They’ll talk about the numbers, the records and the projections to fill a decade of NFL Record and Fact Books. But basically Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium the battered Bengals defense shaved enough bristles off The Mustache to win Sunday’s game.
Without his two top edge rushers, his two starting cornerbacks and playing three slot cornerbacks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo emptied out the Staten Island playbook in the 27-17 loss to Jacksonville. There were six-man lines, flashes of a wide-9 alignment, more games up front and blitzes from the back and when the dust cleared the Bengals made Jags quarterback Gardner Minshew look like a rookie sixth-rounder. They gave him just three field goals heading into the fourth quarter and 19 points for the game.
Winnable. Throw in another 61-yard kick return by Brandon Wilson that makes him the NFL leader and they nearly had enough to compensate for an absent offense.
But the last 15 minutes is when the Jags’ exhausting 82 plays (on top of the Ravens’ 77 last week) and 38 minutes of possession caught up to them. Minshew made the two throws he had absolutely had to have to lead his team to a 27-17 victory.
“Felt like I played two games out there,” said safety Shawn Williams, who played every down, tender thigh and all. “We minimized the damage, but we can do better. We just have to go back to the basics. Do the little things right. Be fundamentally sound. Communicate. Not re-invent the wheel.”
The Bengals took a spoke out the Saints’ playbook from last week and made sure they stayed in their rush lanes to bottle up Minshew, a dangerous thrower on the run. He did escape nine times, but just for 48 yards. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes (15 of 32) for 255 yards as they forced him to the middle of the field.
Down 10-9 and looking at third-and-two from the Bengals 2 early in the fourth quarter, Minshew made one of those throws when wide receiver Keelan Cole got the leverage on cornerback Tony McRae and he dropped it far enough outside in the corner of the end zone. Then on the two-pointer he hit wide receiver Chris Conley running across the middle in front of McRae.
But those back-up DBs battled. The Jags were just four of 16 on third down and anything from the offense in the first three quarters, anything, should have been enough.
With Dre Kirkpatrick (knee) and William Jackson III (shoulder) out, Anarumo put McRae and B.W. Webb outside. Darqueze Dennard, playing for the first time this season after practicing for the first time this week on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) was immense in playing 70 snaps in the slot in a sudden shock from the rehab field.
“There’s no question,” said right end Sam Hubbard. “From the moment I knew Tony and B.W. were going to be the starters I knew they were going to play physical and put their body on the line for this team. That’s the kind of people and players they are. I’m proud of the way they played today.”
As always, ever since he broke his forearm in the second game and has been wearing a cast, Webb needed help getting his No. 23 jersey pulled off after playing 80 snaps and winced as he took off the shoulder pads. He really could have hurt the Jags on that first drive if he caught Hubbard’s tipped pass in the red zone. But as he tried to grab it, it bounced off his cast.
“Open grass,” Webb said of the pick-six that awaited him. “I just have to make the catch. Yeah, (it hit the cast) a little bit. I have to find a way to come down with it. “
Fast forward to almost the end of the game when he also could have tied things up in the fourth quarter because three minutes after Andy Dalton’s red-zone pick down 17-10, Minshew threw it to Webb. A tougher play, but he got a hand and a cast on it.
“I don’t know,” said Webb, when asked if he catches it with two good arms. “All I know is I’m just trying to catch it.”
Stand-up guy, this Webb. Terrific in the room. One of the two killing plays on the Jags go-ahead drive, was Conley’s 47-yarder. (The other was rookie linebacker Germaine Pratt’s missed tackle at the line on wide receiver DJ Chark’s 20-yard jet sweep.) Conley got inside Webb on what should have been a 15-yard slant, but Conley slid off Webb’s tackle.
“I just have to make that tackle,” Webb said. “Nobody really cares that I’ve got a cast on my arm or my arm is broken. I have to make the play for my team. That’s what I have to do. You could would have should have all day, but I just have to find some kind of way to bring him down.”
The Bengals are still trying to figure out how to bring down runners. They allowed 216 yards on the ground Sunday and are on pace to allow 3,026 for the season, third most all-time and nearly a 1,000 more than last year’s team record.
“Our Achilles’” Williams said. “We have to find a way to stop the run. Either you do it or you don’t.”
They also can't figure out the kids. For the second straight home game they lost to a rookie quarterback and the most experienced guy they've faced in the last six games is Josh Allen's 14 starts. Why? The run.
They tried some different stuff Sunday. When the Jags went with their big personnel, the Bengals rolled out six-man lines. They also widened the end on some plays for a wide 9 technique designed to stop teams killing them on the perimeter. Jags running back Leonard Fournette appeared to adjust to get the bulk of his 131 yards on 29 carries inside.
“We did a couple of different things,” Hubbard said. “Sometimes we tried a wide 9, sometimes we were in a six (regular four-man line) and looping out, Some of that was successful. We have to be a little more gap sound. We were boxing all pullers, trying to protect the edge, trying to get our back end from getting the big offensive linemen on them.”
Hubbard and Andrew Brown, making his first NFL start at left end, got good pressure, particularly early. They also seemed to use a few more stunts and loops and one of them nearly got tackle Geno Atkins a safety on a sack in the first quarter that could have made it a different game right there with Webb’s near pick-six.
“We’ve been so banged up up front and rolling guys through,” Hubbard said. “They did a good job for the most part staying in the rush lanes.”
But that’s the way it’s been going. Minshew pulled his leg out of the end zone while in Atkins’ grasp.
“He’s got strong legs and he does a good job ducking,” Hubbard said.
Also in the scrum was a new face that just arrived Wednesday and plopped his stuff in the locker between Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Anthony Zettel hadn’t played since the Browns cut him after the preseason and he was out there for 31 plays.
“I’ve known him since watching him at Penn State and I knew he was going to play well,” Hubbard said.
But, it all added up to the same thing. They gave up too many plays. Too many points. If no one wants to hear about Webb’s cast, no one want to hear about the offense’s struggles.
“It’s tough. This feeling is terrible,” Webb said. “Especially after the week with these guys and the amount of pride and push that they have. I just hate on plays like that to let them down.”
Hubbard shook his head. He told the media he lost five games at Ohio State. Total. So this has been hard to get a handle.
“We came up short,” Hubbard said. “The yards are what they are, but the points are what matter and we kept them off the scoreboard when it matters most. It seems like I say the same thing every week, but I feel like we’re making progress.”
Webb knew exactly how close it was.
“You have to be sound the whole game,” he said. “It’s a couple of plays that make the difference.”
View the best images from Week 7 as the Bengals host the Jacksonville Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium.