Head coach Marvin Lewis said the Bengals needed more zip and energy. Wide receiver A.J. Green said the offense was inches away. Outside linebacker Thomas Howard said the defense needed to clean up its rush lanes. Quarterback Andy Dalton said he couldn't put the finger on one thing.
But one thing is clear after what was supposed to be the preseason's dress rehearsal in Thursday night's 27-13 loss to the Packers at Paul Brown Stadium: The show needs some work before it goes on Sept. 10 in the regular season opener in Baltimore.
After Dalton's first-team offense missed on seven out of eight third-down tries and the defense allowed Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to rush for 52 yards and two touchdowns, the Bengals backups turned it over three times in the fourth quarter in a derby of future waiver-wire pickups.
Dalton couldn't even hook up with Green, his favorite target, for more than one catch for three yards despite throwing it to him six times. He had Green wide open for a touchdown when the defender slipped, but Dalton overthrew him.
"Inches away," Green said. "Andy makes that throw nine out of 10 times, so that's nothing to worry about."
The contrast between the two first teams was never more evident than in the running game. After being passed over by the Bengals in the offseason, running back Cedric Benson made his Packers debut with a crisp 38 yards on six carries and compared it to being "like the kid in the candy store."
Meanwhile, the Bengals had their noses pressed up against the window without their top two running backs and got just 32 yards on 14 carries from backs on Thursday night.
Enough so that the Bengals were hoping to get Dalton and the first crew out after a couple of series but the offense went out for a final three-and-out on the first series of the second half for its third straight three-and-out and fifth of the game.
"Offensively, it comes down to being able to rush the football better in the first half," Lewis said. "We have to do a better job of that. Both quarterbacks were leading ball carriers for their teams. Those are things that we will improve on."
After the Bengals could rush for just 11 yards on 10 carries in the first half last week in Atlanta when two quarterbacks and a receiver were their leading rushers, the running game is in critical condition and the passing game isn't much better after Dalton suffered through a 5-of-17 night for 40 yards.
"We didn't play very well tonight; we didn't get anything going," Dalton said. "We had too many three-and-outs. We weren't getting into it. It's unfortunate to see, but we were close. We missed on a couple things, but this will be a good film to learn from."
Whey they'll see on the film is a stunning amount of blitzers running free against defensive coordinator Dom Capers's notorious batch of stunts, games and pressures. Particularly on third-and-goal from the Packers 3. With Dalton operating out of a four-receiver spread, linebacker Erik Walden lined up on Dalton's left and walked in untouched to sack him, ending a death march in which the Bengals lost 11 yards from the Packers 1 and had to settle for Mike Nugent's 30-yard field goal that cut the Packers lead to 14-3 late in the first quarter.
"I should've taken a timeout. The clock was running down and I made a check. I should've taken a timeout," Dalton said. "We didn't have the right protection call, and with the way we blocked it up, that guy was free. I should've taken a timeout. It's something we can learn from. When we get down in the clock and get in a situation where it's not a good look, take a timeout. It's not going to hurt us."
The same thing happened on Dalton's last throw of the night as the Bengals first-teamers worked against the Packers backups on the first series of the second half. Dalton had a shot for a big play on third-and-six with wide receiver Brandon Tate down the middle, but the unblocked safety blitz of M.D. Jennings made Dalton throw it "half-second" sooner than he wanted for the incompletion.
"Not right in the protection," Dalton said. "Guys that aren't usually playing are in there. The way the protection was drawn up, it should have been protected. Missed assignments."
Usually the running back is responsible for the safety blitzes, but center Kyle Cook says it has to be a unit responsibility.
"Everybody has to be on the same page for blitzes and stuff like that," Cook said. "The offensive line, the running backs, everyone. This is good. We'll see it on film and learn from it."
Like the third-down blitz on the goal line. Cook agrees there had to be a timeout called. But he wouldn't blame it on the lack of a regular-season game plan against Capers's regular-season menu of blitzes.
"They've got some athletes up front, some big guys and I think they did a good job," Cook said. "We need to be better and whether it's tight ends, offensive line, running backs, whatever it is, I just think we all just need to work together and be on the same page so we can get this stuff done as we go into the season."
But the Bengals haven't shown everything, either. They usually go with a Jumbo package on the goal line and they haven't done it yet. On second-and-goal from the 1, running back Cedric Peerman got buried for a two-yard loss running to the left.
"I wish we could just get in a big set and run it down there. We're doing things to give guys a lot of experience," Cook said. "Obviously, we've got to put our heads to the grindstone."
Which is no doubt where defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to be after the Packers rolled up 245 yards in the first half, although Lewis couldn't find much fault with the pass coverage. After Rodgers scrambled for touchdowns of 12 and five yards, there was some buzz in the locker room that perhaps a regular-season game plan or a "spy" on Rodgers would have stopped some of that.
"We are doing a good job in coverage and I like that, but we are not doing a very good job keeping the quarterback hemmed in, and that's three weeks in a row now," Lewis said. "We're not game-planning for some of the things that we're seeing, but I know we're going to have to handle that in the regular season. No question about it. It is where we are right now/"
The Bengals' aggressive penetration up front almost seemed to hurt them because there was nothing up the middle after the initial push. Rodgers ran away from cornerback Nate Clements when he beat him to the left pylon for the 12-yarder from the middle of the field.
"I don't know if it was his speed," Clements said. "All of a sudden you're covering receivers and then you're turning going the other way trying to chase a quarterback."
On the five-yarder, left end Jamaal Anderson got a hand on Rodgers before he bolted up the middle.
"But he was able to shrug my hand off his forearm and he stepped up around me," Anderson said. "I thought I put a good rush on him. He's definitely an elusive guy. He showed why he was the MVP in the league last season."
Howard agreed that Rodgers is special, but he doesn't see the Bengals letting a quarterback hurt them like that again.
"He found some lanes. He's a smart quarterback. He was able to find some openings," Howard said. "Our defensive line is the backbone of our team. Those guys make us go. They make our job easier. They're trying to get the feel. You've got speed guys getting up the field, and sometimes those lanes are there. That's just something as a defense we have to clean up."
The defense's high point came when cornerback Terence Newman got some safety help in the middle of the field and he was able to range to the sideline to pick off Rodgers.
"I think they run a lot of those boot(legs) to try and wear out the defensive line and get those guys moving and come back," Newman said. "He's a guy that's always scrambled in the pocket — look over the last three years. He's made plays with his feet. Not just rushing the ball, breaking the pocket, getting first downs but also with his arm. It's tough to play quarterbacks like that.
"You get your linebackers stuck up on the play-fake and then he's (bootlegging) back the other way. As a defensive back, it's easier because you understand the rules that once he's out of the pocket, you can push guys around. I was trying to use that to my advantage once I saw the boot(leg) and getting into my press technique, be physical and get guys out of bounds and keep guys in front of me."
But it was one of those nights even for guys that did something well. Even Newman is looking at tape Friday.
"Obviously, tonight is going to leave a pretty sour taste in our mouth," he said. "Preseason, it doesn't matter — nobody likes to lose. We just came out flat in the first half, didn't do anything well to be honest with you. (We) made a couple plays and gave up a couple more plays and it will be interesting to look at film tomorrow."