kind of season he’s had thus far, the kind of player he is and the elite standing he’s capable of holding, making that catch shouldn’t be above the bar set for him.

Earlier in the game, Green caught a cross-field curl from Dalton with a defender in front of him, that Dalton threw into a small window over the cornerback’s head. While Romo and Nantz both called the play dangerous from the booth, it was the kind of catch you expect Green to make when he’s at the top of his game and Dalton can cover his end of the deal. It’s not hyperbole to say that was the most critical play of the game in terms of Pittsburgh pulling away, and fair or not, it’s disappointing that Green didn’t pull through.

• Dalton’s last throw of the game, of course, was a throwaway pass on 4th-and-2. While Dalton was rightfully mocked across social media for the miscue — professional quarterbacks should be above such miscues, regardless of anything else — the situation was more just bad optics than anything else.

While Dalton should’ve found somewhere in bounds to throw the ball and let come what may (completion, incompletion, interception), the result of the game wouldn’t have changed. It was abundantly clear in the second half that Bill Lazor has no functional game plan for second-half passing situations, and it’s hard to believe that either he or Dalton can piece one together with the limits of the protection in front of them.

 

Stock Up

• Jordan Willis: While the Bengals’ pass rush failed to land a sack on Roethlisberger all afternoon (35 handoffs to Le’Veon Bell makes that a more difficult task), Willis quietly had a nice effort in his 23 snaps. The rookie logged two pressures in his four pass rush attempts, and largely did his part to close gaps against the run. With technically-linebacker Carl Lawson emerging as a pass-rush specialist, it’s important for Willis to be an effective run defender for the tandem to work well in the future.

• William Jackson III: Jackson, as previously mentioned, had the best day of any Bengals player by a wide margin. Playing in 86% of the defensive snaps, per Football Outsiders, Jackson allowed only one catch for three yards all game. Per Pro Football Focus, those numbers included four targets while covering Antonio Brown, in which he defended three passes. Again, Jackson being the de facto CB1 and being Brown’s primary matchup by the next match between these teams isn’t an outlandish idea.

 

Stock Down

• Joe Mixon: Long before this game was near completion, it was odd to see Lazor open the game on offense without featuring Mixon on every play as he had against Green Bay, Cleveland and Buffalo. Later in the game, while these these things can’t be known for certain from the outside, it certainly appeared that Mixon blew a blocking assignment, allowing Dalton to be dropped for a 13-yard loss on third down.

That being said, the run game hardly improved for Mixon’s absence. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill combined for 15 yards on seven carries — removing the longest runs of each, they would’ve had 2 yards on five carries. All three backs are too talented to be individually accountable for such dismal production, yet here they are, captives of a poor run blocking unit up front. It’s hard to imagine the unit turns it around at this point before the next offseason.

 

Looking Ahead

With the Baltimore Ravens dropping four of their last five after a 2-0 start to the season and Cleveland looking well out of contention for anything other than the first overall pick, Cincinnati should be the consensus second-best team in the AFC North after an improved performance next week (hosting the still-Luckless Colts). The value of that standing remains to be seen.

Just short of halfway through the season, it appears that New England, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City will all be in the postseason tournament once again. Outside of them, every other team in the AFC seems to have a realistic shot of making it. The rest of the teams in the East and West are within a game of each other, with only the Colts (needless to say a different and better team if Luck can return) more than a game out in the South.

While the Bengals need to play significantly better in passing situations in order to be a true playoff contender, they still have a good shot at a bid if they can take care of Jacoby Brissett’s Colts at home this Sunday. Outside of the division, they’re the weakest conference opponent available, at a time that the Bengals need them most. It’s a game that Bengals fans should look forward to.

A more detailed breakdown of the matchup will be included in the Week 9 preview.

 

– Andy Hammel is the managing editor for cover32/Bengals and covers the Cincinnati Bengals for cover32. Follow him on Twitter at @Andy_Hammel, and the cover32 Bengals team at @cover32_CIN.