CLEVELAND — It's hard to quibble with the Bengals defense Sunday in the 17-6 loss considering it went into it without arguably its best player (cornerback Leon Hall), another starting defensive back (safety Reggie Nelson), it was on the field for 71 plays just a week after staving off the Packers on 81, and it held the Browns to 10 points for 55 minutes.
But it didn't get out of this thing unscathed, either.
The Bengals allowed nine third-down conversions to a team that had 11 in its three previous games, they didn't come up with a turnover, and allowed Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer to engineer touchdown drives of 95 and 91 yards in his third NFL start.
And the Bengals allowed three of those "explosives" head coach Marvin Lewis always preaches about when wide receiver Travis Benjamin ran a screen for 39 yards to set up the first touchdown, tight end Jordan Cameron was wide open across the middle for 31 yards to set up the other touchdown, and wide receiver Josh Gordon plucked a bomb off cornerback Adam Jones's back when he didn't turn his head for a 33-yard play that didn't turn into points with a missed field goal.
"Third down killed us," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "And we didn't get a turnover. We have to get better at that. Hoyer was getting the ball out because he knew we were going to rush him.
"Now we've got to get ready for Big Tom coming to town."
That would be Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in next Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium, the guy that Hoyer understudied in New England. So can the Bengals expect another flurry of screens and three-step drops? Hoyer did get sacked three times, but he got rid of it fast enough on third down in the face of a few blitzes that he completed seven of his first nine third-down passes for 88 yards and finished 10-for-13 for 108 yards on third down.
His last two third-down passes were killers in the field-goal drive that made it 10-3 with five minutes left in the third quarter. On third-and-three Jones didn't get there in time when Cameron turned a quick flip into an 11-yard gain on the sideline and on third-and-seven Gordon knifed inside cornerback Terence Newman on another quick-hitter for nine yards.
"(Hoyer) didn't do anything that we hadn't seen from previous quarterbacks," said safety George Iloka. "Screens can neutralize the pass rush. It discourages (the line) from getting off the ball. I just know the defense has to swarm better. We have to get off the blocks and react quicker."
Cameron had 10 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown and that was a surprise to safety Chris Crocker in his first game back.
"He's a good player. He's been a playmaker. The guy wasn't really a huge factor," Crocker said. "He didn't make a ton of plays. He just made that huge catch at the end. We covered the guy. We did what we had to do. They were sneaky catches. I didn't see a lot of big plays. I thought we contained him."
Crocker played 23 snaps or 32 percent splitting them between the slot and safety. There was no spectacular return like last year when he sealed the win in Jacksonville with an interception, but he felt he got out of it OK.
"It's one of those things the more reps I got the more I felt like I was in a groove. Getting back to being myself. I felt like I did what I was supposed to do, whether it was coaching them and telling them what I saw, or trying to be leader out there in between the white lines, your position can change at any moment.
"They made a lot of plays early in the ballgame. I think critical plays. Not just critical third-down plays, but plays where we had a chance to get them off the field."
And the Bengals couldn't make a critical play. It looked like Iloka had come up with an interception on a jump ball on the sideline but the receiver "knocked it out. He was a DB on the play," he said. "He punched it out. Give him a PBU (pass breakup)."
But the Bengals did get their three sacks in the second half with defensive tackle Geno Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap splitting 1.5. That gives Dunlap a half-sack lead over Atkins for the team high with three.
The Bengals also settled down a bit on third down in the second half when the Browns went three-for-eight, but when the offense couldn't score it magnified the big ones in that field-goal drive that made it 10-3 on Billy Cundiff's 51-yarder.