Never mind that the defense had limited Denver to just over 200 yards total up until that point or that Brandon Stokley and Brandon Marshal had combined for exactly four catches, all by Marshall. Every pundit, every fan and every “expert” has taken their shots at the team’s defensive backs.
Leon Hall should have knocked the ball down, they said. The safeties should have been playing back, they said. Somebody should have been shadowing Stokley, they said.
What’s lost in the conversation is not only is the criticism of the secondary flat-out wrong, but it also takes the blame away from the real culprit for the Bengals’ loss: The offense.
The play in question, for those who somehow missed it, involved Denver quarterback Kyle Orton forcing a pass into triple-coverage, Hall batting the ball away and Stokley somehow coming up with the ball and racing 87 yards for the winning score.
Should Hall have knocked the ball to the ground? Sure, but the third-year corner also made a remarkable play to get the ball, leaping nearly three feet in the air. From the angle that the ball hit Hall’s outstretched fingers, it is physically impossible for the ball to go anywhere but up.
No, what Hall attempted to do was make a play for his team. If the ball falls harmlessly out of bounds or to the turf, he’s the hero. As it turns out, he’s the goat.
But the bottom line is that the game should not have come down to one fluke play. At the end of the day, the Bengals’ defense allowed a grand total of 12 points. If you hold an NFL team to less than 17 points, 99 times out of 100 you’re going to win.
No, the blame for the loss falls on an offense that has been in a free fall since the 2005 season. That year, quarterback Carson Palmer led one of the league’s most explosive units and the Bengals seemed to score at will.
Over the next two years, the offense steadily declined. Sure, the team racked up a ton of yards (the barometer for NFL rankings), but the team couldn’t score any points (what you actually play for). It all came to a head last year when Palmer was injured and the offense fell apart.
This year was supposed to be different. The team upgraded itself at every offensive position and got a healthy Palmer back under center. Chad OchoCinco was happy, there were new running backs and the offensive line was rebuilt.
Yet, there they were on Sunday making the same mistakes. The O-line kept Palmer relatively upright, but was unable to open holes for running back Cedric Benson. OchoCinco caught some passes, but the rest of the Bengals receivers were non-existent.
Denver took away Cincinnati’s best weapon, its wide outs, and gave the team the middle of the field. With T.J. Houshmandzadeh now in Seattle and no NFL caliber tight end on the roster, the Bengals were powerless to exploit the weakness.
Maybe the game was a fluke. Maybe Palmer was still knocking off a bit of rust from playing only one quarter in the preseason. Maybe the O-line just needs a few more quarters to get its act together.
Whatever the reason, the Bengals scored seven points on one of the league’s worst defenses from a year ago and needed 59 minutes and 22 seconds to do just that. They’ll need to score a lot more in the coming weeks if they want to knock off the Packers and Steelers, their next two opponents.
The Bengals need to get a lot better on offense. Just don’t blame the defense for a fluke play at the end of the game.