Posted: 7:30 a.m.
Two years ago when the Bengals won the AFC North, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski presided over a record season in all phases. Now with the record at 5-9, Bratkowski says all areas have contributed to the struggles that have seen them fall to 13th in scoring, 24th in red-zone touchdowns and 27th in rushing yards per game, and they've scored three touchdowns or more in just three games.
"It's a combination of things. Very rarely is it just one thing," Bratkowski said Monday, and one thing he won't do is put all the blame on quarterback Carson Palmer's un-Pro Bowlish 14th place in NFL passer rating.
"A lot of times he's not getting help from the other guys," Bratkowski said. "Sometimes we're not disciplined in the pass game. Sometimes we don't make the right calls in the run game. We have to get it all fixed.
"It can happen when there isn't consistency of the routes or in the protection."
The numbers offer a tantalizing mystery. Told the quarterback and receivers seem out of sync, particularly on third down, Bratkowski observed, "I don't know about that.
Bratkowski "We're still throwing the ball for a high percentage (65 percent at fourth in the NFL). Our third down numbers (fifth in the league) have been pretty good all year. They're still above what we strive for."
But he knows the red zone play has been miserable of late with nine touchdowns in the last 25 trips. He's not so sure that it's wholly tied to the poor running game, but he does think the lack of the rush is what is missing from the '05 season, when the Bengals finished 11th in rushing.
"People are playing us differently," he said. "The running game doesn't help. Coverages are able to sit back and double guys and play underneath guys. Not being able to run it consistently does hurt you."
Gone from '05 is speed running back Chris Perry, but more importantly is that Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson has hardly played and Pro Bowl alternate left guard Eric Steinbach and the glue to it all, center Rich Braham, were never here.
"We're different than we were back then; in the backfield and up front," Bratkowski said. "That's not to say that's an excuse. We still think we've got a good group."
Also missing from that '05 mix is third receiver Chris Henry. He's playing now, but he missed the first nine weeks because of a suspension and Bratkowski says he was a long way from game shape when he returned Nov. 11. On Monday, head coach Marvin Lewis said if Henry could get himself open in the red zone, his 6-4 frame would certainly help.
"He's getting there now, but he is obviously behind," Bratkowski said.
Throw in the fact that the offensive line is flirting with the record to give up the fewest sacks in club history that it set in '05, and the numbers just don't add up.
"We've played good defenses. We haven't executed," Bratkowski said. "We only had seven (full) possessions (Saturday night) when you normally expect about 12 and it forced us to be more perfect. But we didn't capitalize. We have to play better and it's a combination of things."
Rewind the tape to two plays from Saturday night and here is why the numbers aren't adding up:
Bratkowski said Palmer could have used some help on what would have been the tying touchdown throw with 2:20 left on a fourth-and-three from the Niners 24. Palmer zipped it over wide receiver Chad Johnson's shoulder on a streak pattern in the end zone and Johnson couldn't hold the ball when he hit the ground going out of bounds.
"Hell of a throw," Bratkowski said. "It should have been caught."
Earlier in the game at midfield, Johnson did what he would do all night and beat cornerback Nate Clements down the field on a bomb. Johnson got ahead of him at the 20, but when he looked inside, the ball was outside and past him for an incompletion. Johnson had reacted to Clements' coverage on the kind of instinct play Johnson and Palmer would have had in their back pockets in '05.
"There is a certain point when a receiver has to declare he's going inside our outside," Bratkowski said. "When Chad declared to go inside, the ball had already left Carson's hands. The most common miscommunication between a receiver and quarterback is on that type of route and it was only a three- or four-yard difference.
"We tell them we want them to go outside unless the guy just flat out won't let you. More times than not he'll go outside so the quarterback knows where he's going."
But not this time. Not this year.
"Execution," Bratkowski said. "And it's not just one thing."