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Running on empty

The Bengals had no answer for Texans running back Steve Slaton. (AP photo)

Posted: 11:10 p.m.

Those who live and die with the Bengals couldn't be too surprised how this one came out.

A sun-splashed day at a jammed-pack, jacked-up Paul Brown Stadium to match the expectations of a team ready to take the next step after four tough-as-nails wins going against underdog visitors. The Bengals like to do it the hard way, don't they? Both the offense and defense couldn't put anything together in another desultory 28-17 home loss to the Texans that had all the earmarks of an emotional and physical letdown.

"It just seemed like we didn't have the fire that we've had for the first five," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "It's Week 6. We've played some tough games. You've got to say going down to the wire, playing in overtime and on the road, stuff like that has to take a toll on you eventually. But we still have to execute and win a game like this."

There were signs it was more mental than physical. After three straight divisions wins that were decided in the last 14 seconds or overtime, the Bengals again had an inordinate number of dropped passes and missed tackles and head coach Marvin Lewis didn't like how his team responded when he decided not to challenge tight end Daniel Coats' killing fumble on the first series of the second half.

"I think it's good to get this out of the system," Lewis said. "We got caught up in whether we were going to challenge or not challenge and a lot of other things that didn't really matter, instead of just playing football. Not focusing got us out of the game, particularly in the second half. We had guys running onto the field looking over their shoulder at me instead of playing football."

Forget the past three weeks. It had been a grueling 10 days. The team began it by coping with the sudden death of Vikki Zimmer, the wife of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and then going on the road to beat the Ravens before boarding buses and attending her funeral on Tuesday.

Then it ended with the Bengals watching NFL sack leader Antwan Odom loaded onto a cart late in the first quarter Sunday with what is believed to be a season-ending torn Achilles and defensive captain and tackle Domata Peko hobbling off the field for the rest of the afternoon with a knee injury after just three plays. When left end Robert Gathers vomited after the game, it was symbolic of a spent defense that had just spent 36:15 on the field.

"We knew how tough it was for Zimmer, but this is a group that has been able to move on from things like that and refocus," said safety Chris Crocker. "I just don't think we played like we're supposed to play. It wasn't anything about lingering or how everything affected this team. We didn't play as well as we could have. For some reason we play better on the road. We've got to come out and find a way."

The Bengals better find out quickly how to win at PBS because the swaggering Bears are coming in here next Sunday at 4:15 p.m. with another quarterback who can sling it. After Sunday's effort in which he saw his offense blanked in the second half on 78 yards, the Bengals quarterback, Carson Palmer, put the blame on his unit.

"We need to come through for our team and offensively we need to pick it up and help out our defense when they're struggling," Palmer said. "Because there are a number of times when we've been struggling and our defense has come through for us. That part is very disappointing because our defense has played well this year, they're playing their butts off and we're not doing enough to help them out."

There was a letdown, but there was also a continuation of disappointing trends for the offense. For the fifth time in six games the Bengals failed to score 24 points with a numbing blend of penalties (two holding calls and a tripping call) and dropped passes (six or seven by some press box accounts with tight end Daniel Coats and wide receiver Andre Caldwell combining for five).

The defense kept its one disappointing trend going, too. It leads the NFL in giving up plays of 20 yards or longer and the Texans pulled off five Sunday for two touchdowns. But, like Palmer said, convert a first down once in awhile and keep your defense off the field against a dangerous offense. The Bengals offense got just one out of five in the second half and not until the two-minute warning.

"Obviously we couldn't run the ball well enough to keep them off the field; that was a big thing," said center Kyle Cook after his pitched battle with Texans middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "He does a real good job reading the defensive linemen and double-team blocks and knowing where to go to the point where it's kind of hard getting him falling back. Similar to what Ray Lewis does."

Ryans had 12 tackles as the Texans ganged up on NFL rushing leader Cedric Benson for 44 yards on 16 carries and rookie SAM linebacker Brian Cushing bedeviled Coats. Late in the first half Cushing slanted inside Coats to stop Benson for the first time on a third-and-one this year.

And when the Bengals had something going on their first drive of the second half and looking to match the Texans' go-ahead score, Cushing forced Coats to fumble at the Texans 46.  

Classic '09 offense: The Bengals look like the '05 offense in the last 48 seconds of the half in scoring 10 points and taking a 17-14 halftime lead. Then in the last 30 minutes they look like the '08 offense with no points and three turnovers.

What was particularly disheartening is the Bengals tried to get their once vaunted no-huddle offense going in the second half and it turned out to have virtually no first downs.

"It's our fault, it's our fault," said wide receiver Chad Ochocinco. "We've said the same thing week in and week out. The way we've been winning the past four weeks is not going to work the entire season. We're going to have to put together four quarters straight of consistent football. We've got to better than we are right now."

Asked if they were flat, The Ocho decided, "If we were flat, we would have scored zero points."

Which they did in the second half, when Lewis noted his team's wandering eye on the Coats fumble.

"I think we came into this game prepared," said defensive tackle Tank Johnson. "We probably didn't do the fundamental things. We just thought we could go out and play football. But in this league you've got to be gap sound, you've got to run things right. As you see, we were 4-1 and five plays we could be 0-5. We've got to get back to the basics, to the fundamentals and get it right."

The defense had its bad moments, too, that also had a whiff of a mental letdown. They missed a bunch of tackles on a pair of screens, a 59-yarder to wide receiver Andre Johnson and a 38-yarder to running back Steve Slaton, which went for a touchdown and a 14-7 Houston lead halfway through the second quarter. Crocker and cornerback Johnathan Joseph were nowhere to be found on wide receiver Jacoby Jones' all-alone 23-yard touchdown catch off a play-action.

And Joseph dropped what could have been a 70-yard interception return right down the sideline on the last play of the third quarter.

"It would have changed the game, absolutely," Joseph said. "I can't do that. I've got to look it in before I start running."

Johnson was asked what they had left in the Tank.

"This league is about bouncing back," Johnson said. "I look forward to that. We're rallying around these guys. We've got some guys that are hurt, hopefully they get healthy quick. We've got enough leadership, enough talent and enough good coaching to do anything in this league."

But there was still a sense Sunday that the Bengals were running on empty.

"This team will come out swinging; we're not worried about that part at all," Whitworth said. "We're just a little disappointed we didn't have more in the tank for today and didn't play better today."

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