It came down to a play Sunday in a Paul Brown Stadium game that was decided on the last one and gave the Cardinals a 26-23 victory. But it can be any play. Take your pick. In three of the Bengals’ losses this season, it has come down to one play.
Everyone remembers the last one, so take that one first. Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, doing what you would fear the overall No. 1 pick would do in the last minute of a tie game, took the snap, barely faked a throw and simply ran through the middle of the defense for 24 yards to give the Cards a 31-yard field goal at the gun.
“He made a play and all these other teams have made plays and we haven’t and that’s why we’re 0-5,” is how Bengals left end Carlos Dunlap put it.
Contrast that to when the Bengals needed just a yard at the end of the third quarter, trailing, 13-9, on fourth-and-one from their 42. Murray made a play, but the Bengals couldn’t make this one out of an unorthodox alignment for a quarterback sneak.
Dalton went from the shot gun and faked a handoff to running back Joe Mixon, who was supposed to get a block on the linebacker, but everybody looked to have an awkward angle and it went nowhere. Dalton appreciated head coach Zac Taylor’s confidence. But that didn’t get them a yard on a night Murray generated 514 of them.
“We’ve got to make that play. I’ve got to be better, everybody has to be better. That’s a crucial part of the game where you need to get a first down,” Dalton says. “We expected to get it. Unfortunately, we didn’t. It goes to show, this is the way we’re going to play this game.”
Just a few seconds before Murray’s bolt, his eyes lit up when he saw running back David Johnson matched up on linebacker Nick Vigil. Johnson juggled the ball and barely stayed in-bounds, but he did for 24 yards.
Go back to the end of the first drive of the game. The Bengals were about to go up 7-0 with their vaunted running game finally getting off the ground and …
But wide receiver Auden Tate dropped a third-down slant for a touchdown in the red zone.
On third-and-seven in the third quarter, Murray took a fling down the seam and got a great diving catch from a guy that was, of course, a Bengal for two weeks earlier in the season. Wide receiver Pharoh Cooper ended up on the Bengals 11 for one of those field goals that made it 16-9.
Go back to the first series of the third quarter and again in the red zone on third down. Tight end Tyler Eifert got open, but Dalton threw it behind him.
Its one play that is getting Taylor battered with red-zone questions. Imagine two TDs instead of two field goals on a day you get beat by three.
“That is a great question,” Taylor said. “We will watch (the video) and see. I know we had a third-and-goal (where) I felt like we had an opportunity and didn’t make the play on the slant route. We had a penalty. We were first-and-goal from the eight and we had a penalty that knocked us back to first-and-goal from the 13. I have to see the third-down play were we didn’t connect in the end zone. Again, we are leaving four points on the board on two drives right there. That’s been the thing that has killed us the last couple of weeks.”
The Bengals missed a batch of tackles when running back Chase Edmonds broke off a 37-yard touchdown run on little perimeter pitch? Meanwhile, Bengals running back Joe Mixon could manage just 33 yards on 11 carries after the first drive.
“Obviously, we ran the ball really well that first drive, and popped a lot of big runs,” Dalton said. “There’s some things we’ll look at and see why the run game wasn’t the same. But, like I said earlier, you’re not going to hit big runs every single time.”
Both defenses came in struggling stopping the run, but it was Arizona that averaged seven yards per carry while the Bengals only averaged three after that first drive.
“I think guys adjust,” Dalton said. “We had some other runs and good gains that got set back with penalties. I think that hurt some of the runs in the second half.”
One play? Maybe it was a sack they just couldn’t get The Bengals have just two in the last four games and one on Sunday. That’s why Murray was able to convert three third downs of at least seven yards.
“It’s tough,” said Bengals right end Sam Hubbard of the dilemma a guy like Murray gives a defense. “You pick a side trying to win the pass rush and he sees a lane and he’s gone. You’ve got to rush with vision, which slows down how you’re rushing. It’s a tough task. That’s what makes him so dangerous. We’re trying to keep him in the pocket and make him throw the ball and not give him lanes to get out of there because as soon as he saw something he was out.’’
Hubbard wasn’t sure what happened on the last run, but he’s got a pretty good idea.
“I’m sure the coach is telling him if you see daylight, take it,” Hubbard said. “He just took off.”
He took off against a vacated middle of the field against a four-man rush.
“I think how short he is plays a part,” said safety Jessie Bates III of the 5-10 Murray. “Whenever you play a scrambling quarterback, you don’t see it much. You don’t see it every week, but when you do you have to make sure you stop him from getting out of the pocket and continue to play your normal defense and make sure they don’t get explosive passing plays.”
They did late, with Cooper’s diving catch and Johnson’s juggling act, juxtaposed to Tate’s tap dance and Dalton’s disconnect.
“Hell of a catch by (Cooper), hell of a throw by Kyler Murray,” Bates said. “Those plays we can live with, as long as they don’t score on those. It’s the NFL. There’s a lot of good athletes that can make plays. You have to make sure that doesn’t happen as much.”
But the Bengals need some plays of their own. Their last one of the few they made Sunday should have forced overtime when Dalton hit wide receiver Tyler Boyd for a 42-yard TD with two minutes left off play-action.
That play is a good one to study, though, because it has the elements of what they need to get something going with a battered offensive line and wide receiver corps. Play-action off a productive running game and helping the tackles.
John Jerry became the fourth left tackle (again) of the season and on that play he got help on Chandler Jones with a great chip from running back Giovani Bernard. On the other side, Tate and tight end C.J. Uzomah ganged up Terrell Suggs. Although that was “11,” personnel with one tight end and one back and three wide receivers, Taylor used more double tight ends Sunday than usual and paired up with more running attempts (21) that seemed to help Dalton’s protection.
“We had plays where we stand those guys,” said Boyd of Suggs and Jones. “We had to respect their edge rushers because they’re among the best in the game, so we’ve got to keep guys in to deliver the football. At the end of the day, it still wasn’t good enough. You know, we didn’t get the win. We’ve got to continue to hit the film room, and study and figure (out) ways to win.”
And find one play.