In the city of Cincinnati—a Republican hotbed where the radio broadcasts of sports events are often preceded by the voice of the second most popular conservative talk show host in the country—a sense of conservativism seems to have rubbed off on the city’s professional football team.
The Cincinnati Bengals’ lack of aggressiveness in a 23-20 overtime victory against the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 4 brought the conservative nature of the Bengal mindset into full purview.
Sure, Marvin Lewis sent out the offense on fourth and 11 with just over a minute remaining, giving his team the vital 15 yard run to set up the game winning field goal by Shayne Graham.
But the Bengals—visibly the physically superior team in the running game and at the quarterback position—should not have been in such a tight spot, had Cincinnati not taken such a myopic view of the playbook in preparation for the game.
The conservatism began on the defensive side of the ball, where defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was faced with quarterback Derek Anderson, making his first start of the season under center for the Browns.
Lacking the expected timing and flow of the offense inherent to a regular starter, Anderson frequently targeted wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi—an expected fantasy fixation in coming days, as his relationship with Anderson from the Browns’ second team offense made him the go-to receiver.
Despite facing an uneasy quarterback, Zimmer held back on many of the blitz packages that he had utilized in previous victories over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, allowing Anderson to remain untouched by the four-man Bengal rush.
The ample time allowed Anderson to find a rhythm in the second quarter, propelling the Cleveland offense to a put up 305 yards—to the Bengals 17—in the second and third quarters.
Once Zimmer did turn up the pressure—bringing safety Chris Croker or weakside linebacker Rey Maualuga on multiple occasions—Anderson’s decision-making was hurried, stagnating the Cleveland offense for the fourth quarter and overtime.
While the Bengal offense applied a bend-but-don’t-break strategy against the 29th ranked Cleveland offense, the Cincinnati offense was struggling for much of the game—in large part because of their reluctance to take a risk over the middle of the field.
The Bengals failed to pick up a first down on 13 third down attempts, in large part because of their focus on square-out routes by receivers Chad Ochocinco, Laveranues Coles and Andre Caldwell.
While such routes fit the prescribed method for beating the Cleveland man-coverage in the secondary, they lost a significant amount of effectiveness when they were not offset with over-the-middle routes.
Streaks from tight ends Daniel Coats and J.P. Foschi, along with dump-offs to running back Brian Leornard, constituted the majority of the center-of-the-field routes on the afternoon. That was until a 20-yard reception by Chris Henry with 2:40 remaining in overtime.
It was easy to see offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski’s reluctance to allow for the higher frequency of interceptions that result from such routes.
Cincinnati will not be able to wait as long to assert themselves in upcoming games, most notably against divisional rival Baltimore in Week Five.
Allowing Raven quarterback Joe Flacco to roam unabated in the pocket, or encouraging Baltimore cornerbacks Dominique Foxworth and Fabian Washington to jump predictable out-routes will dig a hasty hole for Cincinnati at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Bengals have occupied that hole below the Ravens and Steelers for three years, and it will take a bold effort to get out.