The Bengals offense is sick, but just how ill was stripped bare on the road against an excellent, aggressive defense Thursday night when the Jets dealt them season lows all across the board.
Once so proud and confident of their running game, the Bengals watched the Jets' strength and speed manhandle running back Cedric Benson 10 times for negative runs, runs of no gain or runs of a yard. After the 41-yard effort on 18 carries, Benson and head coach Marvin Lewis flashed the bruises of frustration. Benson after the game and Lewis in his Friday news conference, just nine hours after the buses rolled into Paul Brown Stadium from the airport with the first winless October and November in team history.
"We weren't very consistent at being able to run the football, beginning with the first play of the game," Lewis said. "We probably get six or seven of the guys blocked pretty well up front and we have one guy bring the ball back and cause a no-gain play. That was kind of the theme about the day. We have to do a better job being more physical, being more exact with our footwork. Being more aware is probably the word I would use."
Benson's first four carries went for no gain. The man who once led the NFL in rushing last season while barging for 4.2 yards per carry that included a 169-yard day against the Jets is averaging 3.6 yards per carry. In the last three road games he has a total of 135 yards.
Behind the same offensive line.
"They play a Bears defense. Eight in the box is automatic and they have the safety low," Benson said. "They were poised to stop the run and we were poised to run the ball on them. They just had the upper hand today. They adjusted real well. We obviously didn't adjust as well as we needed to."
According to the play-by-play sheet, the first four carries went right guard, left tackle, right tackle, left tackle. They were looking but didn't find much anywhere. Benson says when things go badly, everyone has an opinion.
"As teammates we all talk about things and things we would like to see addressed; it's not happening," Benson said. "Guys are rolling with the punches and letting the coaches make decisions and trying to play with the schemes that we're put in."
After watching tape, the head man had a few opinions, too.
"We had the three or four runs that were eight-plus, and we had a couple that should have been," Lewis said. "But we failed to block easy looks, or what we felt like were easy -- a guy not executing correctly, which would have enabled another big run. Everybody wants to get out there and play and do their part, but we need to be consistent."
When the eight-man front is rolling, it looks like defenders are making tackles without the offense getting so much as a finger on them.
"There are eight-man fronts all the time, so we have to find a way to get the eighth defender blocked," Lewis said. "When we did, you saw the runs were up through there and when we didn't, this is what happens. We have to have an awareness of where he is, getting on him and getting him blocked."
Benson again talked about the challenge of playing with the different approach of last season, when the Bengals were heavily-run oriented. But they also ran it better than this year and had more leads and more chances.
It can be debated about what came first, the poor running game or the shift in emphasis. But what is clear is that Benson is starting to hear the questions about next year. He heard it Thursday night from the TV man. Will he take his frustration into free agency next season?
"The way things are going, I'd be a liar if I said the thought hadn't run through my mind," he said. "But I'm not saying it. That's not something I'm leaning to or anything like that. We've got some more games to play. I'm going to take it one game at a time and try to finish real strong."
EMERGING?: On Friday secondary coach Kevin Coyle was back at his desk, where he helped orchestrate one of the more memorable Bengals debuts ever. With one healthy cornerback to his name, Coyle met Jonathan Wade on Monday morning and got an excellent game out of him in the starting lineup Thursday night.
The Jets beat the Bengals in the running game and on special teams. Mark Sanchez didn't have his way with the secondary like Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick did four days before or like Sanchez himself did in last year's Wild Card game. With Wade playing well on the outside, Sanchez didn't get a deep ball to his receiving threats and the Bengals kept a top 10 offense out of the end zone in the second half.
"I was pleased with the way he competed. He showed awareness throughout the game. He played with poise. We didn't have any issues from an adjustment standpoint," Coyle said of Wade. "We had some very impressive adjustments in the game with motions and shifting that would be considered to be difficult especially in light of him being here for a couple of days. I was impressed by that. He competed hard. He obviously needs to do some things better, but overall I thought he did a good job under the circumstances."
Wade did get beat for a 13-yard touchdown pass by one of those threats, Santonio Holmes.
"He ran a decent route; we got a little bit deep. He could have done a better job on the play," Coyle said. "We had a pressure we called and the guy let the ball out. He tried to plant and slipped out as he came out of it. Like to see him brace a little bit before the goal line."
With Wade just getting here and safety Tom Nelson practicing for the first time this season during this week as the slot cornerback, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer had reasons to keep the defense simple. Coyle said it wasn't always that easy.
"For the most part our guys executed, we got off the field and a lot of three and outs," Coyle said. "Even when they converted a couple it wasn't like they were making big-shot plays. We had a good handle on what they were doing and our guys executed. I don't think we went into the game saying we can't run this or can't do that because of who we got. We said we would take this approach and Zim did a good job of calling the game and putting us in situations where we were having success. When you're having success it might look like you pared it down but if it's working you hang your hat on it and keep on working."
But for a guy that just got here, Wade is suddenly an intriguing guy. It was his 56th NFL game and while he's been let go twice, his ability to step right in and understand so much so soon when it comes to checks has the Bengals coaching staff wondering if they've got a find. They did like him coming out of Tennessee in 2007, when the Rams took him in the third round.
"One game does not make a player but certainly it was a good start and under the circumstances he played exceptionally well," Coyle said.
One guy the Bengals hope emerges is backup safety George Iloka. The coaches have coveted him since they were ready to take him out of Florida in the first round in 2007 if Michigan cornerback Leon Hall wasn't there. When the Jaguars shopped him at the cutdown this year, the Bengals sent cornerback David Jones to Jacksonville.
Suddenly, the Bengals starting safeties, Roy Williams and Chris Crocker, are not only 30, they are both banged up. Nelson is now starting and the Bengals are wondering if they can develop his first-round talent for down the road. Or, is he just a career backup?
"Reggie played better last night. I thought he tackled. He showed up. He played physical. We challenged him prior to the game because a week ago he struggled a little bit," Coyle said. "I thought he came back and responded well. He competed hard. I thought this was his best performance since he's seen been with us. He's a guy that needs to continue to improve on the big picture, seeing what the offense is doing and understand how we need to respond and be more and more comfortable with our scheme and how he fits within in the scheme and I think he's making some progress on that. It's just not as fast as we would like it to be. I know he's a guy that's willing to work and hopefully in time he'll improve and get to where we need him to be. Right now he's still a work in progress."
Coyle has seen it play so many times before. Why has Jets safety Jim Leonhard, half the athlete that Nelson is, started so many games for Rex Ryan?
"When you see guys that are really good athletes … they may not make all the plays that other guy makes even though he's the same athlete or even a lesser athlete," Coyle said. "They just have that that football intellect, that vision, that anticipation that allows them to go and make plays. There's a fine line between being too quick and guessing on things and really using good judgment and anticipation to put yourself in position to make plays and having the discipline to know the difference. Like a lot of guys, he has to keep working to improve in that area."
Lewis called the 53-yard touchdown run by Jets wide receiver Brad Smith off a reverse the killer play but it appeared that Nelson and Hall didn't miss tackles or assignments.
"Leon actually turned it back and still tried to make the play himself," Coyle said. "Then it shows up like he did his job about as good as you can do on that particular way. There was a blocker that kicked back on Leon and Reggie. What you see sometimes from the stands or press box is not the way it unfolded. (Nelson) got blocked. We defensively could have played the play better as a group. They schemed it better. It should not have broken for what it did. They would have gained some yards on it but not broke for what it did."