CARSON, Calif. - This was the game everyone had been expecting from the Bengals defense ever since head coach Marvin Lewis took over calling the plays four games ago.
He's still looking for his first victory as the five-game slide continued Sunday. During the 26-21 loss to high-flying Chargers, the Bengals held the Chargers to a season-low 288 yards, which turned out to be the beleaguered Cincinnati defense's best effort of the season.
But typifying this 5-8 year, a simple little offsides penalty on the last play of the half negated it all in a five-point game they left points littered all over the field.
"Those are the plays that get you beat," said SAM linebacker Nick Vigil.
After getting burned by running back Austin Ekeler's 21-yard screen on the last play of the first quarter as the Chargers rolled to touchdowns on their first two possessions, Lewis wouldn't elaborate on how he switched styles.
But the players indicated Lewis stuck with the four-man rush with Pro Bowl left end Carlos Dunlap rampaging for a sack and two tipped balls and newcomer tackle Christian Ringo teaming with tackle Andrew Billings to stop the bleeding in the run game at 3.4 yards per rush while the cornerbacks played the way they were drafted to play with solid man-to-man, press defense.
That, and some riverboat gambling in a game of chicken against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers seemed to energize his team that has had no fight since the bye. Lewis went for it three times on fourth down and went for an early two-pointer. All four failed. But it's the thought that counts.
"The decisions I made today didn't work out. We didn't get to make the break and it seemed like this-or-that decisions today. Put us in the situation whether it's fourth down when they make a stop. The two-point conversion, so forth. We didn't get to make the breaks," Lewis said.
But his players had him all the way. "I've got no problem with it," said smiling rookie safety Jessie Bates and veteran left end Carlos Dunlap added, "We wanted that. We feed off that. Your coach is sending another message. Like, hey, this is what I'm about to do. You all back me up. We did what we could to get in position to win the game. We have to clean up stuff early in the game so we don't have to be like that at the end."
Even the early two-pointer with 20 seconds left in the half in his bid to tie the game at 14, but got blown up when Chargers rookie safety Derwin James sniffed out a swing pass to running back Giovani Bernard.
"Why not? We don't want to be down by one," Dunlap said.
Lewis: "I just thought, you have a lot of time left. You have a lot of time. You can look at it either way. We felt good about the two-point play. Obviously, we didn't get it. Those are the things we've got to do."
Photos from the Bengals at Chargers matchup in week 14.
Even the fourth-and-one from their own 35 on the first series of the second half in a five-point game.
Lewis: "It was fourth down and four inches basically. It's aggressive, but it is four inches. We've got to be able to pick that up."
"I love when they want to be aggressive," said quarterback Jeff Driskel. "Coach had full confidence that we were going to get it done and unfortunately we came up short. When you have your head coach's confidence like that, that's encouraging."
What was encouraging was the depleted defense standing up to an elite offense after getting shredded on the first two drives. No Vontaze Burfict at middle linebacker. No Dre Kirkpatrick at cornerback. Guys named Ringo and Niles Scott playing some stingy tackle after coming off the wire last month.
And there was Lewis changing it up.
"I think he changed some calls," said rookie defensive lineman Sam Hubbard. "We were doing a lot of four man rush. Our linebacker, he just told them to stay with their keys. Keep your eyes on your man. We were playing a lot of man-to-man. Be fundamentally sound. Don't cheat looking in the backfield and that was how the game went. Eye discipline. I think our secondary played really well and gave us a chance to get after the quarterback."
After they went down 14-3, the cornerbacks on the outside, particularly William Jackson, were superb against wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. Jackson, who openly lobbies to travel and press on one guy, thrived in what looked to be the press coverage they've rarely employed this season.
"I love it," Jackson said.
He forced two incompletions on third down to Allen and one to Williams. After Allen beat Dennard for a 14-yard touchdown to make it 14-3 early in the second quarter, they basically kept everything else in front of them until Allen broke out for a 37-yarder on an out and up through a zone with 12 minutes left in the game and Williams caught a 17-yarder over the middle a few plays later on cornerback KeiVarae Russell. But Jackson forced a field goal working on Allen on third down in the red zone, although it was a big one with 7:45 left that made it 23-15.
Russell came off the bench with Dennard moving into the slot and also defended Williams on third down and that was in the end zone that capped a resolute stand for a field goal in the wake of the failed short field fourth down early in the second half. The pass rush on the last two throws had Rivers screaming at his protection. Hubbard's spin move made him speed up the second- down incompletion and he got chased from the pocket on third down.
"I thought corners had a tough duty," Lewis said. "(Allen) is a hell of a player. He did a nice job except for the over-route there later in the game. We did a good job trying to keep hands on him all day long and make it hard. We made them have to go to the second option. We made some plays, had some tipped balls early on, they just kept falling to the ground. We never got them in our hands"
SAM linebacker Nick Vigil, in his second game back from an MCL sprain, got his hand on one of the six passes and nearly picked it. (Jackson also had his first pick of the year, but he dropped it.) But Vigil persevered through not only the two touchdowns, but the loss of the helmet communicator in those two drives. He said he called only a few plays and it was back up and working later in the half.
"We settled down after the first couple of drives. We played more aggressive," Vigil said. "We played a lot of man coverage. I thought our corners did a really good job."
But it wasn't enough. This has been a season up front of false starts and offsides and it killed them Sunday with two fourth-down false starts on the offensive line and the crushing offsides by left end Jordan Willis on the last play of the half that negated a sack by Dunlap and Hubbard and turned into a 59-yard field goal.
"It's very frustrating. It's as simple as staying onside," Bates said. "It's what we learned since the first time we played football. It's disappointing that we keep having the same thing come up. It costs us points as well. When guys are scoring a touchdown, kicking a field goal that's a huge part of the game and it shows up."
It turned out to be fourth down and frustration. For the unbelievable 10th time in 13 games this season they gave up points in the final two minutes of the half. Never mind that. A scoring drive in the last ten seconds. Drew Brees got a TD when he had the ball for eight seconds last month.
"It hurt us. They were probably going to try a Hail Mary and the percentages of that were low," Vigil said. That's huge. Three extra points. Our offense only needs a field goal there at the end. That's what loses games, moments like that. Scores before the half. Those situations, you win them or lose them. We lost them."