It's a recipe for losing that has produced the franchise's worst start in the six seasons that Marvin Lewis has been the head coach. The Bengals have scored first just twice in their seven games this season, while three times falling behind by double digits before scoring. That was the case in Sunday's 38-10 loss to Pittsburgh; the Steelers jumped out to a 10-0 lead before the Bengals responded with a touchdown drive at the end of the first half to cut the lead to three points. The Bengals have simply played from behind too much this season.
"It really comes down to trust offensively," said Lewis on Monday during his press conference. "We have to make sure everybody gets things done the right way, with no compensation… Everybody has to trust that we're going to be in the right spots. That leads to our slow start in the game and not being consistent throughout the game."
Cincinnati has been outscored 37-10 in the first quarter of games this season. Their lone touchdown was scored by the defense when Chinedum Ndukwe picked up a fumble and ran it in against the New York Jets to give them a 7-0 advantage. The Bengals also led at halftime of the Cleveland game (6-3) and on four different occasions against the New York Giants (3-0, 10-7, 13-10 and 20-16) but more often than not they have been playing catch up to their opponents.
The Bengals didn't pick up their initial first down against the Steelers until there was less than five minutes to go in the first half; Cedric Benson earned it with a four-yard run on the drive that produced their touchdown. The Bengals picked up all eight of their first downs of the first half on that one drive. Their first five possessions of the first half produced five punts and three – yes, three – net yards.
"It is being successful on first and second down," said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick after the Pittsburgh game. "It gets tough when you don't have a manageable third down, especially against a defense as tough as this (Steelers), with their relentless pursuit of the quarterback and guys up front. Like I said, I thought we had some good rhythm going into halftime. We had figured some things out and had momentum. Unfortunately, we couldn't put enough points on the board in the second half."
The Bengals needed totals of 6, 17, 12, 2 and 8 yards on their first five third-down situations against the Steelers thanks to their inability to execute well on first and second downs. They faced just one third down situation on their touchdown drive; Fitzpatrick converted the third-and-one with a 5-yard pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh. They also dug themselves out of a first-and-20 hole with a 16-yard completion from Fitzpatrick to Chris Henry to set up a makeable second-down scenario.
"There's a lot of things that go into it," said Lewis. "Make sure that you're doing your part and allow it to work. Don't compensate. Make sure that everybody's in the right spots. Don't shorten things down. Don't flatten things out. Let's make sure we get to the right spots, the way it was coached and the way it was practiced. I think that's the most important thing – the way it was practiced all week."
Lewis wouldn't go so far to say that the players were panicking in those situations but he did say they needed to stay focused on their responsibilities.
"You have to apply it under pressure," said Lewis. "You have to be cool and more repetitive in your repetition of it, and go ahead and execute it in the framework of the game. What happens in the game – sometimes things appear differently than what they appeared in practice. I think the execution of that, whether it be Chad running a route or whoever it may be, it's got to be the same, because the quarterback is counting on that. Just like he's counting on the ball being in a certain spot, and everybody up front is counting on things being a certain way, the backs are counting on things being blocked a certain way.
"The same thing happens on defense. That's what we have to make sure we can go through those tough times. It's not ever going to be 100 percent, but we want to make sure we get as close to it as we can. We seem to be able to kind of get our way right during the game, but we have to start better and we obviously have to finish better."