CINCINNATI (AP) — Still winless as September winds down.
The Bengals are off to another one of their season-scuttling starts, this time under a new coach.
They were pushed around in the first half, pulled off a big rally for a late lead, then frittered it away in the closing minutes for a 21-17 loss in Buffalo .
Zac Taylor is 0-3 in his first year as head coach, matching Marvin Lewis’ start when he was hired in 2003. The Bengals have never reached the playoffs after opening a season 0-3.
As September fades, it’s already circle-the-wagons time. Taylor admonished his team so loudly after the game that his voice carried outside the locker room. He told his players that the “wolves” were coming — fans and media ready to write the team off — and a big game is up next, one that could change their trajectory.
“Thank God we play 16 games and not three because it would be a long year, but we have 13 more to go and we’re going to be headed in the right direction and everyone in that locker room believes it and there’s no doubt about it,” Taylor said.
Through the first three games, they’ve lurched from self-destruction to stretches of impressive performance, but they’ve been unable to do things right long enough to get a win, especially at the end of games.
“You see the potential,” safety Jessie Bates III said.
For now, everyone sees the record.
The defense was flattened during a 41-17 loss to San Francisco at Paul Brown Stadium. It was much better a week later, getting a fumble and an interception that gave Cincinnati a chance for its late rally to a 17-14 lead. The defense hung in there despite being on the field for 23 minutes in the first half because the offense managed only one first down.
“We put them in a bind and fortunately they held up long enough for us to stick in that game,” Taylor said.
The worn-down defense gave up a 78-yard touchdown drive in the closing minutes as Buffalo pulled it out.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Penalties were a huge issue again. They were penalized seven times in the first half as the Bills pulled ahead 14-0. A penalty for too many men on the field put the Bills in position to go for a 2-point conversion. A holding penalty wiped out a touchdown on a kickoff return. The offense has put itself in poor down-and-distance situations in all three games.
Four days after promising that he was going to re-emerge, running back Joe Mixon was a key part of the offense. He came into the game averaging only 1.6 yards per carry. In Buffalo, he ran for 61 yards, averaging 4.1 per carry, and caught two passes for 34 yards and a touchdown — not a great game, but a move in the right direction.
Receiver John Ross III topped 100 yards receiving in each of the two first games. In Buffalo, he dropped a pass and fumbled in the first half. Ross was targeted six times and finished with two catches for 22 yards.
Taylor said receiver A.J. Green isn’t ready to return to practice and won’t play in Pittsburgh. Green is recovering from an ankle injury suffered the first practice of training camp. He’s expected back sometime in the season’s first half.
0 — The number of times the Bengals have made the playoffs or even managed a winning record after starting 0-3. It’s the 15th time in the Bengals’ 52 seasons that they’ve dropped their first three games.
“Playoffs are so far down the road that we just need to win a game, and it starts this week with our best foot forward and going to get one,” Taylor said.
The next step is a doozy. The Bengals play the team that has dominated them, on the stage where they’ve been at their worst. They and the Steelers are 0-6 combined heading into their Monday night game at Heinz Field. The Bengals have lost eight straight and 11 of 12 against their AFC North rival, with the only win coming at Heinz Field in 2015. The Bengals are 6-15 in prime-time games since 2011, when Andy Dalton was a rookie, including 2-5 on Monday night.