Bengal Bites: 2020 Vision And The Lessons Learned for 2021

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The Bengals were playing catch-up to the Ravens and AFC North throughout 2020.

Every week, Mike Petraglia details his observations and analysis about the Bengals, their inner workings and how it relates to their competition in the AFC North. Trags has covered 12 Super Bowls, including all 10 appearances by the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick. Trags is a working member of the Pro Football Writers of America and begins his 29th year covering the NFL in 2021.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

For the 2021 Bengals, there are several history lessons that can prove useful as they look to take a giant leap toward competitiveness and playoff relevance.

While we could go back to the start of Zac Taylor’s career at the start of the 2019 season, we’re going to focus on the 16 games played last season in the COVID era of the NFL.

There were many games that can lead us to some conclusions about what the Bengals need to do to improve.

  • Week 1:

Randy Bullock pulls a calf and pushes the kick wide right in 16-13 loss in season opener. Turnover on second-to-last drive allowed Chargers to drive the field for go-ahead field goal.

Lesson learned: Ball security in the fourth quarter.

  • Week 2:

Baker Mayfield wins his first duel with Joe Burrow, reminding everyone in stripes that you can have a QB throw 61 times without an interception (unreal for a rookie NFL QB), 316 yards and three TDs, and still not have a chance in the end. They really didn’t stand a chance in this one, despite the 35-30 score. Joe Mixon ran the ball just 16 times for 46 yards. The Bengals were never down far enough to rationalize or defend that discrepancy. It would be the first time that we heard complaints about the inability to establish the run game.

Lesson learned: Find a way to run the ball.

  • Week 3:

Defense collapses at the worst time in 23-23 tie in Philadelphia. The Bengals were in control of this game for most of the second half and held what should’ve been a comfortable 23-16 lead against an Eagles team led by Carson Wentz. But Carson Wentz turned into Carson Palmer in the final 90 seconds. Two of Cincinnati’s 21 offensive first downs were on the ground as the Bengals could not grind out the clock.

Lesson learned: Good teams run good four-minute offenses, chew up clock and protect leads.

  • Week 4:

Offense shows real balance in 33-25 win over Jacksonville in first win of Burrow era. Joe Mixon rushes 25 times for 151 yards. Third straight 300-yard passing game for Burrow.

Lesson Learned: Joe Mixon is nearly as valuable as Joe Burrow when the offensive line opens holes.

  • Week 5:

No contest as Lamar Jackson shreds Bengals, 27-3. This game on the road was one of the first truly reflective games of the lack of talent depth on the roster. The Ravens had fresher bodies to rotate on defense and keep the pressure on Burrow. Mixon touched the ball a decent amount – 24 times in the run game – but gained only 59 yards, barely over two yards a touch. The offensive line was truly abysmal in this game. Burrow was hurried and sacked seven times. The offense accounted for 12 first downs, just three on the ground. This was the first game when it became apparent the Bengals were going to have to address the offensive line in the offseason.

Lesson learned: Zero chance on the road in the AFC North if you don’t control possession.

  • Week 6:

Another brutal, unexplainable, indefensible loss. Up 21-0 on a lifeless Colts team at an empty Lucas Oil Stadium, Bengals let them back in game before half, lead down to 24-21. Outscored 10-3 in second half in 31-27 loss. The Bengals played complementary football for 15 minutes. They led 21-0 four seconds into the second quarter. They self-destructed the rest of the way. How? They allowed Indianapolis to convert 7-of-11 on third down. A team with not a lot of pressure up front got exposed when Indy started converting on third and medium and third and short. Joe Mixon injured his right foot. He would not play again in 2020.

Lesson learned: Best way to expose your defense is to not get off the field on third down.

  • Week 7:

Just when you thought the Bengals had reached a new low, they score the go-ahead TD against the Browns with just over a minute left. They allowed the Browns to march down the field and score the winner with 11 seconds left, 37-34, Browns win. This, more than any other game of the 16 from 2020, pointed to the weaknesses on defense. Not only did the corners allow Mayfield to carve up the defense, the front couldn’t get any pressure on Mayfield in the fourth quarter. That should change now with UFA Trey Hendrickson bookending Sam Hubbard. On the bright side, Bengals were 5-for-7 on third down, explaining their 34 points. On the downside, Cleveland was 6-for-9 in similar situations, explaining their 20 fourth-quarter points and 37 for the game.

