CLEVELAND — The Bengals left here Sunday grimly realizing they have saddled themselves with an enormous challenge over the final 10 games.
After back-to-back losses to rookie quarterbacks that had a combined 1-8 record going into their games, the Bengals are 3-3 instead of 5-1 heading into Sunday night's showdown with the limping 2-3 Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium (8:20-p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) in the wake of the 34-24 loss to the winless Browns. They were supposed to take that next step in the AFC North with Baltimore and Pittsburgh and not be the team that allowed Cleveland to snap its 11-game losing streak as well as its 12-game division losing streak.
Here's another streak. Dalton has never lost three straight.
It is now such a task facing his team that head coach Marvin Lewis wondered aloud in the postgame about the mindset of a team that was supposed to repeat last year's playoff run with what the pundits believe is one of the NFL's more talented rosters of young players.
"We have got to play nastier, we need to play tougher, we need to have more of a killer instinct than what we are playing with, and that's what we need to have," Lewis said. "We're almost too nice at times and we've got to have more of a killer instinct, get going, and keep making plays, and keep scoring and keep stopping them and not have a hiccup, a sigh of a relaxation play."
There wasn't a lot of agreement in his locker room about it, but the players agreed with their coach it is time to get going.
"I don't see that," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "I think this team plays nasty, it plays physical. We just have to execute plays. There isn't anybody out there not trying or lacking effort. We just have to play smart and really learn to put the hammer down when we need to."
Lewis thought Sunday's game was so important that his game captains were four of his de facto captains in Whitworth, defensive linemen Robert Geathers and Domata Peko, and special teams leader Dan Skuta, along with a young player on the verge of making an impact in Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham.
"I don't believe that," Geathers said when asked if his team lacks a nastiness. "Maybe that's it, but I think up front on defense we're a good, tough group of guys. But if the head ball coach thinks we've got to get nastier, I guess that's what it takes.
"We've got to get it together and not let it snowball. The leaders of this team have to step up and get these guys going in the right direction ... just focusing in and being more disciplined ... obviously we're not as good as we thought we were. Teams like this, personally I think we've got to put them away before they get their hope."
The Bengals can rally around the flag they had planted just two weeks ago. It seems like two years ago, but while others were grappling with inexperience at quarterback, the Bengals won three straight with more than 30 points per game, and it looked like their offense was about to take off with second-year Pro Bowler Andy Dalton unleashing nine TD passes to just three interceptions.
But with defenses adjusting to a punchless Bengals running game, Dalton has thrown three TDs and five picks in the last two games when defenses have dared the Bengals to run and they haven't been able to do it. They are averaging a very un-AFC North 3.9 yards per carry for the season.
And with third-down back Brian Leonard getting an injured rib X-rayed Monday after he left the game following an injury on special teams, the Bengals are down to two healthy running backs.
"It's something we have to get figured out. When the defense is playing two-high coverage, we have to be able to run the ball," Dalton said. "All the looks we thought we were going to get, we got. It just comes down to executing at that point. We've got to figure it out."
The Browns gave up a big game to wide receiver A.J. Green with seven catches for 135 yards in his first two-touchdown game, but not much to anybody else. The rest of the wide receivers that were so lethal in the three-game winning streak had 10 catches for just 79 yards. The team's leading receiver was emergency third-down back Cedric Peerman when he had eight catches himself for 76 yards.
And after he had a catch-and-run TD for 55 yards on the sixth play from scrimmage, Gresham caught just two balls for 13 yards and had two drops the rest of the way.
"When they're playing Cover 2 you should be able to run the ball," Green said. "We have to capitalize more on third down, stay on the field, and not keep putting pressure on our defense."
Not much more could be asked of the defense the last two weeks.
Yes, the Bengals gave up a bad touchdown Sunday that tied it at seven in the first quarter when wide receiver Josh Gordon ran a post through a zone past safeties Reggie Nelson and Nate Clements for a 71-yard touchdown catch from his fellow rookie at quarterback, Brandon Weeden.
But the Bengals defense hounded gifted Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson on 14 carries for 37 yards (after he got them for 109 yards on 19 carries last month in Cincinnati) before he left with a rib injury early in the second half. They got the Browns off the field with two three-and-outs to start the second half, and when the Browns started drives at the Bengals 30 and 25, respectively, on the next two possessions thanks to wide receiver Josh Cribbs's 60-yard punt return and cornerback Joe Haden's interceptions, the Bengals forced two Phil Dawson field goals to keep them in the lead, 14-13, with 6:27 left in the third quarter.
Again, it was the defensive line that kept them breathing. Tackle Geno Atkins had another Pro Bowl effort with five tackles and a tipped pass that turned into right end Michael Johnson's interception, and he forced one of the field goals when he dragged down Weeden scrambling out of the pocket on third down. Geathers forced the other with a third-down sack, his first of the season.
But the defense had to keep coming back on to the field because the Bengals offense was in the midst of punt, punt, interception, punt in the third quarter when they had the wind.
"We've got to do something or find something to get some momentum going," Dalton said. "We feel like we gave two games away, the last two we played. We had chances but couldn't get it done. We've got to figure out the problem handle it, get it fixed."
The obvious thing that has to be fixed is the running game. After running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis ripped off a 20-yarder up the middle for his longest run as a Bengal in the final minutes of the first half, he had 20 yards on seven carries the rest of the way and finished with 62 yards on 16 tries that gives him a 3.4 average that won't open it up for the pass.
Maybe the most disturbing thing about Sunday is the Bengals couldn't pound it against a team that had allowed 243 yards on the ground against the Giants the week before and on this day the Browns were without two of their best run stoppers in tackle Ahtyba Rubin and linebacker Scott Fujita.
"How many runs did we have in the second half? It wasn't much," Whitworth said. "I actually thought we ran the ball well in the first half and had a few plays we could have busted. They had a lot more there than we got. In the second half it seemed like we were throwing the whole time when we got behind.
"I don't think it's the running game or the passing game. I think all of it has to be better. We had a couple of three-and-outs there where we just couldn't do anything. It's the little execution. Whether it's one guy in the run game or a catch here in the passing game, or a route or a throw. It's just the execution of the game. It's the NFL. If you don't execute, teams are too good."
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden second-guessed himself for getting away from the run too early last week against Miami. Of the 13 snaps the Bengals took Sunday in the third quarter while they had the lead, Dalton dropped back nine times. But it's not like running game was making a case. Three runs by BJGE got four yards and the jet sweep to wide receiver Andrew Hawkins got blown up for two yards.
"We got behind on down and distance and put ourselves in long-yardage situations," Green-Ellis said. "That makes it tough and then we got behind and had to throw the ball."
Something Gruden won't like is the sloppiness. The Bengals got nailed for a delay of game on the second series of the second half that made a third-and-eight a third-and-unsuccessful 13. They also dawdled between the first and second snap of a the two-minute drill at the end of the first half and it cost them a Mike Nugent chip shot field goal when they couldn't spike it in time for the refs to stop the clock.
"They were trying to figure out if they wanted to keep going with the two-minute drill. We did lose some time there," Dalton said.
It symbolized the chances the Bengals have given away the last two weeks. They knew what happened. To a man the Bengals spoke about what had been missed.
"We're very disappointed in the last two games. We're better than that. We're a better offense than that," Whitworth said. "We've got to stop putting ourselves in situations where you have to make hero-type plays to try and win games.
"It has to be every guy putting it on their shoulders and carrying it on their back. The truth is, as much as this is a team game, it's an individual game. Each of has to go out individually and make plays."