A.J. Green reaches to haul in his two-yard touchdown reception.
A.J. Green had just done what no one in NFL history had done Sunday and the magnificent Bengals wide receiver wore the postgame trappings of a hunted man.
A weary expression, furrowed brow, and a taped ankle after the Dolphins tilted their bruising defense at him with a punishing two-deep zone that iced the red-hot Bengals offense in a 17-13 loss at sold-out Paul Brown Stadium.
They watched the highly efficient Green go into the record books with his brisk economy. When he caught a two-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Andy Dalton with 14:15 left in the game to cut the lead to 17-13, Green became the first man in NFL history with 100 receptions, 1,500 yards, and 11 touchdowns by his 20th game.
But the Dolphins made him work for it and it was no surprise that defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, the former long-time Bengals secondary coach, made up his mind after watching all those practices last season that anybody but Green would beat him as the Dolphins held him to 65 yards on nine catches.
Nobody else did.
"We have to pick some stuff up. We have to learn from this and go to the next one. It's a divisional game where we really need that one," Green said of Sunday's suddenly must AFC North match at winless Cleveland for the 3-2 Bengals. "We have to get back to the drawing board and get this stuff cleaned up."
The most glaring stat is the third-down failure when the Bengals whiffed on 12 of 14 third-down conversions with eight of the attempts coming on third-and-five and more. (Go back to last week and they are four for their last 25.) But that only points to the struggles on first and second down and that directly relates to the frustrating running numbers.
Even though the Dolphins dared the Bengals to run the ball against a zone that took away Cincinnati's varied downfield threats, the Bengals offered little resistance to Miami's top-ranked run defense. In the last three quarters, running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis carried six times and only once did he gain more than three yards, and that five-yarder came on his last carry.
"Too many of them," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said of the third-down problem. "We've got to get bigger chunks of yards on first and second down. We've got to get more runs than four, three yards and I've got to not give up on the run as early as I did just because we get down. Any quarterback in this league that has that many third downs, third-and-longs (is going to struggle)."
Quarterback Andy Dalton had a season-low 63.5 passer rating (23-for-46, 234 yards) and his NFL-best fourth quarter rating took a beating with his game-ending interception down the middle at midfield to slot receiver Andrew Hawkins that was overthrown and grabbed by safety Reshad Jones.
"We had two routes on the outside and they played two-man, so it is Andrew's ball in middle of the field," Gruden said. "I think (Jones) was reading the quarterback's eyes a little bit. Maybe it is because the wide receiver stopped a little (on the comeback route). It was just a high throw and the only one we had on the play."
Green saw pretty much the same look he saw on tape all week because with a defense that shaded helped to him, Dolphins 6-3 cornerback Sean Smith muscled Arizona Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald last week in holding him to almost the exact same stats: eight catches, 64 yards, one TD. The Cards threw at Fitzgerald 15 times; the Bengals threw at Green 13 and he had nine catches for 65 yards.
It was a gutty effort. Green's ankle got rolled late in the first half and he didn't miss a second-half snap with the tape job in his duel with Smith.
"He's a big, long corner. They played a lot of cloud to my side with him just bumping and running," Green said. "They're playing two-deep the whole time. We couldn't get our running game going as well as we needed. It was nothing special. They played a lot of two-deep safeties and it was hard to pass. The linebackers were dropping very deep."
If Green is going to continue to pull down big numbers, the Bengals need the linebackers to start respecting the run and they have to run it a lot better than they have this season. And after running back Bernard Scott suffered what is believed to be a season-ending ACL injury the Bengals no longer have their speed back. He was the only one able to do any damage against the speedy, physical Dolphins front seven with his 29-yarder the longest run against Miami all season, and he added a pair of six-yarders.
But when he got stuffed on the Miami 7 for a three-yard loss and left with the knee injury, there were 50 minutes left in the game and Cincinnati's bread-and-butter back, Green-Ellis, found neither with 14 yards on nine carries. BJGE came from New England with a football card that said career 4.0 yards per attempt, but it is 3.3 on 91 carries this season.
The Bengals have sixth-round pick Daniel Herron on the practice squad, but he's got a style similar to BJGE. Cedric Peerman would be the closest thing to Scott when it comes to a speedy changeup, but he's also one of the club's special teams stalwarts.
"A lot of the runs we ended up with them blitzing the crap out of the runs we had called and there was just an extra guy there," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "They brought a lot of heat and made it to where almost every run we had we got out of it.
"The turnovers were really the issue. Every time we thought we had a drive going we fumbled or turned it over."
The Bengals have yet to go plus in the turnover category this season and Sunday was no different with Dalton's two picks and a fumble by wide receiver Armon Binns that was the result of a poor throw low and away. Dalton's first interception was almost a carbon copy of Texans lineman J.J. Watt's pluck at the line of scrimmage in the playoffs last year, except Dolphins defensive tackle Randy Starks took it a couple of yards to the Bengals 36 to set up Miami's first touchdown early in the second quarter.
Naturally it came on third down and Gruden said Hawkins was wide open on the play. Dalton got sacked three times, but Gruden wasn't displeased with the protection.
"We didn't do a bad job of protection, but when we picked it up we just didn't get it to an open guy, and they did a good job covering us and we missed some throws here and there," Gruden said. "They disguised their intent a lot. Andy felt one thing pre-snap and got a different thing and there were times I wish he would have given A.J. more of an opportunity and looked at him when we did get single coverage. But other guys have to step up. Overall, the run game, the pass game, the playcalling, dropped balls, and fumbles, penalties. That's just 13 points. That's usually what happens."
Dalton, off three straight solid games, said he's got to play better. He called himself out for taking a sack on third down in the fourth quarter from the Dolphins 35 that took the Bengals out of field-goal range, and when the Bengals had a third-and-five from the 23 with 3:08 left, Gruden wished Dalton would have waited a tad longer to throw a screen to wide receiver Brandon Tate instead of the hurried incompletion. The timing appeared off because it looked like Dalton was going to get buried by the blitz.
"The offense didn't play well today across the board. I have to play a lot better and we have to find the ways to move the ball down there and score touchdowns," Dalton said. "We didn't execute today, we didn't do enough. It's tough sitting here where we are. We had our chances, but we couldn't get it done."
Everyone said they saw Lewis's logic at taking a field goal with 3:05 left, but that didn't stop the offense from still wanting to go for it like every offense wants to go for it.
"I thought we were going to go for it. But, I understood what Marvin was thinking," Dalton said. "It's unfortunate that we missed the kick, but we never should have been in that position. I should have gotten a completion there right before and gotten a first down."
It was one of those days. Up and down. In and out.
Dalton took a shot early and looked a little gimpy for a while, but hung in and bravely ran the ball on a few scrambles. Hawkins dropped a wide-open third-down catch but came back to make a great leaping and juggling grab down the seam for Cincinnati's longest pass play, a 24-yarder that put the Bengals on the doorstep of the winning touchdown at the Miami 28 with 3:52 left before that screen didn't get off the ground. Center Jeff Faine picked up a tough holding call with 1:30 left and the Bengals desperate at their own 33.
"My feet got a little tangled up with some other guys and I was going down," Faine said. "So I took them down with me. I'd rather do that than take a hit on the quarterback. It's just one of those things."
It was one of those days even on a record day.
"We just couldn't capitalize on the big plays when we needed to," Green said.