Michael Turner gashed the Bengals defense for 121 yards. (AP photo)
ATLANTA - The proud Bengals defense that was the centerpiece of year's AFC North title is in tatters Monday morning.
With the Bengals on the verge of their biggest road comeback in team history with 1:16 left in the third quarter, 25-24, the Falcons continued to fry the Bengals man-to-man coverage and converted their last four third downs of the game on the way to 15 fourth-quarter points for a 39-32 victory that marked the most points scored on the Bengals in the 39 games under defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. And the 452 yards were second only to the 472 logged by Houston last year.
"It felt like it," said cornerback Leon Hall when asked if it was the worst this defense had played in three years. "We didn't make any plays in the first half and we came out in the second half and did some good things obviously, but that first half put us in a hole. They converted some third downs. They didn't do anything special (on third down). They just executed and we didn't. We didn't make the plays when they truly counted."
After 25 games the Bengals had allowed 30 points three times (and one of them was last year's throwaway finale against the Jets), Hall admitted he didn't think the Bengals could allow 39 points.
"Nope, not against any offense," he said. "If we don't play well, if we don't execute right, especially in the first half, it could be 100 points if we don't play right."
The Bengals never had the other starting cornerback, Johnathan Joseph, after he tried to go in pregame warmups and no one liked the way he was pushing off on his injured ankle. And the defense didn't have his replacement, Adam Jones, for the final 13:02 when he injured his shoulder with a stinger on a two-point play that put Atlanta back up, 32-25.
It sounds like both Joseph and Jones are going to be back next week for Miami at Paul Brown Stadium and maybe by that time Falcons receiver Roddy White is going to come back down to earth. Two weeks ago, the Bengals blanked the NFL's leading receiver on third down when they shut out Tampa Bay tight end Kellen Winslow. But Sunday this week's leading third-down receiver killed them when White caught three of his 11 balls on third down for 95 of his 201 yards.
White took his turns against each defender in a lot of one-on-one matchups because Atlanta moved him around so much. When he scored that go-ahead touchdown, quarterback Matt Ryan lured middle linebacker Rey Maualuga up to him in a play-action bootleg and Ryan flipped it over him to White for an 11-yard touchdown pass.
White was a problem right away. On the third snap of the game – third-and-three from the Falcons 24 - the Bengals blitzed middle linebacker Dhani Jones on a route where White simply ran what Hall called "kind of a shallow route" across the middle of the field with Hall in pursuit and lugged it 46 yards up the other sideline.
"Kind of," said Hall, when asked if he got picked off. "I was in trail mode the whole way. I played it poorly. I put myself in terrible position."
It was a huge play.
"I think that the biggest thing was that we converted on the first third down," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. "Roddy, he had an incredible run after the catch there. I think the biggest thing was converting that first third down and from there, we felt like we had a little rhythm and we went down the field and scored."
Safety Chris Crocker agreed.
"We allowed them to come out and get four or five big plays in the first series on defense," he said. "They were hitting chunk plays. You have to start fast. That's the kind of half we had. We didn't set the tone on defense."
The tone was set. For much of the day the Falcons max-protected against the frequent Bengals blitzes, which left the Bengals corners in a lot of one-on-one stuff. The Falcons were content to send out White and just someone else most of the time. And sometimes just White. The game became "pitch and catch" Hall said of the ease of the Atlanta passing game.
With the Falcons leading, 10-3, and facing a third-and-one from the Bengals 43 early in the second quarter, Ryan made a run-fake against an all-out blitz. That left Jones all by himself and White cut inside him and ran to the flag on the other side, where he made a marvelous juggling, tumbling catch to make it 17-3 not even five minutes into the second quarter.
"We felt like it was something that we worked on during the entire week. We felt like we could get a look in a situation like that on third and short," Ryan said. "We've been heavy run in that situation the entire year. We had hard play-action. It was a little bit of a different look than we anticipated, but with the type of player that Roddy is, he adjusts to that. He sees exactly what I see with the backside corner getting depth and knows that he has to take the route right towards to the pylon. I told him all week that if that was the look that we got, I would try to throw it right to that spot and his timing was incredible. He turned his head at the right time and it was a big play."
It was timing the Bengals lacked long on either side of the ball. Hall said once he realized his man was blocking, he tried to get back to help Jones, but it wasn't in time.
Hall did make a huge play in the comeback when he made a leaping interception (his team-leading fourth of the year) one-on-one in front of Michael Jenkins at the Bengals 38.
"It was on our sideline and that helped. There were a lot of 'Ball' calls on our sideline and I was able to get my head around in time," Hall said.
Jones put the Bengals ahead with a Herculean play late in the third quarter. He popped White at the Falcons 41 after a five-yard gain, raked out the ball, picked it up and raced 59 yards for the score in front of his home folks on what looked like what was going to be the play that turned the season around.
"We all had a rough day, but I think he played pretty good," Hall said.
It looked like karma as good as Jim Rome's Jungle. Jones was making his first start in two years and he was playing at home for the first time since high school and…
"It felt good," Jones said. "I was just trying to make a play."
But it was the last one the Bengals made on defense. Zimmer put everybody but Dan Wilkinson in on the nickel line, giving rookie Carlos Dunlap a shot at left end in his second game and sliding Jon Fanene inside in his first game back since the opener. But nothing worked. And with Jones down, the Bengals were mixing and matching in coverage with safeties in the Falcons' last scoring drive.
"Our expectations were through the roof coming in," Hall said. "We just have to keep working like we did last year and make the plays that come to us. We just haven't made that one or two plays at the beginning to get off the field (on third down)."