The Bengals' skid scraped rock bottom Sunday when they lost A.J. Green, their focus in a hail of penalty flags and their fourth straight game to the Broncos at Paul Brown Stadium, 24-10.
Penalties (12) and turnovers (three) marred Bengals quarterback Jeff Driskel's first NFL start, which fell apart in the early moments of the second half when a rare fumble by punt returner Alex Erickson set up Broncos quarterback Case Keenum's 30-yard touchdown pass and Driskel's interception on an ill-advised throw turned into Denver rookie running back Phillip Lindsay's longest run of his career on a 65-yard touchdown off a toss sweep left that morphed Denver's 7-3 halftime lead to 21-3 halfway through the third quarter.
Driskel finished 25 of 38 for 236 yards with a touchdown and a pick and was sacked four times. In a Wild Wild Card game of two desperate teams, Denver survived to 6-6 while the Bengals are running out of time at 5-7.
The whole world changed again with 11:56 left in the second quarter when Green grabbed his toe two steps into his route and fell down in a heap Driskel suffered a sack. Green, returning for the first time since he hurt the toe on the last offensive snap before the bye on Oct. 28, could barely limp back to the bench. When he got there the usually impassive Green slammed his helmet to the ground and once he was on a cart to take him to the locker room he put his head in his a hands. The question wasn't if he was done for the day. That was clear. The question is if he's done for the year.
And the sack given up by the middle of the offensive line made it third-and-25 and symbolized the challenges faced by Driskel in his first NFL start, which began on the first three drives at the 5, 12, and 19.
Naturally, the Bengals started the second half with a penalty, a holding call on Trey Hopkins making his his first start at left guard that was their ninth flag of the day and that led to a punt. The Bengals defense, which gave this team a chance to win early on Sunday, forced a punt when defensive tackle Geno Atkins chased Keenum into an incompletion on third down. But on the play cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick went out with a lower leg injury.
On the next snap Erickson came up to catch a punt but it bounced off his chest and the Broncos recovered at the Cincinnati 33. It was Erickson's first fumble of the season and 10th of his three-year career and the third one he lost. It only took two plays for the Broncos to see Phillips playing for Kirkpatrick and rookie wide receiver Cortland Sutton won a jump ball against him at the right pylon to make it 14-3. That was just one of two throws Keenum made all day with the other converting a third-and-10 on the first TD drive. His line of 12-21 for 151 yards tells you John Elway's search for a QB is ongoing.
Driskel then got some help with a wondrous 23-yard catch by wide receiver Tyler Boyd on a high ball over the middle that put the ball on the Denver. Boyd took a huge shot on the way to a 97-day and came down with the ball. But on the next snap Driskel went play-action rollout, only to find defensive end Adam Gotsis in his face. Driskel pumped it off his back foot falling away, but rookie tight end Jordan Franks wasn't looking and it was overthrown into the arms of safety Justin Simmons.
Moments later, Lindsay, the latest villain in a season the Bengals have never come close to stopping the run, took off on his run and it was pretty simple against a defense that struggles to set the edge. He had free sailing on his left perimeter and nobody got off their blocks and he outran everyday else to make it 21-3 on his way to 157 yards, the fourth 100-yard rusher they've allowed in the last four games.
Driskel hooked up with wide receiver Cody Core for a 30-yard catch-and-run touchdown late in the third quarter as Core broke two tackles for his first NFL touchdown. That cut the lead to 21-10 and when Bengals linebacker Hardy Nickerson forced a fumble at the Bengals 46, they had a shot. But tight end Matt Lengel false started and they just couldn't keep the rush off Driskel.
As the game wound under two minutes, rookie linebacker Bradley Chubb beat left tackle Clint Boling that for a strip sack that gave Denver the ball in the red zone, the fourth sack of Driskel.
Big play? Driskel was driving to a tying touchdown in the last minute of the first half with the obligatory leaping 22-yard catch by Boyd over the middle on third-and-11 and a 14-yard run off a bolt by running back Joe Mixon that gave them a first down at the Denver 7 with 25 seconds left and Mixon 59 yards on nine carries on his way to 82 on just 12 carries.
