Bengals vs. Browns: Takeaways from Cincinnati's 17-6 Loss Against Cleveland
Cleveland punched Cincinnati in the mouth early and never looked back as Andy Dalton and Co. were unable to effectively move the football, and the defense was unable to contain Browns tight end Jordan Cameron.
The 17-6 loss is disappointing in a variety of ways as the Bengals fall to 2-2. In the following slideshow we'll examine the biggest points from the game, why they happened and how they impact the rest of the season.
Giovani Bernard Is the Cincinnati Offense
As horrific as the Cincinnati Bengals offense was against Cleveland on Sunday, there was one bright spot—rookie running back Giovani Bernard.
Stop if that sounds like a rehash of the past three weeks.
Bernard received just 16 touches in the game via 10 rushes and six catches, which he turned into 75 yards, good for a 4.7 yards-per-touch average.
Those numbers do not jump off the page, but for an offense that only mustered 336 total yards, it's a huge output. Bernard is clearly the best player on the offense not named A.J. Green, but his limited use by the coaching staff can only be explained by his woes in pass-blocking.
Regardless, the offense is simply better when Bernard is on the field.
Andy Dalton Has Failed to Take Next Step
The contest against Cleveland confirmed it—Cincinnati Bengals third-year quarterback Andy Dalton has failed to take the next step.
That was the question that required an answer this season if the Bengals were going to return to the postseason and actually win a game, something the franchise has not done for over a decade.
Dalton was up and down through the first three games but was visibly uncomfortable and inaccurate against Cleveland as he threw for just 206 yards and an interception while hardly completing over 50 percent of his attempts.
The TCU product has never possessed deep accuracy or elite decision-making skills, and that much was apparent against Cleveland. His offensive line was wobbly, the Browns defense was solid and the play-calling was questionable, but Dalton is clearly not a quarterback who can elevate the play of those around him.
Perhaps the coaching staff has made an evaluation error, because Dalton cannot handle what is being thrown his way if the Cleveland game is anything to go by.
A.J. Green Suffers as a Result
There was a time when A.J. Green could compensate for the wildly inconsistent play of quarterback Andy Dalton and use his leaping ability to adjust and reel in erratic passes.
Against some teams it still works but clearly not against the Cleveland Browns and elite cornerback Joe Haden.
Green not only had to battle Haden on every play, he had to battle the ineptitude of his own quarterback, resulting in a stat line consisting of just seven receptions for 51 yards.
In the past three games, Green has recorded receiving yards of just 41, 46 and now 51 in large part thanks to Dalton's play. Green is the type of talent who can overcome poor play, but even he has struggled with the play of Dalton.
Until Dalton can pull himself together, Green will continue to struggle.
Offensive Play-Calling Isn't Helping
Offensive play-calling has been an issue in Cincinnati for a very long time. Before Jay Gruden it was Bob Bratkowski, but at times it's hard to tell Bratkowski has moved on with Gruden in charge as coordinator.
Gruden has slowly eased rookie running back Giovani Bernard into the action, which is fine. However, Gruden and his staff appear to have bitten off more than they can chew with quarterback Andy Dalton.
As Bleacher Report's Matt Miller points out, Gruden and Co. are doing little to help Dalton:
NFL OCs do so little to help QBs. Why is Andy Dalton throwing deep sideline routes? Not his game. Play to his strengths.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) September 29, 2013
It's one thing to surround Dalton with talent, but it's another to use it altogether properly. Far too often the offense was ignoring massive tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert over the middle, which consistently worked when utilized.
Dalton has struggled and has plenty of work to do, but the coaching around him is not helping.
Health Key in Bengals Secondary
One of the major storylines for the Cincinnati Bengals heading into their matchup with the Cleveland Browns was the health of the defensive secondary, particularly that of safety Reggie Nelson and corner Leon Hall.
Both Hall and Nelson ended up missing the game, and it wasn't pretty.
With Adam Jones, Terence Newman and Brandon Ghee holding it down at corner while Taylor Mays started at safety, Cleveland had little issue moving the ball through the air.
Cleveland backup quarterback (now starter?) Brian Hoyer was able to throw for 269 yards and two scores while taking advantage of Bengals corners struggling in the spotlight. Mays did as well when asked to drop back and play safety—he surrendered the first touchdown of the game in coverage.
It gets worse—Nelson and Hall will be sorely needed against Tom Brady and the Patriots next week.
Tight Ends Continue to Plague Cincinnati
While on the topic of the Cincinnati defense, another grievous flaw that continues to haunt the Bengals defense is the tight end position.
Cincinnati struggles against opposing tight ends and has done so for years because of a lack of athleticism at both linebacker and safety. With the tight-end craze sweeping the NFL (Cincinnati even does it), the Bengals have been unable to shut down athletic tight ends who excel at going up and getting the ball at the point of attack.
So it should come as no surprise that Cleveland's Jordan Cameron went off for 10 receptions, 91 yards and a score on Sunday. Opposing offenses are well aware of Cincinnati's weakness, and the Browns used this knowledge in a way that allowed Brian Hoyer to have his way.
Until tight ends can be covered properly by the Cincinnati defense, expect big numbers from the position.
The Pass Rush Is Alive and Well
It wasn't pretty throughout, but the mostly quiet Cincinnati Bengals defensive line played well against Cleveland.
End Carlos Dunlap has easily been the best pass-rusher on the line through three games, and he reinforced that notion against Cleveland with another 1.5 sacks.
Defensive tackle Geno Atkins was mostly quiet through the first three games, but he played well and applied ample pressure on Brian Hoyer with 1.5 sacks of his own.
The rotation along the line is clearly hampered without Robert Geathers (who was lost for the year), but the three stars on the line (the aforementioned two with Michael Johnson) continue to provide enough pressure.
Wildly Inconsistent Bengals Not Ready for Postseason
There's a lot of work to be done in Cincinnati.
After back-to-back postseason appearances, a major win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football and a stunning comeback victory over the Green Bay Packers, it had appeared the Bengals had arrived.
Cincinnati failed to score a touchdown against Cleveland, and the defense struggled against a backup quarterback. The offensive coaching staff seems lost at times, and it's impossible to tell which Andy Dalton will show up to compete.
There is plenty of season left to turn things around, and a 2-2 mark is not the end of the world, but a common trend is developing once again in Cincinnati—playing down to the competition.
Until the Bengals can defeat teams they are supposed to and play at a high level against the best teams consistently, Cincinnati will continue to hardly make the playoffs, if at all.
No need to panic just yet, but something has to change.
Follow B/R's Chris Roling on Twitter for more news and analysis @Chris_Roling