If you want to know about Bengals quarterback Jeff Driskel’s first NFL start, you just have to look at one play from Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium.
Go back to that second-and-15 from the Bengals 26 in the first four minutes of the second quarter in a scoreless game. Right tackle Bobby Hart, trying to fend off future Hall-of-Fame pass rusher Von Miller, had just been called for a false start, starting a stunning string of five penalties on his offensive line in the next 12 minutes. Hart appealed to the official that he had matched Miller’s timed move off the snap count. He failed, but keep it in mind.
Driskel still felt pretty good on the ensuing snap because he saw the Broncos move into man-to-man coverage on his go-to target A.J. Green and he was ready to fire as he took the snap and looked downfield and no Green. And then almost instantly, no time.
“When you lose anybody, especially a guy like him who can take over a game, it makes it tough,” Driskel said. “I’m just hoping for the best for him and his health. Any time you lose an A.J. Green, it takes its toll on the football team.”
No one is going to be surprised if Green goes on injured reserve Monday after more tests on his turf toe, making Sunday’s date in Los Angeles against the Chargers the first Bengals game since the 2010 finale in Baltimore both Green and Andy Dalton won’t start. After four straight losses, they still haven’t won since Green originally hurt the toe Oct. 28.
But this past Sunday could have been much different if Driskel could have one throw back, the one that resulted in an intentional grounding call at the Broncos 7 with 25 seconds left in a first half the Bengals trailed, 7-0.
Here was Hart desperately trying not to jump as he waited for Miller’s move in fear of a false start and Miller made him pay, zooming Hart around him and forcing Driskel into a dreadful decision. Red zone sack or gamble throw. He gambled and lost and the Bengals had to settle for a field goal but not before Hart had some animated words for his young quarterback.
“I’ll leave that on the field,” Hart said. “Heat of the moment. You get emotional.”
Driskel: “Sometimes, you get a little heated and you have to talk things out, and we did. We moved forward. It was really no big deal.”
Hart was left shaking his head. Really, not a bad effort considering Driskel threw it 38 times against the NFL’s most prolific sack duo in Miller and Bradley Chubb. Miller had 1.5 sacks and the full one was off tight end C.J. Uzomah with eight minutes left in the game when Uzomah was assigned the ill-advised task of crossing the formation to block the last man at the end. He just happened to be wearing No. 58.
“For sure, one of the best pass rushers in the NFL,” Uzomah said. “I just have to do better. I have to be able to push him past Jeff in the pocket and let Jeff deliver a ball. They put me in that position to make that block and I’ve got to make it.”
Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals: Week 13
The Bengals take on the Denver Broncos in week 13. Images from Paul Brown Stadium.
But it was Clint Boling who should have got a medal against Chubb. He found out last Monday he was moving from 104 games at left guard to his third start at left tackle and save for a few chip blocks to help him, Boling was within 2:39 of holding the favorite to be Defensive Rookie of the Year sackless. He’d been getting out on Chubb all day to lengthen the corner for him, but this time Boling went out too short and Chubb took out his frustration on a sack strip of Driskel at the Bengals 18. That’s how the Broncos got their last points, a field goal that made it 17 points off turnovers.
“I had seen it on film that he tried to time the snap count,” Hart said of Miller. “I was leaving when he left and the ref called me for a penalty. Later in the game the same thing happened in the red zone. He does a good job with the snap count and where the keys are.
“You’re just battling,” Hart said. “As a tackle you see him getting down and he leans into it and you see him leaning and you’re ready to go. I told the ref if I leave when he leaves, you’re calling me for a penalty.”
Driskel said he was trying to neutralize Miller with the snap count. But he had enough to worry about. The six offensive line penalties (half of the team total) were devastating. So was a false start on tight end Matt Lengel on the third play of the fourth quarter on first down from the Denver 39 in a game they trailed, 21-10. That led to three straight passes not enough for the first down on a day they averaged 4.8 yards per rush.
“(The penalties are) not demoralizing, but we know we have to make the yards and then some,” Uzomah said. “We’re trying to play outside of ourselves. We’re not doing what we do in practice every day. Overall, in all three phases, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot … Some of it is we’re not in position … I think there are hustle penalties and stupid penalties.
“We have to demand more of our selves. There’s a point we have to relax,” Uzomah said. “We’re not out there playing free and having fun. There are times we get behind the 8-ball and we’re like, ‘Dang, we have to do this.’ … It’s the entire game. We’re not playing relaxed. We’re playing too cautious. We’re just not going out and doing our job.”
This is what Driskel came into. He played third-and long all day and that doesn’t help a typical debut. He was up and down and he didn’t get enough help when he was down. There were generally good vibes about him, though.
“He kind of had a moxie in the huddle. I was like nice, ‘Nice,” Uzomah said. “He’s encouraging guys. Even when something would happen, he’d say let’s get it back. As a back-up quarterback not too many guys are vocal, so from that standpoint as the starting quarterback it was good to see him step in and fill in the shoes and demand respect in the huddle. I was all for it and he got the ball downfield and it was good.”
Driskel is going to take heat for two throws (the intentional grounding and his only interception of the day) and the coaches are going to take heat for not letting him run more than three times (for three yards) and not letting him take more shots downfield at a struggling secondary that lost Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris in the first quarter. Harris never returned, but it may be too kind to say that Driskel threw five passes longer than 15 yards.
One that was turned out to be a very bad pick on a first-down snap from the Denver 30. He faked a handoff, rolled right, but defensive end Adam Gotsis was standing right there. Driskel fell back and launched one off his back foot. It sailed over the head of rookie tight end Jordan Franks and right into the arms of safety Justin Simmons at the Broncos 7.
“That was a play that I could make, it was just a very poor decision,” Driskel said. “When you get under pressure like that, you just have to be smart with the football, especially when you’re down there getting in position to score points. That was just a really poor decision, and it hurt our football team. Just a bad decision and bad throw.”
The same thing with the grounding call, although Uzomah thought he was close enough to the ball not to call it.
“In that situation, we knew we had points,” Driskel said. “We were down in the lower red-zone. I was just telling myself, ‘No sacks here. Get the ball out.’ I thought there was somebody over there, but obviously they weren’t close enough.”
Driskel, even by Green’s account the team’s best athlete, ran it just three times for three yards. But he said it just wasn’t there for him to run.
“Sometimes, those things happen naturally,” Driskel said. “The way that Denver was playing defense today — they were playing a lot of single-safety, box-type looks and that happens sometimes. You’ve got to be able to throw the football for them to back off, and for there to be more running lanes.”
So that was the way it went. A debut, it turned out on the edge spent running away from Miller and Chubb.
“At the end of the day, you have to be able to play on time, get the ball out and not take sacks and strip sacks, like I did at the end of the game,” Driskel said. “You’ve just got to be able to get the football out and get it in your playmakers’ hands early; because we knew they were coming at the edge all day.”