CLEVELAND — To a man on an offense that was supposed to take that bold next step in 2013, the Bengals were stunned at how Sunday's 17-6 loss to the Browns unfolded at FirstEnergy Stadium.
No pass longer than 16 yards to their coveted trio of young wide receivers. No run longer than six yards by their revamped one-two backfield punch. No semblance of surprise from their cherished two tight-end set that saw the running backs carry just four times in the second half and 12 straight dropback passes when the Bengals trailed just 10-3 and 10-6 as the third quarter turned into the fourth.
And not one consistent touchdown drive from their quarterback in a game Andy Dalton was pitted against Cleveland's Brian Hoyer in just his third NFL start and first at home for the Browns. Dalton came into the game completing 67 percent of his passes and he barely connected on 50 percent Sunday on 23 of 42.
"I've got to put this team in better position to win the game and I didn't get that done," said Dalton, admitting it was one of the most disappointing of his 36 regular-season starts. "It's one of them. We had a lot of chances to do it and that's the frustrating thing. We've got all the ability in the world on this team and we didn't get it done."
It was the first time since the third game of Dalton's career the Bengals didn't score a touchdown on offense or defense. Something Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth knows simply can't happen in a game the Bengals are favorites against a rebuilding division rival.
"Embarrassing; it can't happen again," Whitworth said. "We have to find a way to correct it and we have the ability and talent it should never happen. We have to figure out a way to make it happen."
These guys are expecting a lot more from this offense. Especially the guy universally regarded as its best player.
"It's very shocking because I feel like we have all the pieces to be a great team," said two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green. "We are not playing at a consistent basis. Even the games we won we are not playing on a consistent basis. To be a great team you've got to be able to come in week in and week out and play great. We are not doing that right now. Even the game last week we had all those turnovers. All that is going to catch up with you in the long run."
The long run turned out to be just four games into the season. In fact, there was no long run. After Green was called for holding on running back Giovani Bernard's seven-yard run on first down from the Browns 43 with 4:25 left in the third quarter and the Bengals trailing 10-6, the Bengals proceeded to throw it 22 straight times to end the game, save for a Dalton sneak to get a first down.
Part of the reason was because on one first down right guard Kevin Zeitler was called for holding and on the next first down the ball slid out of center Kyle Cook's hand on a bad snap that went for a numbing 14-yard loss. That killed the drive and when the Bengals got the ball back, they trailed 17-6 with 4:54 left.
"The thing today is we kept hurting ourselves. We'd get a first down and then we'd have a lost-yardage play," Dalton said. "We could never get clicking for full drives. That's what hurt. It just slipped out of (Cook's) hands. That's what he said. That's the perfect example of it."
The tough thing about it is the Bengals had to watch the Browns attack them the way the Bengals had hoped to beat people.
Hoyer targeted tight end Jordan Cameron on 12 passes and hit him 10 times for 91 yards and a touchdown. The Bengals targeted their prized tight ends, two-time Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham and first-rounder Tyler Eifert, a total of five times each for six catches and 92 yards.
Even though the Browns traded away their stud running back 10 days ago, they ran it just enough to keep the Bengals off balance with retread Willis McGahee virtually coming off the couch to run it 15 times for 46 yards. And while the Browns have serious problems running the ball, they still ran it 30 times for 89 yards while Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis combined for 16 carries and 50 yards. Missing was the dominance the Bengals had two weeks ago when they hogged the clock from the Steelers with a relentless running game even though Pittsburgh, like Cleveland, was giving up less than three yards per rush.
After turning the ball over four times last week and putting the defense on the field for 81 snaps, the Bengals whiffed on 10 of 14 third downs Sunday while Dalton fumbled in the pocket and threw a pick to keep the defense on the field 71 more snaps Sunday.
The fumble came on the first series of the second half, when Dalton didn't see the slot corner blitz and had the ball swiped by cornerback Chris Owens as he began to throw at the Bengals 47. It was Cincinnati's eighth fumble of the season and fifth one it lost on the way to two more turnovers that gives Dalton six of the team's nine turnovers this season.
"It felt like there were plays I could have made," Dalton said. "There are plenty of plays I can go back and watch the film and find ways to improve."
Dalton wasn't exactly put in some great situations but the bottom line is the passing game to the wideouts was virtually non-existent with his three 20-plus passes all to his tight ends. Dalton didn't get a lot of pressure. He was sacked twice and hit twice; mostly, it seemed when he couldn't find anybody open in a secondary the Bengals were supposed beat when they threw it away from cornerback Joe Haden shadowing Green.
"We have to keep getting better and find ways to take advantage of the guys we have," Dalton said.
Dalton and Green were out of sync, particularly on the long ball as Haden had Green one-on-one some and had safety help on others as Green averaged just 7.3 yards on his seven catches. On one red-zone fade in the second quarter, Haden had position on Green and the pass flew harmlessly over them, and in the fourth quarter Green went on a "go" route into the end zone while Dalton was throwing it to the sideline.
"They were playing him over the top; there was a little miscommunication," Dalton said of the latter throw. "It's not that we weren't on the same page; there's just things like the way they were playing him, the way they were doing things that made us either go other places or take our chances that might not end up exactly how we want it," Dalton said. "I've got to do a better job of giving him (Green) a chance to make plays. I think that's what he is so good at, when the ball's in the air making plays, when it's him and one other guy or him and a couple guys. When it comes down to it, we have to be better."
After going for 162 yards in the opener, Green has 138 yards in the last three games.
"It's just hard when you are a guy on offense and you want to make plays but it's just not clicking," Green said. "It's very frustrating. But all I can do is continue to work and continue to work with Andy and hope we get better together.
"He's got a lot of things on his plate he has to look for. It happens like that."
If the passing game was a maze, one running play symbolized the struggles. Green-Ellis lost two yards on fourth-and-one from the Cleveland 7 and the reason given was also "miscommunication."
But there seems to be no problem communicating what the problem is.
"This is not a defensive issue; the defense has come to play," Whitworth said. "They scored late. Crap. At some point an offense is going to put up points. We couldn't figure out how to get in the end zone. They could find a way."