Hobson's Choice: Third-down woes

Q: If I tell you that our secondary is awful, you'll say that it's a byproduct of our D-line play. If I tell you that our D-line is awful, you'll say that it's a byproduct of our secondary play. Which is it? Why can't we get a sack when it counts - like on a third down?
--Gary W., Seattle, WA

GARY: All we really know on defense is that everybody needs each other to make plays. After eight games they have only six sacks and four interceptions so I think we can all safely conclude they're not getting anything from anybody. But there's no question if they were getting pressure the secondary would be playing better.

And it's just not here, it's a league-wide constant. The Bengals mired last on third down have the corresponding sack-per-pass stat of next-to-last. Look at the team they play Sunday. The Jags are third worst on third down, forth worst in sacks have just six interceptions.

But third down is a difficult thing to quantify. Take the best defense in the NFL at getting off the field on third down. The Bears are No. 1 on third down, yet are a lowly 27th in sacks per pass. They must be great on first down then, right? Wrong. The Bears defense is 18th in giving up more than five yards per first down while the Bengals are actually better at 4.9 (10th) in the NFL.

I hate to say it because it is such a frustrating cliche, but the numbers always come back to playmakers. The Bears have somehow still managed to get 10 interceptions. The Steelers lead the NFL in holding foes on third down. Tampa Bay is 22nd in sacks, but third in interceptions. The Patriots do nothing extraordinary. They are ranked no higher than sixth in the major defensive categories and no lower than 26th. They play just well enough to win across the board.

The Bengals can't get a sack on third down because their ends have not produced like they thought they would but they also don't get a lot of help with tackle push up the middle. It's also tough to get sacks on third down or any down when you haven't had the lead for the last 173 minutes. Very few teams are using seven-step drops against them and are getting the ball out quickly because they do show a lot of blitz looks. Plus, when they get there on a blitz they've had problems finishing it off.

Or, it's been like this. On third-and-seven in the fourth quarter against the Steelers and Pittsburgh leading, 17-10, the Bengals blitz cornerback Leon Hall but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is still able to unload it. Yet he has to hurry and cornerback Johnathan Joseph has a play on wide receiver Santonio Holmes, but he can't make it.

First down.

Joseph has taken the blame for that play, but it's not always the secondary when the QB is patting the ball two and three times even on a three-step drop.


Q: With only one year on Cedric Benson's contract, what is the likelihood he will become a staple in the Bengals backfield for years to come?
--Balir B., Edmonton, Alberta

BALIR: They obviously like what he's doing and have it in mind. They know they've got a big-time talent if he comes anywhere close to the guy the Bears took No. 4 three years ago. Benson has indicated he'll come back, but it's a little early.

There is still some ball to be played and you'd have to figure before they make a major decision like that they also have to get some other things straightened out on offense and that may take awhile.

But they do have until March to get something done and they will no doubt try if things keep progressing. Really, what is the alternative? They'll most likely target a running back pretty high in the draft but they need a lot more than that at the position. Benson will draw some interest on the market and he'll get more if he continues to rebuild his reputation. But the Bengals should have a leg up.

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