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Bengals Defense Looks To Rebound From White Out In New York

The Bengals defense celebrates one of its three turnovers Sunday.
The Bengals defense celebrates one of its three turnovers Sunday.

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Well, it turned out Mike White was more Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson instead of Johnny Manziel and Brock Berlin.

White, the little known fifth-rounder from 2018 who became a part of New York Jets lore Sunday when he orchestrated the stunning come-from-behind 34-31 win over the Bengals in his first NFL start. White more than actually doubled the passing totals of Jackson (150) and Watson (125) in their debuts they also won against the Bengals.

Now, White is no Jackson or Watson. But he went 37 of 44 for 405 yards against the Bengals' 10th-ranked defense that merely the week before had held Jackson's pinball offense to 17 points.

For the fourth straight time the Bengals lost to a quarterback making his first NFL start and for the seventh time in this century, ranging from Drew Brees to Joe Flacco to Watson and Jackson to Shaun Hill and Tom Savage.

But no one did what White did. Heck, no one has but Cam Newton, who also threw for 400 yards in his first NFL start. White bled the Bengals to death. He nickel and dimed and sliced and diced and bobbed and weaved. Their biggest play all day, 26 yards, ended up in a turnover. The Bengals didn't get hit in the mouth on defense, they got fly-swatted.

And no one saw this coming as the Jets fans gathered on a Halloween Sunday in what has become a haunted house of sorts with a New York offense ranked next-to-last under rookie Zach Wilson. The Bengals probably would have been better off against the draft's overall No. 2 pick.

"I think just the tackling. As a unit we didn't tackle well and a lot of extra yards that shouldn't be given away and that's on us so we've got a lot of stuff to correct," said left end Sam Hubbard.

The defense showed up in a costume the unit had worn the previous two seasons. From missed tackles in space to wide-open check-down throws to running backs, they were unrecognizable from the unit that had added four new starters free agency and had allowed 25 points in a game just once. And those to Aaron Rodgers in overtime.

The group that had played such complementary and stingy football the first seven weeks of the season allowed a 67-yard touchdown drive in 1:36 when the Bengals went up 17-7 late in the first half.

When the Bengals went up 24-17 midway through the third quarter, they let them go 10 plays without getting to third down until the last play at the Bengals 3, where Trey Hendrickson got his 7.5th sack of the season to force a field goal.

Then quarterback Joe Burrow appeared to do what he usually does and got the jugular with a 10-yard dart to wide receiver Tyler Boyd for the 31-20 lead with 7:29 left on a cold-blooded third down.

"We answered their blows," Burrow said. "They gave us their best shot and we answered it."

But the defense let White retort, taking less than three minutes to go 75 yards to make it a one-score game when they left a running back, Ty Johnson wide open in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown catch. The closest guy to White when he caught the two-point Philly Special pass from wide receiver Jamison Crowder was a teammate who mauled him.

Nope, it wasn't the Bengals defense of the last seven games.

It seemed out of sync from the get-go. The Bengals lost the coin toss but got what they wanted when rookie head coach Robert Saleh felt White had to settle in as soon as possible and took the ball.

"You can talk about it all you want, but until it happens it doesn't seem real. It still doesn't seem real," said Hubbard, a good half-hour after it was over. "It happened. No matter what you say it's all about what you do so that's the reality of the situation."

Here's a play that symbolized it, and there were plenty of them. The Bengals had a 17-14 lead early in the third quarter and had punted the first possession of the second half. It looked like they were getting the ball right back because Bengals tackle Larry Ogunjobi sacked White to set up a third-and-11.

But they let White off the hook when free safety Jessie Bates III and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, two of their best players, appeared to jump the same route, leaving Ty Johnson wide open in the flat for 14 yards to keep a drive going that got the tying field goal.

"It felt like we were playing soft," Bates said. "(We were) just letting them check it down. We didn't tackle well. That just shows in this league, that's not good enough. If you get turnovers in the first half, that doesn't matter with what the second half has to offer. We didn't get any in the second half, so we have to continue to get better at that."

The defense couldn't even complement its own terrific ability to get the turnovers they were expected to jar loose from a guy making his first NFL start. They turned over the Jets three times in the first half, a season high, and Bates did all he could to get things going the right way. They were down, 7-0, with their offense unable to move and he took a tipped pass on the longest interception return of his career, a 65-yarder that put the Bengals on the Jets 1.

They lost 14 yards on the next four snaps, but they took a 17-`14 halftime lead because linebacker Germaine Pratt caught another tipped pass and gave them a start at the New York 15, and strong safety Vonn Bell blew up Crowder's 26-yard-catch-and-run when he yanked out the ball and fell on it.

It was the third time in the Zac Taylor era they secured three turnovers and the first time since the 2014 loss in Pittsburgh they didn't win with three.

"That's what we preach throughout the game is to get turnovers," Bates said. "But what we didn't do well was force the offense to kick field goals"

What they didn't do showed up on Monday's Pro Football Focus grades in the form of missed tackles. MTs. Five defenders had at least two misses. Middle linebacker Logan Wilson, the lowest graded player on defense, had a team-high three.

Hubbard knows the issue is bigger.

"We've never been in this position where we're now the hunted. We've always been the hunters. They were more hungry than we were today," Hubbard said, "I think it's a valuable lesson we learned in our process. Like I said, any week anybody can get us, and we have to prepare that way and come every Sunday ready to play. This isn't college. It's the NFL. These guys are getting paid to play, too, and they want to win just as badly as us. Like I said, we talked about it all week, but until you feel the pain that we're feeling right now, it doesn't seem real."

What's real part is they let a game get away everyone thought they had and let a neophyte quarterback grab it and now they're going to have to steal one no one thinks they can get.

"Their game plan was good, but there is no excuse for our mental errors," said Hubbard, whose defense is still good but more reflective now. "Every single one of us on the defense could have made a play or had a mistake that cost us including myself, so that's all on us."

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