But when right tackle Bobby Hart gave up pressure to Von Miller off the edge and Miller grabbing every body part he could, Driskel flung it miles out of bounds. Even though tight end C.J. Uzomah was in the vicinity they hit Driskel with a crushing intentional grounding penalty. Why not? It was the Bengals' eighth penalty of the half for 65 yards, giving them 21 flags in the last six quarters. With no Green in the vicinity, Driskel over threw wide receivers John Ross and Cody Core on the next two snaps and Randy Bullock saved the drive on a 35-yard field goal with 12 seconds left that wasn't as easy it sounds with a tricky 17 mile-per-hour wind haunting the kickers on a sun-splashed 60-degree day.
The athletic Driskel, 13 of 20 in the half for 94 yards with surprisingly just one rush (for a loss), finally got the ball at his 40 after starting at his 5, 12 and 19. It happened when Brandon McManus couldn't negotiate the wind on a 52-yard field goal try.
But they ended up looking at a third-and-39 from their 21 after holding calls on right guard Alex Redmond and center Billy Price and a false start on Trey Hopkins making his first start at left guard. Throw in Miller bulling Redmond into Driskel to share a sack with tackle Shelby Harris and it marred a badly needed solid effort by the defense.
Rookie defensive end Sam Hubbard picked up his fourth sack of the year to force the missed field goal from 50 and on the series before that safety Shawn Williams blew up Lindsay on third-and-one to force a punt when he ran past DaeSean Hamilton.
But they couldn't survive the flag fest. And they couldn't survive a killing third-and-10 conversion even though Broncos quarterback Case Keenum had to scrape a shot-gun snap off the turf and run to the sidelines. Linebacker Nick Vigil, just coming back from missing nearly two months with a knee injury, got beat in coverage by Devontae Booker even though he was called for holding. That set up Lindsay's no-touch six-yard touchdown run (the closest player was right tackle Billy Turner when he fell down) to make it 7-0 with 1:56 left.
The Bengals kept the still-dangerous Lindsay relatively in check with 57 yards on 11 carries in the half, but Driskel ended up out-passing the struggling Keenum with the Bengals keeping him to seven of 15 for 77 yards.
Driskel's first drive started at his own five and got helped by 40 yards on Mixon's first four carries. Mixon broke one for 23 yards off Driskel's zone read riding off the double team block of Price and Redmond. Before that he bulled for a first down on third-and-one. Driskel hit four of his first five passes for 17 yards and they were of the safe variety, a quick wide receiver screen to Boyd and a seven-yard crosser to Green on third-and-16.
It was third-and-16 because Boling, making his third NFL start at left tackle in his 107th NFL game, was called for a block in the back when he tried to get down field.
The Bengals take on the Denver Broncos in week 13. Images from Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bengals' special teams continued to be haunted by flags. On the next snap, rookie tight end Jordan Franks false started on Kevin Huber's punt. After the Bengals forced a three-and-out (the linebackers clogged the passing lanes on third down and Keenum offered a weak incompletion), cornerback KeiVarae Russell was called for an illegal block on Alex Erickson's punt return. So Driskel's second drive started at his own 12 and it wasn't as productive as the first despite Mixon's 12-yard run up the gut. The drive blew up when Driskel kept on a zone read, avoided an unblocked Miller on the edge but lost three yards when the Broncos rallied and Driskel went down quickly as instructed, On third-and-eight he tried to hit running back Giovani Bernard over the middle but it was incomplete as the Bengals sought an interference on Todd Davis' plastered coverage.
For the first time since the bye and two home games, the Bengals defense forced a punt in the first half after nine straight touchdown drives. Denver still nicked them in the first drive of the game for 31 rush yards, 27 on three Lindsay runs in which the defense failed to set the edge, but on third-and-six cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick supplied coverage on the side-line sticks.
Moments before Green went down the Broncos saw Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris carted off the field with a calf injury.
And Kirkpatrick, hampered by Achilles' problems this season, went down with what appeared to be a lower leg injury early in the second half and limped off the field.