DENVER — The Bengals lost this one at the point of attack Sunday when they couldn't convert three third-and-ones during a first half they fell behind, 10-3, before losing 24-22 to the Broncos.
The Bengals were horrific on third down, missing their first nine until quarterback Andy Dalton hooked up with wide receiver A.J. Green with 1:03 left in a game they would finish 1-for-11 in third-down efficiency. The failure on third-and short would foreshadow the result of the biggest play of the game, a fourth-and-one from the Denver 36 with 3:04 left.
"It makes you mad to think we had an opportunity to win the game if we play better on third-and-1," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We're on the road, it's loud, it's hard to hear on those third-and-shorts. No excuses. We should execute them at a higher percentage."
The Bengals had the same problem last year when they were just 28-for-58 on third-and-two, but the newfound commitment to the running game was supposed to cure that. Not Sunday, where the Broncos simply were more physical and beat them to the punch up front.
On the first third-and-one, which was on the first series at the Bengals 49, the Bengals left interior got pushed back and running back Cedric Benson was stuffed for no gain as he searched to run away from the pressure to the edge.
The Bengals tried a play-action pass on the second third-and-one from the Broncos 48 and that seemed ill-fated from the outset. It came on the first play of the second quarter and they had to take a timeout coming out of the break. The Broncos weren't fooled as the Bengals sent Green out on a solo route out of a tight formation and he was double-covered as Dalton overthrew him deep.
Then on the last one of the half, with 10:01 left at the Bengals 30, tight Jermaine Gresham tried to set the right edge and he got pushed back on a play safety Brian Dawkins wrapped up Benson for no gain.
"They gave us a different look and we had some miscommunication there. Those third-and-ones, they summed up the first half," Whitworth said of the two runs. "There was miscommunication, we don't execute quite the way we should, and that's the identity of the first half for us."
Benson said the Bengals had an option on those two runs with Dalton making the call.
"Maybe they wanted it more than we did," Benson said. "They stacked it up very well, they stunted, there were free guys on the edge. They just outplayed us on third-and-one. It was well-needed for this team. We need to go back to work and capitalize on those areas."
The Bengals also didn't fool the Broncos on the fourth-and-1. With head coach Marvin Lewis eschewing a 53-yard field goal into a swirling wind, Dalton rolled out to the right on a naked bootleg leaving defensive end Robert Ayers unblocked and he guessed right, coming underneath and inside to force Dalton to throw it hurriedly into the ground.
"Their defensive end made a great play," Dalton said. "He was right on me when I turned my head, and we couldn't get it."
DEFENSE BRUISED: The choked emotion in middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's voice said how much this one hurt a Bengals front seven that takes pride in stopping the run. With fullback Spencer Larsen pounding away for backup running backs Willis McGahee and Lance Ball, the Broncos ran the ball 36 times and while it was only at 3.6 yards per pop, it was enough to keep them on the field and set up big plays off play-action.
The defense had its moments. It came up with two turnovers that set up field goals, one on safety Reggie Nelson's hit that forced a fumble and the other on right end Michael Johnson's strip of quarterback Kyle Orton.
But long drives spiced with backup wide receiver Eric Decker's 25- and 52-yard touchdown catches against a defense trying to overcompensate spelled doom.
"We didn't play the run well and that opened up a lot of things for them," said safety Chris Crocker. "We started to get aggressive and they were able to make some big plays."
Despite not having their three top receivers for most of the game and facing two backup backs, the Broncos stunned the Bengals with an opening touchdown drive of 15 plays for 80 yards. Then the first time the Broncos got the ball in the second half they took advantage of Kevin Huber's 40-yard punt and rolled 59 yards in just five plays to make it ugly at 17-3.
"We came out great. Ran the football, threw the football to the fullback, made some plays in the passing game and got it down there and stuck it in," Orton said. "That was a great way to start the game. I talked about it a lot to the offense this week, that we can control the tempo of the game, that we have enough playmakers on our side of the football to dictate what the other team has to do to get them in a passing situation. That was a good way to come out and start.
"We stuck with it. The line did a great job. Willis making yards, making downhill yards, making tough yards. Lance, the first drive of the game—third and three—I handed it off to him and he plows forward to get the big first down. We trust a lot of guys on our side of the ball. They made the plays."
Denver continually slashed up the middle.
"I get to the point of attack and I don't execute; it's disappointing," Maualuga said. "I had five or six chances to make a play and it slipped right through my hands. It's tough to take. I'm the (middle) linebacker and I have to take full responsibility.
"We come out and give up a long drive and they do it right away in the second half again. Sometimes you have to be at the right place at the right time, sometimes you have to just be gap sound and disciplined and in some cases I'm telling you I was there to make the play and didn't. Instead of one or two yards, I'd fall off and it would be like a five- or six-yard gain. As far as my performance, I didn't execute, I didn't finish."
But it was unit-wide. Crocker could only conclude, "Our defense didn't have its best day." The play that summed it up proved to be Denver's winning score on a 52-yard back-breaker. The Bengals had just crawled within 17-15 on Mike Nugent's 23-yard field goal courtesy of Johnson's strip of Orton late in the third quarter, but Orton came back and gunned one to Decker's back shoulder on the sideline as he worked on cornerback Nate Clements.
Crocker and Clements seemed to almost collide and Decker shrugged them both off and skipped the last 25 yards untouched.
"I overran it a little bit," Crocker said. "The receiver came back to the ball. I probably hit Nate off the guy a little bit. That's one of the plays that should have been stopped."