ReFo: Bengals @ Eagles, Week 15
For almost three quarters this game had the makings of an upset by the Philadelphia Eagles to shake up the playoff picture in the AFC. Their defense was playing strong football and their offense was doing enough to sustain a slender lead heading into the final quarter. However five minutes of madness absolutely blew this game wide open and sent the Eagles reeling to their first 10 loss season 2005 and only their second this century.
For the Cincinnati Bengals it took them some time to fully grasp their customary position of beating a team that they should beat which has been at the heart of their standing as a team in playoff contention in each of the last two seasons. But when the opportunities came the Bengals grasped them to their fullest extent and kept the pressure up on their two divisional rivals who they are dueling with for a playoff spot and the division crown if the Ravens continue to slide. Similar performances to this are not the recipe to playoff success but getting there is what counts at this stage and escaping Philadelphia with a victory was a crucial step along that path.
With only two weeks left in seasons of contrasting fortunes here are some noteworthy performances from the final Thursday night football of the season.
Cincinnati – Three Performances of Note
One of the real strengths of the Cincinnati Bengals this season has been their offensive line but last night they were given real problems by a resurgent Philadelphia defensive line. Both Clint Boling (-3.9) and Andre Smith (-2.4) collected their worst single game grades of the season and Smith in particular was made to look poor by Brandon Graham on the right side of the Bengals’ line. Things didn’t get any better when the Bengals put in Dennis Roland at right tackle for one snap and the backup tackle held Brandon Graham which immediately brought Smith back onto the field. As a unit the Bengals surrendered pressure to Dalton on 15 of his 36 dropbacks and on top of the six sacks Dalton was a miserable 1-of-6 for 8 yards. The only positives that came from this pressure were a trio of scrambles by Dalton for 21 yards including a score. With a crucial return date with Pittsburgh next week the Bengals need to get their offensive line back on track during their long week of preparation.
Defense plays its part
For as much as the Bengals were on the wrong end of the scoreline as the game headed towards its final stanza they were never out of the game thanks to a very strong display from their defense that only improved with the turnovers generated in the final 20 minutes of the game. The Bengals get through a lot of bodies at linebacker but it certainly worked for them last night with backup Emmanuel Lamur (+1.2) and normal base down starter Manny Lawson (+1.1) having strong games on limited snaps in run defense whilst Vontaze Burfict (+1.2) continued his solid rookie season by contributing as a coverage defender allowing only one completion of longer than 10 yards. The Bengals stars on defense are up front but their players on the back end are ensuring that performances from the like of Geno Atkins don’t go to waste.
Not finding playoff form yet
The NFL is a quarterback driven league and strong displays from your signal caller are crucial for playoff success. On present form then the Cincinnati Bengals are not a threat to do any damage in the playoffs should they find their way in as Andy Dalton turned in another disappointing display. Dalton has not been short of statistics this season but in terms of performance he is falling short of the desired level at present and last night his display was once again plagued by inaccuracy and poor decision making. He was off target to open receivers and even managed to turn easy completions into near interceptions, such as the crossing pattern to Andrew Hawkins which he put in such a poor location that Brandon Boykin was almost able to lay out for and intercept. On passes aimed more than 10 yards downfield last night Dalton was an entirely disappointing 2-of-10 for 16 yards and the only pass of any great merit was the fade to A.J. Green which proved to be the Bengals’ final score of the game. The Bengals will surely need more from Dalton if they are to challenge the top teams in January.
Philadelphia – Three Performances of Note
Graham leads the way
The Eagles’ pass rush has been a hot topic or a sore subject this season depending upon your perspective. The wide-9 alignment that was such a roaring success in the previous two seasons seemingly handicapped their pass rush as offense after offenses discovered its kryptonite and rendered arguably the most talent laden area of the Eagles’ entire roster an irrelevance. One shining light through all of that time however was Brandon Graham who was a productive pass rusher on limited snaps. Last night he showed again that he is grasping an expanded role with the best game of his career really taking it to one of the best right tackles in the entire NFL this season, Andre Smith. With his blend of speed and power in such a small frame he was a nuisance for the bigger tackle, making him look the fragile, inconsistent player that we saw at times in prior seasons. Graham was not alone however with Fletcher Cox also marking a career night (his first multiple sack game) and Cullen Jenkins popping up with one of his best games as a pass rusher. Too little too late, but this does at least show that this Eagles’ defensive line hasn’t suddenly become an untalented group overnight.
Crashing back to earth
After such an impressive display against the Buccaneers on Sunday you might have expected Nick Foles to kick on and use the energy from that comeback victory to really build momentum and make the starting quarterback job his own heading into the off-season. You might have expected or hoped for it but once again Foles displayed his limitations against the Bengals with inaccuracy dogging his display as well as some questionable decision making that was not always punished as fully as it should have been. His intermediate passing was very good for the most part completing 5-of-7 for 85 yards and a score but everything either side of that was far less positive. Short passes over the middle were a particular struggle going 2-of-6 for 14 yards and deep down the field only a 46 yard completion to Jeremy Maclin in the second quarter prevented him from going 0-of-5 which included his first interception since Week 11. This was a harsh reminder for Foles that he doesn’t get to play against the Buccaneers’ porous secondary every week in the NFL.
A marquee matchup that never quite developed
It would be remiss of me to pass comment on this game without paying some attention to the matchup between our highest rated guard of the season, Evan Mathis (+41.8 prior to this game), and our highest graded defensive tackle of the season, Geno Atkins (+63.0 ahead of Week 15). This was a one-on-one matchup that personally I was very much looking forward to but we didn’t get to see it quite as often as I had hoped as Atkins played more snaps on the left side of the Bengals’ defense. What we did see from the one-on-one encounter though you would have to say Atkins edged. There was a pressure in the first quarter and Atkins drove Mathis back to disrupt a Bryce Brown rush in the fourth quarter, but most of their respective work was done away from each other. There was still some fine blocking from Mathis in the game but it will always be the big plays that stand out in people’s minds and his otherwise solid game will mostly be remembered for him missing his block on Pat Sims which led to the score which set the domino’s falling for the Eagles. These final 20 minutes, which also included his first sack allowed in the last five seasons, was a period to forget for Mathis in what has otherwise been an exceptional season.
– Rookie RB Dan Herron made his debut on offense in this game and whilst his stats (3 rushes, 8 yards) don’t appear terribly impressive he did turn two potentially big losses into a gain and a play for no gain on his three carries.
– Brandon Graham has recorded as many sacks in the last three games (five) as he had in his career prior to the Eagles’ visit to Dallas little more than a week ago.
– For the second straight week the Bengals’ platoon at center was split almost perfectly down the middle on snaps. After a 33/32 split in favor of Kyle Cook on Sunday against Dallas the starter (Trevor Robinson) again saw marginally fewer snaps with a 44/42 split in favor of Cook this time (though Cook did see five snaps at right guard).
PFF Game Ball
An effort like the one Brandon Graham put in last night really didn’t deserve to be on the losing side. This was the sprightliest that we have seen the Philadelphia pass rush this season and Graham was at the heart of that.