Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has been saying the same thing for the past three weeks: Players just need to do their jobs and stop trying to do anything more than that.
If only it were that simple.
The Bengals suffered their fifth loss in the last six games Sunday, falling 35-20 to the Cleveland Browns in a “Battle of Ohio” series they have dominated the past three years. A slow start put them behind 28 points in the first half, and by the time the Bengals adjusted, it was too late.
Cleveland (4-6-1) sealed its first win over the in-state rivals since 2014 by making two fourth-down stops in the final four minutes.
Here are five takeaways from the game:
The Bengals came out ready to stop the run, and instead the Browns lined up with some four-receiver sets that they weren’t anticipating.
Cleveland rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield completed all six of his passes for 71 yards on the opening drive, and that set the tone. He had 245 yards and three touchdowns on 17-of-22 passing in the first half, and after the Browns took a 35-7 lead in the third quarter, they turned to the run.
Only then was Cincinnati able to come up with stops on defense. The Browns had one first down combined on three of their final four drives and punted from the Bengals’ 45-yard line on the other one after a big tackle for loss by Shawn Williams.
“We’ve just got to show that heart all four quarters,” safety Jessie Bates said. “It’s kind of frustrating we turned it back on when we were down 35-7, but any NFL team being down 28, it’s kind of hard to come back.”
Cincinnati finished with 372 yards of offense, compared to Cleveland’s 342 yards, as the Browns had just 46 yards in the second half.
Wide receiver Tyler Boyd said he felt disrespected when Browns safety Damarious Randall told reporters in Cleveland that the Bengals couldn’t win without A.J. Green, but the Browns were out to earn their own bit of respect.
They had lost seven straight in the series and have been trying to turn things around from a 1-31 record the previous two years.
“We’re tired of being disrespected,” Browns safety Jabrill Peppers said. “Before the game, they said, ‘Why are you talking? You play for the Browns.’ What does that mean? We’re an NFL team. We don’t have the worst record in the league. We’re a tough team to beat – go watch the film.”
Peppers said that was why Randall took the ball he intercepted on an Andy Dalton pass intended for Cody Core and handed it to former Browns coach Hue Jackson.
One big mistake cost the Bengals their starting quarterback.
Rookie center Billy Price sent a snap over Dalton’s head on the first drive of the second half, and in an attempt to slide on the ball, Dalton injured his thumb – and still lost the fumble at the 7-yard line. Dalton left for the locker room and never returned to the field. The Browns scored two plays later.
Lewis said the Bengals weren’t making those kinds of mistakes earlier in the season during a 4-1 start. Penalties also took away two of Alex Erickson’s long kick returns and impacted the team’s final two drives. Cedric Ogbuehi, who came in when backup Jake Fisher suffered a back injury, had a false start on third down at the Cleveland 12-yard line, and an illegal shift on fourth-and-10 negated a 46-yard pass to Tyler Boyd on the final drive.
“It’s execution,” Price said. “I have to be better for this team, and I have to make sure, again, that everybody’s on the same page. Some of those were me at the end there. I thought we were in a different type of hurry-up (offense). It’s just a miscommunication. The responsibility is on me, and I have to be better.”
Jeff Driskel came in for Dalton in the third quarter and gave the Bengals a chance despite the big deficit.
He moved the offense down the field for a score on his second drive to make it 35-14 with 4:56 left in the period on a 28-yard pass to Boyd, then repeated that the next drive, running one in from 2 yards out to make it a two-score game.
The Bengals got as far as the 12 yard line the following possession but Auden Tate couldn’t come up with the catch on fourth down, and the final pass of the day was incomplete to C.J. Uzomah near midfield right after Boyd’s big catch was negated by the illegal shift.
“They had full confidence in me, and on our sideline, everyone had the mentality that we were going to come back and win that game,” Driskel said.
Driskel completed 17 of 29 passes for 155 yards and one touchdown.
The Browns’ win gives them a glimmer of hope they can make the playoffs, but it requires them winning out, and the Bengals are feeling the same way about their chances.
Cincinnati hosts sub-.500 Denver next week and still has a game against Oakland (2-9) to play, as well as a trip to Cleveland in late December. The biggest challenges will be the L.A. Chargers on the road Dec. 9 and Pittsburgh in the finale.
“All we have to do is win the next five games,” Boyd said. “It’s way easier said than done, but I’m going to continue to believe in this team. So, I go out and give it my all each and every week. It’s hard, and it sucks, and I’m emotionally hurt and mad about it, but the Browns are a nice football team. We have to make a lot more plays. We started slow. We have to stop starting slow. If we can play fast and win early, we will win every game.”