Giovani Bernard, one of the Bengals head coach Zac Taylor has anointed to seize the locker room, has a pretty good memory when it comes to one of the other young guys Taylor has turned to. After wide receiver Alex Erickson’s career day of 137 yards on eight catches Sunday, Bernard recalled how Erickson, a special teamer, primarily, surfaced at scrimmage to make a big play.
“That’s our mentality as a team. Who’s ever number is called, you go with the play,” Bernard said. “Obviously Alex is one of those guys that fits that description really well. He doesn’t get a bunch of touches each and every game, but whenever his number is called he makes the play. I don’t know if it was last year, two years ago playing Denver at Denver, he made a big play for us on third down. I think that was his only pass of the entire game, whatever it was, he’s just one of those guys that works it.”
It was two years ago and it was in Denver. Bernard was referring to a third-and-four play early in the second quarter with Denver leading, 7-6. Erickson's 29-yard TD catch put the Bengals ahead to stay. He had another catch for 13 yards, but Bernard had it pretty good. Bernard did his thing, Sunday, too. Throwing his 5-9 body at 6-8 monster defensive lineman Calais Campbell and getting between him and quarterback Andy Dalton.
“Alex really just took advantage of all the opportunities (he had). Andy did a good job of finding him — Alex really made some good plays that gave us an opportunity, particularly at the end of the first half,” Taylor said. “He really showed up in a lot of different ways, but that’s Alex. He’s a guy you can depend on. He always comes to work, and he’s the same guy every day. He’s very consistent with his approach, so that’s not surprising.”
One by one, Taylor is looking at these young guys to take over a locker room that is transitioning the only way a 0-7 team must.
“This coaching staff, who I believe in, we’re leading the ship in the right direction, but the players in the locker room,” said Taylor, who says it is their team. “We’ve got the right ones. I’ve seen in the last two weeks some of the most encouraging things I’ve seen since I’ve been here, in terms of a leadership standpoint from some veterans and some young guys who are stepping up and calling things how they see it and leading the way in practice. Unfortunately, it hasn’t carried over yet to a win. That’s what’s frustrating. But that’s where we’re at.”
Where they’re at is Sunday. This time Erickson’s exploits didn’t turn into a win. This is the kind of day it was, this is the kind of season it’s been. Erickson was thinking about the second snap of the second half. It was the Bengals who were leading 7-6, thanks to Erickson’s ballistic 110-yard first half, and Erickson had Jaguars cornerback D.J. Hayden fried. No, these guys aren’t Jalen Ramsey.
But what looked to be Dalton’s 75-yard dagger turned into a feather when Erickson let it slide through his hands.
“Same story every week. We’re just not good enough to overcome our mistakes,” Erickson said. “I just look at myself. At the start of the second half I have a chance to make a play to really get us going and didn’t make it … We have to find the balance of make every play, but also not press. Finding that fine line. Which is tough … I just got excited. I brought my eyes up and it slipped through my hands.”
With their best player sidelined, they keep finding guys to get 100-yard receiving games. Erickson became the third different wide receiver to do it this season. Auden Tate was nine yards away last week in Baltimore. But nothing is computing to a win because running back Joe Mixon isn’t following them into the 100-yard rushing column. They’ve been able to give the defending AFC rushing champion room for more than 50 yards in only three games.
The more Mixon struggles (12 yards on 18 carries in the last two weeks), the more Dalton does, too. Dalton threw it 41 more times Sunday. He hasn’t thrown it fewer than 36 times this season. He’s never had a seven-game stretch like that in his career. Not a 77.9 passer rating from a career 88.8 guy.
It came to this. On third-and-one from the Jags 19 down 9-7 in the last minute of the third quarter, he threw it. Incomplete. To Erickson. It all blew up in the fourth quarter with three interceptions in a span of five passes.
“When you’re one-dimensional, it makes it easy for the other side to know what’s going on,” Dalton said.
Dalton turns 32 next week. In Sunday’s post-game, he showed winless age.
“This is what pulls at you,” Dalton said. “When things aren’t going how you had them envisioned, it shows the true character of me and the guys on this team. It’s been good to see everybody sticking together. In tough times, your true character is going to show.”
One dimension makes it tough to have two dimensional endings. The Bengals came into the game last in red-zone touchdown percentage and for the fifth time in 17 trips inside the 20 they got no points on that killer first down from the Jags 15, the Bengals down, 17-10, and the clock ticking past 8:30 in the game.
Last week offensive coordinator Brian Callahan showed his unit every red zone TD in the league this season. In Friday’s practice they had an extra red-zone period. But now with the running game neutered, linebacker Myles Jack was able to cover wide receiver Tyler Boyd in the slot with no worries of a first-down run that would hurt. And when Dalton was a tick behind, it was the 10th red-zone pick of his career when Jack caught it in stride with Boyd.
“I have to put it a little farther outside, and it’s a completion,” Dalton said. “Where we’re at right now, everything has to be perfect. One little thing goes wrong, and we’re not going to have a positive play. We understand that. We have to be better.”
They’re calling it margin of error. As in the Bengals have none at all. Like on that 23-yard pick-six on the screen gone haywire. That came four minutes after the red-zone interception when Jags end Yannick Ngakoue plucked Dalton’s lob to a spot that wasn’t there. That’s because defensive tackle Taven Bryan blew through left guard Billy Price and left tackle John Jerry, but everything was just a bit too quick. Bernard ran into Jerry trying to get out of a twist up front and …
“It’s tough when you’re behind the chains,” Dalton said. “We tried to run the ball early, and it didn’t gain us yards. It makes it tough. (So then) you have to be very efficient in the passing game, and we didn’t have that today.”
Dalton struggled, enough that the back-up question was asked. (Taylor hinted no and wanted to say nothing in the heat of the moment.) But Dalton didn’t have a lot of help, either. There was the Erickson drop. Boyd dropped a first down or two. And the run. The players echoed what Taylor said about it taking just one guy.
“Just a compilation of a lot of things,” said center Trey Hopkins. “We’re close in a lot spots. We’re always one little thing here. One guy one off a block. We’re always just a little bit off and that kind of stuff ends up killing us. Killing plays.”
Tight end C.J. Uzomah is another young guy that Taylor pulled aside last week (right end Sam Hubbard was another) and urged to become more vocal.
“We don’t need the coaches to be our rah-rah guys,” Uzomah said. “As leaders we have to step up and take control of our team. The coaches bring their energy and a good game plan. But we as players have to make sure we are ready. I love them coming up to me. ‘We look at you as a leader.’”
Uzomah embraces it. So when it comes to the running game, he’ll start with himself.
“One person not doing their job,” Uzomah said. “I know what I do. I didn’t cut off a defender on the back side of the goal line, I’m pretty sure he ended up making the play. It’s faltering and it shouldn’t be. I know the tight ends aren’t happy about it. Jim (offensive line coach Turner) isn’t happy about it. I know for dang sure the running backs aren’t happy about it. We have to get it corrected.”
Erickson, who went from the top of the world to the bottom in less than three minutes of football time (his 27-yard-tear-away-jersey-catch-and-run that set up the Bengals’ go-ahead TD came with 1:34 left in the first half and his drop came 32 seconds into the second), is looking at the big picture.
“As a whole, we’re trying to build something. We’re building a culture on being a connected team that’s all about us,” said Erickson, who is one of the guys they’d like to help build it. “Building that, trying to get the culture set, trying to find our way as an offense, trying to find our way as a defense."
A lot on their plate and the halfway point’s not until next Sunday.