The Bengals' search for their first victory matches their daunting probe for offensive identity. One week it looks like first-year head coach Zac Taylor's staff solves one problem but then gets challenged by another. On Monday in the wake of the 17-10 loss to the Raiders that slipped through their hands at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum when it was in their grasp, it was the passing game that came under scrutiny.
The running game had its best day of the season with 173 yards, but rookie quarterback Ryan Finley could squeeze out only 73 in the passing game, their lowest output in 10 years. Three of his wide receivers had no yards. Their longest pass was 20 yards. They missed 10 of 13 third downs. Finley, one of college football's most accurate passers who wowed them with 73 percent in the preseason, is at 48 percent.
Immediately after the game Taylor boiled it down to two reasons: lack of separation by the receivers and not enough solid protection. After watching the tape he still felt the same way on Monday.
"That was where the frustration was – on offense," Taylor said. "There were a lot of mental errors. There were a lot more than normal this week. We're challenging our guys today to look really hard at themselves. Everybody left a play on the field that was pretty routine — if each guy would have made that play, I think the outcome could have potentially been different."
"Some of those incompletions are missed throws. Some of them – we had three drops, two competitive drops, so that's five right there. We had a couple throw-aways," Taylor said. "There are some things that factor into (his low percentage). I don't always look at whatever the completion percentage was and say, 'He was only accurate this percentage of the time.' That's not the way we look at it, and sometimes that's misleading. Over the last two games, that is a little misleading … It's everybody. Every skill player could have been better: quarterback, running backs, tight ends, receivers. Everybody really played a part in it."
The Bengals simply couldn't block rookie outside linebacker Maxx Crosby. He had four sacks, three primarily against left tackle John Jerry, and one on the other side when no one blocked him. The Bengals went to an extra lineman just once and they rarely deployed multiple tight ends.
"He beat John a couple of times. Looking back, try to help John more if we could have, and we did as the game went on," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said. "You can't help him every play."
But here is why you can't always pin one guy with one sack. It's all about timing with your fellow linemen. Take the last snap as seen by Callahan: "He ripped (Jerry) inside on a stunt game and the pass-off didn't happen. As well as we would have liked. It wasn't all necessarily John. The two working together didn't do it as well it could have."
Then there's the first sack on the first series of the game, where Crosby sprinted past Jerry on the outside as Jerry tried to steer him to the top of the pocket and Finley couldn't step up because of pressure elsewhere: "Anytime a quarterback is 10, 11 yards out, it makes it hard on the tackles because they're trying to set up around the top, he's got to be able to come up. A little push on the right side in the interior pocket and he couldn't step up, so Ryan had to kind of move out and John got beat around the top. Those aren't always on the tackles. Sometimes you've got to be firmer inside and the quarterback has to help step up."
It gets back to timing and for a rookie quarterback, that's everything. It is part of the separation question dogging the wide receivers along with the quest for chemistry. If Taylor and Callahan talk frustration, they empathize with wide receiver Tyler Boyd for being frustrated. Boyd, their first half MVP, had just three targets, one catch and no yards on Sunday and on Monday plenty of frustration.
"We want our best players to be consistent for us. We need to rely on them to help us win these games. I would understand that frustration," Taylor said. "Tyler and I talk the next day about all of that stuff. We're all on the same page. We're all in a good place. We're all understanding that we're trying to win. We're going to do whatever it takes to get that done."
So then Taylor would understand Boyd on Monday when he said: "I'm not the type of player to go in and tell them to throw me the ball and force it regardless. I know they see it. I know that they know I'm a reliable guy. I'm one of the guys we depend on to make plays. I feel that they noticed and will have a better game plan this week … I feel like I'm a game-changer and I can use my talents any way that comes my way. They were playing a lot of zone coverage. I felt like I should have the opportunities in the red zone, especially that second-to-last-drive."
He was talking about that fourth-and-four from the Raiders 27 with 5:11 left. With Andy Dalton, that was an automatic. They famously converted a fourth-and-12 to win in Baltimore on the last play of the 2017 season. In the game-winning drive in Atlanta last season, Dalton went to Boyd twice on fourth down to keep it alive for Green's winning touchdown. On Sunday, Boyd, a 1,000-yard receiver, was open. It looked like tight end Tyler Eifert, a former Pro Bowler, had a shot. Finley went up top to little-used rookie wide receiver Damion Willis, a play foiled by double coverage.
"It wouldn't have been a touchdown, but it would have been a first down and given us a better opportunity to win," Boyd said of his route.
Callahan confirmed he was open.
"We had multiple people on that play," Callahan said. "The play that we called had a bunch of different matchups. We had press corner on Damion and Ryan decided to take that matchup. And Damion won. But the safety made a play over the top fast. Probably the ball had to get out a little quicker on that one if he was really going to aggressively take that. No fault on the decision on that particular point, and TB was open as well as Gio (Bernard)."
Boyd was surprised they didn't move him to the outside Sunday more often, since it's easier to double an inside receiver.
Callahan worked with the great offensive mind Tom Moore in Denver and when Moore was re-united with Peyton Manning out there, he never forgot Moore's advice: "In times of crisis, think players not plays."
"We believe in that. It's easier said than done," Callahan said. "We try to move TB around the formation and get him into spots where he can get the ball. We try to do that with Eifert. We try to find ways to get our best players in the best spots. TB by trade is a slot receiver. He's inside a lot. It's easy to take away a slot receiver sometimes. So we were forced to move him around. And we did that a couple of times in this past game."
And that's where question of chemistry comes in and how long it takes for people to get it. It took Dalton a full two seasons to find it with Boyd that night in Baltimore. After one training camp, Dalton had it with A.J. Green. How long for Finley and his receivers with six games left to decide what course to take a franchise? Green looms on the sidelines, but he didn't catch a ball from Finley until two weeks ago.
"I don't think it's going to take very long because at the level I'm bringing, I believe I can open any one on coverage across the board with anyone," Boyd said. "All you have to do is read the defense and I'll make the play for him."
Boyd says he thinks Finley is thinking too much, particularly when it comes to trying to get the Bengals receivers lined up to block in the running game. But he's there for him.
"He's a good player. He's got confidence in himself," Boyd said. "And I know he knows he's guys got around him that will make a play for him even when the ball isn't where it should be at times."
The chemistry question belongs in a philosophy debate rather than a science lab. Maybe years. Maybe next week.
"When you accumulate reps upon reps of all these different coverages and leverages and break points, that's where the years of service goes into play where guys have worked together for a long time," Callahan said. "There's almost like a supernatural sense of when they are going to come out of a break and they feel the body language and know the body language. They can trust if they put a ball in a certain spot that they are going to get it because they've done it for thousands of reps or in games where they have had 15-20 reps versus a particular coverage that looks very similar … Now, you can develop route chemistry just running routes I think relatively quickly, but it's experienced reps of playing together just like any position.
"The answer lies somewhere in-between."
And that's basically where the Bengals passing game is as they wait on Green, coax Finley and work Boyd and his fellow receivers.