CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Cincinnati Bengals' luck had to run out sometime.
It sure seemed like the Bengals’ defense was headed for late-game heroics for the third straight week, but the opportunistic defense of the first two weeks failed to generate a turnover in a 31-21 loss to the Panthers on Sunday.
“We didn’t make any bounces go our way,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “We had opportunity and we’ve got to make them bounce our way.”
That’s going to have to change when the Bengals travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons on Sunday, especially if the Bengals don’t have A.J. Green, who suffered a groin injury against the Panthers.
The Falcons lost to the Saints in a 43-37 shootout, picking on the New Orleans secondary to the tune of 374 passing yards and five touchdowns from Matt Ryan. Falcons wideouts Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones combined for 242 yards and three touchdowns.
Clearly the Falcons can generate a lot of points, and the Bengals might have to score often to keep up with them if they can’t fix some of the defensive issues that plagued them against the Panthers. If that’s the case, the Bengals are going to have to figure out how to make those late-game turnovers happen once more.
The Bengals' defense had two main failures against the Panthers: struggling to contain the run and failing to generate pressure against quarterback Cam Newton. Several Bengals linebackers attributed the issues to containing running back Christian McCaffrey.
“We didn't fit the runs right. We've seen those runs before -- a million times -- and for whatever reason today we weren't getting our run fits and they were gashing us for big yards,” linebacker Nick Vigil said.
The run game might not be as much of an issue if Falcons running back Devonta Freeman remains out, but it’s surely troubling to see how much the Panthers went after cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. The Falcons probably will take that route too, and they have the weapons to do so.
Although Kirkpatrick vowed not to drop an interception after missing two against the Ravens, he got a hand on a pass against the Panthers and couldn’t hold on to it. Kirkpatrick needs to have a big turnaround this week.
The Bengals also need to generate a bit of their own luck again, and they were close to doing so in Carolina when Carlos Dunlap’s strip/sack of Newton forced the ball out of his hands around the Carolina 24-yard line in the fourth quarter. Sam Hubbard appeared to jump on top of it, but the ball squirted out and back into Newton’s hands.
“I just got too aggressive,” Hubbard said. “I saw it on the ground, dove on it. It was hot and humid and with the grass it just slipped out ...”
“The quarterback saw it and when it popped out I didn't even know where it went.”
The Panthers were leading by seven points at the time, and a fumble recovery would’ve put the Bengals in a position to put some points on the board. Instead, the Panthers punted three plays later and the Bengals ended up with the ball at their own 14-yard line, eventually driving down to try to a 53-yard field goal attempt that was no good. The Panthers later sealed the game when they kicked a field goal to go up by 10 points.
The Bengals also just missed blocking a punt later that quarter by a hair. Hubbard got a hand on the ball but wasn’t able to get the complete block.
“Main thing was I was trying not to rough the punter, because if I did they would be getting a first down in the red zone and the game would be over,” Hubbard said. “It hit my elbow. It just didn't get the bounce that we needed it to.”
Clearly the late-game magic that sealed wins against the Colts and Ravens wasn’t meant to be this time. In Week 1, Clayton Fejedelem forced and returned a fumble on third-and-15 when the Colts were driving toward the Bengals’ end zone with 40 seconds remaining.
In Week 2, a Shawn Williams strip/sack on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco gave the Bengals the ball back on the Baltimore 29-yard line with 2:52 remaining. The Bengals were able to turn it into a two-possession game with a field goal.
Those are the kind of plays they are going to have to keep making if they're lacking in other areas. That little bit of luck might have been the difference against the Panthers, and it could be the difference against the Falcons.
“A few critical plays here and there and the game is totally different. It’s football, we have to go back to the drawing board and get after it,” linebacker Hardy Nickerson said.