The Cincinnati Bengals’ offense showed up at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday with some quick-strike answers to the Buffalo Bills’ defensive pressure tactics.
Thanks to the Bengals’ good game-planning – helped along by some shoddy tackling by the Bills — Cincinnati dominated the first three quarters of Sunday’s game and squeaked out a well-deserved, 27-24 overtime victory.
The Bills’ blitzes have been very effective this season. But the Bengals didn’t allow quarterback Andy Dalton to get stuck holding the ball for very long. Dalton got it out of his hands quickly and on target, completing 26-of-40 passes for 337 yards.
Looking at all that yardage, you would think big plays to superstar receiver A.J. Green had to be the key. Not so. Green caught a TD pass and had 103 receiving yards, but he wasn’t the difference in the game.
You might think the sensational tight end tandem of Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert — Cincy’s answer to New England’s Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez model — must have gone wild. Unh-uh. Eifert and Gresham combined for a measly 18 yards on four catches.
It was the Bengals’ other complementary weapons that did the worst damage in dropping the Bills to 2-4.
“They had a lot of trick plays that we had to get used to, because we studied something a little different,” said Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. “They came out with a different game plan that we had to get adjusted to.
“It wasn’t what we expected,” Dareus said. “They got a couple quick plays on us and moved the ball more than usual. It had us a little flustered for a little bit.”
Quick wide-receiver screens, a reverse and dump-offs to speedy rookie running back Giovani Bernard keyed a 284-yard first-half outburst by the Bengals.
On the Bengals’ first drive, they ran an end-around to receiver Marvin Jones that went for 34 yards and set up a field goal. Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso blitzed up the middle on the play and wasn’t in position to chase the ball-carrier.
On the Bengals’ second drive, a “bubble screen” to Jones went for 42 yards up the right sideline. Bills cornerback Nickell Robey rushed off the right slot on the play, and the Bills had one fewer defender on that side of the field. That set up an 18-yard TD pass to Green, who made a big-time catch, using his 6-foot-4 height to his advantage over Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin.
On the Bengals’ third drive, they beat the blitz again. Safety Jairus Byrd rushed off right tackle. But Green had gone in motion from the right to the left side and caught a simple pass to the left behind the line of scrimmage. He was off to the races in part because safety Jim Leonhard got pancaked and the cornerback on that side, Stephon Gilmore, was unable to get in the way of the ball carrier.
Gilmore was playing with a big cast on his recently healed left hand, and it sure looked like the Bengals targeted some plays in his direction to see if he could tackle.
“They were jumping out there quick because they know our defensive line is amazing,” Bills linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “When you get great pressure on the quarterback, that’s what they do to try to hurt the defense.”
Dalton and Bernard, the speedy X-factor Cincinnati was missing in its playoff runs of the past two seasons, finished off the drive with a great play.
The Bills had Dalton within their grasp on a five-man rush, but he instinctively shovel-passed the ball forward to the 5-9 Bernard at the Bills’ 15. Bernard made Bradham whiff, slipped out of Alonso’s grasp and then stiff-armed safety Da’Norris Searcy to burst into the end zone.
The Bengals had a 17-7 lead.
“The guy made a heck of a play,” Dareus said of Bernard. “He shuffled the ball to him, and that guy made four guys miss. What can you say about that? We had positioning on him.”
Bernard caught six passes, mostly quick flares, for 72 yards. Alonso found himself in the difficult position of chasing him down from the middle of the field on three of them.
The Bills’ defenders said a lot about their tackling after the game.
“I think the biggest thing was just our tackling in the first half,” said linebacker Arthur Moats. “A lot of times we were good as far as initial contact, but they were making plays bouncing off missed tackles. If we’re there, we gotta make the play.”
“Whether you’re not tackling well or you’re just getting out-leveraged on some zone runs, it’s going to put you in a tough position,” said defensive tackle Kyle Williams. “We’ve got to start off better than that.”
“For whatever reason we just started off really slow,” Leonhard said. “They hit you with a screen. They hit you with a reverse. You kind of get on your heels a little bit. … As far as the pass game, we’ve just got to tackle and make plays when they’re throwing shorter routes like that.”
The Bengals could have turned it into a rout if they had capped a 17-play, 64-yard third quarter drive with a touchdown. It would have made it 31-10. But the Bills made a stop near the goal line and Bengals kicker Mike Nugent missed a 34-yard field goal try.
At that point, the Bengals held a yardage advantage of 391-161.
The Bills had a bit more success in the second half playing their regular 3-4 front against the run, as opposed to the nickel defense. If the defense plays regular (four defensive backs) against the Bengals, it invites throws to the two tight ends. If the defense plays nickel, it’s a Cincy advantage in the run game.
The Bills got things sorted out against the run in the second half.
“Coaches came out with a better game plan in the second half, and we were all ready for it,” Dareus said. “They had more power plays and stuff on film, kind of running up the middle and being more physical.”
The Bills forced no punts in the first half. But after Nugent’s missed field goal, the Bills forced the Bengals into punts on five straight series.
That allowed Bills quarterback Thad Lewis to make two big fourth-quarter plays – touchdown passes of 22 yards to Scott Chandler and 40 yards to Marquise Goodwin.
It wasn’t enough, as a 29-yard punt return in overtime set up the winning field goal.
“Once we got our rhythm going the second half, they didn’t do a whole lot,” Leonhard said. “But it took us a long time to stop ’em, which was unfortunate.”