The Bengals' first loss of the season, a 10–6 stunner at home vs. Houston, falls on Andy Dalton's shoulders, sure. But only insofar as that Dalton is part of an offense that absolutely tanked in the face of a spirited Texans defense.
Dalton had seemed to quiet most of his skeptics during the Bengals' 8-0 start, but all of the old narratives about him emerged again rapidly on Monday night against Houston. In front of a national TV audience, he turned in his worst game of the season—a terrible decision and throw downfield leading to an interception; several passes to the sideline sailing beyond where any receiver could have caught them. The Texans' pass rush flustered Dalton early, and he never again found a comfort zone.
Pinning this all on Dalton, however, would be doing a disservice to what Houston accomplished defensively and to the incompetence around him.
To the latter point, Cincinnati was flagged for nine penalties, seven of them coming on offense. The normally sure-handed Tyler Eifert also dropped three passes, each in a critical spot. And A.J. Green, of all people, fumbled right as he looked to have converted a fourth down in the waning seconds.
“It comes down to ... our opportunities and not taking advantage of them,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis told the media after the game. “We had too many penalties in the first half that derailed things, we had penalties in the second half that derailed things. Tonight, that's the disappointing thing. We didn't make enough football plays.”
This is not meant to excuse Dalton. Quite frankly, he was awful most of the night. While all but ending the premature MVP talk surrounding him, Dalton finished with just 197 yards and a 5.2 yards-per-attempt rate, both his lowest of the season. The aforementioned interception was flat-out horrendous. Dalton airmailed a covered Marvin Jones by several yards, thereby allowing Johnathan Joseph to make the pick.
But where was the help?
The Bengals had made it to 8-0 in large part thanks to a versatile offense that had utilized all available weapons. They started out that way Monday, too, using exotic motion like kicking tackles Andrew Whitworth and Eric Winston wide to block for receiver screens. Jones gained 16 yards on Cincinnati's first play using just such a setup, then Green picked up six on an almost identical call seconds later.
Those plays also marked about the end of the line Monday for Cincinnati's creativity. To wit: Green had three catches for 31 yards in the first quarter but would not make another grab until the 3:06 mark of the fourth.
Does that fall on Dalton? Probably to some extent. He has the ball in his hands on every offensive play, after all, and rarely even took a shot Green's direction. It's also fair to ask what happened to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's game plan once Cincinnati nabbed a 3-0 lead.
This is where the Texans' defense comes in.
J.J. Watt was his usual disruptive self. He recorded a sack, drew a holding call and consistently drove into the backfield. He also had help. John Simon and Christian Covington each added a sack, as well, and the Texans' secondary turned in an absolute gem of a night.
Rookie cornerback Kevin Johnson was among the Houston heroes. After taking a pair of early penalties (one vs. Jones, one vs. Green), he helped lock down the Cincinnati passing attack. In the game's final minute, Johnson dove in front of Green to swat away a third-and-six pass. On the next snap his tackle allowed Quintin Demps to force a game-clinching Green fumble.
“Anytime you draft a corner in the first round, you're hoping he can help you win a game like that,” Houston coach Bill O'Brien said of Johnson. “He's a very smart guy. What he gives up in size sometimes, he makes up for in competitiveness and quickness.”
The obvious truth is that the Texans' DBs do not have to hold coverage all that long when the Watt-led front is doing its job. Dalton had little time to setup in the pocket Monday, which meant that his receivers were unable to work free beyond their initial routes.
Houston (with some unintentional help from Jackson's play calling, if we're being honest) also eliminated the potent Cincinnati rushing attack. Dalton entered halftime as his team's leader on the ground, and the Bengals finished with all of 73 yards on 21 attempts.
As a result, they found themselves in difficult down-and-distance spots all night.
“It was third-and-long a lot of times and that's an issue,” Lewis said. “[The Texans have] been leading the league in third-down defense and when you put yourself in third-and-long situations, they're going to have an advantage. We converted some but not enough of them.”
A handful of those misses can be pinned on Dalton. Most came about because of a combo of Houston's pass rush and secondary mixed with Cincinnati's blocking and catching woes.
There will be some inclination to declare this a Dalton flop, proof that he can't handle the big stage and is destined to fail come January. Maybe so. There was a lot more to the Bengals' first loss, though, than their QB's rough night.