The Bengals didn't have Vontaze Burfict for Sunday's last 35 minutes, but they'll have him in Denver this week.
The Bengals are still trying to right the 2017 season, but when the pundits write about 3-6 it sounds more like an obituary than an opera. There can be only one theme.
The Third Down Problem.
On Monday Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis called it the Achilles' heel of Sunday's 24-20 loss in Tennessee and it is crippling the season.
"You have to prevent them from marching down the field by stopping them on third down defensively, and you want to have more opportunities to score more points by winning on third down more often on offense," Lewis said. "That has to be a key point and emphasis for us."
It dogs them on both sides of the ball. They are ranked 30th in the league on offense converting third downs, which has been a season-long struggle. It's a relatively new phenomenon on defense, where in the last two games they've failed on third down at a 19-for-33 clip, which has slid them to 20th in the league.
The numbers have conspired to create three straight games that are among the most unique in Bengals' history when it comes to ball control. They were out-snapped by 18 in the win over Indy, 41 in the loss to Jacksonville, and 34 in the loss to Tennessee. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, those are the two highest two-game net-differences in franchise history.
In the last two games in Jacksonville and Tennessee the foe has run a combined 75 more plays, the biggest gap in club history. That follows the games against Indy and Jacksonville, where the gap was 59, the second most, edging out the 56 of back-to-back losses in Pittsburgh and Houston in 1992.
The Bengals defense played well enough to win the game but didn't when it allowed 10 points in the final drives of each half, giving up two third downs in each, one for the final touchdown on third-and-seven with 36 seconds left in the game.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther didn't have all his chess pieces in the nickel package for the last 20 minutes. His play caller and best player, middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict, wasn't on the field for either drive after he was ejected late in the first half. Injuries left him with three cornerbacks when Adam Jones (concussion) and William Jackson (toe) exited in the third quarter. He never had starting safety Shawn Williams, inactive with a hamstring issue.
*Injuries pressed Josh Shaw into service in the last quarter. *
That forced safety and slot corner Josh Shaw into different coverages against the Titans' stunning array of offensive sets and he ended up with three third-down penalties in the fourth quarter for half of the Bengals' six third-down penalties on the day, four by a defensive back covering a pass.
"We were playing a lot of nickel defense to their two tight end sets and (Shaw) didn't have a lot of those reps during the week," Guenther said. "But when Willie went out and Adam went out, we were down to three corners and that's what we dealt with yesterday."
Meanwhile, the Bengals managed to get four sacks against the Titans' protection that featured much of the day max protection and chipping with tackles.
There was some post-game discussion that the game was called tighter when the Titans had the ball but Guenther wasn't saying it. Despite the attention to protection, Tennessee was able to get enough out of their few receivers.
"(On) a couple of double moves, we grabbed them. We can't grab them. And it's third-and-10 if you just keep your leverage and there's help inside," Guenther said. "If you have help outside, you leverage them inside. And if you have help inside, you leverage them outside, and you go to your help. And if the route beats the coverage, then so be it. But you can't get shook at the line and try to get back to your leverage and grab the guy because you're behind the play.
"I thought they were legitimate calls, I thought they were good calls and we can't have them. As I said, the margin for error for our team right now is razor thin."
No one has felt the razor edge sharper than the defense. With the offense failing to stay on the field (2-for-18 the last two weeks), the Bengals have faced the third most running attempts in the league (282) while playing 40 minutes in each of the last two games and have lived the reality of playing a lot of defensive snaps in an offensive league. Sooner or later offense wins.
But they will have Burfict this Sunday in Denver. Reports have said he won't be suspended in wake of the ejection for contacting an official.
You have to be perfect. Just look at the winning TD Sunday in Tennessee with 36 seconds left. The Bengals got exactly what they wanted on third-and-seven as they bid to put the game into OT. A check-down pass to running back DeMarco Murray at the 2, but cornerback Darqueze Dennard and safety Clayton Fejedelem couldn't make the tackle.
"We get the ball checked down and you make the tackle, and we just didn't make it. The guy fell forward. That was his third option," Guenther said. "Just the way things have been going to us now. Guy's a big back, but we had two guys there and he just fell forward and made a good play."
And, look at the last pay of the half, a surprising quick throw down the middle of the field with five seconds left. When Guenther originally called the defense, there were three seconds left and he put in a Hail Mary prevent. But when they put two seconds back on the clock , Guenther switched to the man-to-man nickel.
William Jackson went out with a toe injury in Sunday's second half.
"They were kind of on the brink of a field goal, they had a timeout left," Guenther said. "So you have to decide whether you try to guard for the last shot or do they happen to stick a ball in there, just to get another five yards. At that point of time, do you think OK, they're going to take one shot at the end zone and line up and kick the field goal because at that point they were in field goal range, but they threw a ball down underneath five yards which based on upon the coverage nature you'd be in that situation (looking to the sidelines), that's kind of a throw that's going to be open a little bit."
But that's what happens in an offensive league. The more plays they run, the more plays they find a way to score.
Cincinnati Bengals take on the Tennessee Titans in week 10 of the regular season.