Lesson learned: Once you get into a track meet with a superior team, it’s really hard to slow things down.

  • Week 8:

This was, without question, the best all-around effort and execution from start to finish against a Super Bowl-contending team. Bengals win, 31-20, and shockingly, Derrick Henry doesn’t run for 200 yards. Hard to when Mike Vrabel only gave it to him 18 times. Bengals were outgained 441-367 but won by 11 points. How? Creating turnovers and going 10-for-15 on third down. They kept the ball when they needed to and picked off Ryan Tannehill on the first drive of the game when Tennessee was about to score from the Bengals 8. An early march down the field could have instilled immediate (understandable) doubt in the Bengals D. Instead, the Titans breathed life into them. The next time the Titans had the ball, Stephen Gostkowski was no good from 53 as he hit the right upright.

Lesson learned: Good karma early can make for great results late.

  • Week 9:

Bye Week

  • Week 10:

Another no contest on the road against an AFC North team. This time the Pittsburgh Steelers, who at the time still looked like a deep threat in the AFC playoffs, dismantled the Bengals with ease, 36-10. The Bengals were 0-for-13 on third down. That’s a pretty sure-fire way to kill your defense. And they did. The Steelers jumped out to a 12-0 lead but the Bengals had life at 12-7 after a Burrow-to-Tee Higgins pass on fourth-and-goal at the Steelers 2. Good for the Bengals to go for it there because field goals in the red zone on the road are almost always bad. But the defense wore down from there, as the Steelers outscored the Bengals, 24-3.

Lesson learned: Going 0-for-13 on third down is a good way to get beat.

  • Week 11:

The dread and worry about the offensive line in front of the franchise QB finally caught up to the Bengals on this singularly gruesome week of the 2020 Bengals season. Michael Jordan got beat on a gap rush off his left shoulder. He tried to make up for it by spinning around but by the time he did and try to push him, he shoved the pass rusher right into Burrow’s left knee. Disaster. Torn ACL. Season over. Yes, the Bengals lost, 20-9. But, rightfully, no one cared about the result.

Lesson learned: Dropping back constantly with an offensive line not suited to protect against a defense that’s pinning its ears back is terribly disastrous game management.

  • Week 12:

The hangover from the Burrow loss was pretty evident in a lackluster effort against the lowly Giants at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals had never lost to the Giants in four previous games in Cincinnati. That came to an end on this day when Brandon Allen could only complete 17-of-29 passes for 136 yards, one TD and one interception. Brandon Wilson’s 103-yard kickoff return for a TD went for naught. The Bengals defense held the Giants to four field goals and an early TD. But with both Joes gone for the season, this offense didn’t stand a chance. They were outgained 386-155. They had 40 yards on the ground in 15 carries and STILL had a golden chance to win it. On another huge special teams play, Alex Erickson returned a punt to midfield with 57 seconds left and the Bengals down, 19-17. But the Giants strip-sacked Allen on the first play with 50 seconds left to seal Cincinnati’s fate.

Lesson learned: Special teams can keep you in games you have no business in and even win them if you can find a way to take advantage.

  • Week 13:

Brandon Allen completed 11-of-19 but for only 153 yards and the Dolphins brushed aside the Bengals, 19-7, in a game when the Dolphins essentially showed up in the second half and put their opponent away. The defense showed signs of life in the first half, keeping Tua Tagovailoa in check but eventually he wore down the Bengals in the second half, outscoring the Bengals 13-0. Take out Allen’s 72-yard TD strike to Tyler Boyd in the first quarter, the Bengals passing game between Allen and Ryan Finley was 16-of-26 for 121 yards.

Lesson learned: No quarterback. No chance.

  • Week 14:

The return of Andy Dalton was all about Andy Dalton. His Cowboys teammates made sure there was never any doubt, racing out to a 10-0 lead, taking all of the life and motivation out of the Bengals. The Bengals actually dominated time of possession, 35 minutes to 25 for the Cowboys. They had more first downs, passing yards, rushing yards and still found a way to lose. They lost primarily because Dallas recovered all three of their fumbles on the day, including one recovered by Aldon Smith and returned 78 yards for a first-quarter touchdown.

Lesson learned: Ball security won’t always win a game but it sure can help you lose.

  • Week 15:

The Bengals finally beat the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium on a night that was more about the self-destruction and decay of the Steelers than it was about Bengals dominance. The Bengals won, 27-17, but the Steelers clearly took the Bengals for granted on a Monday night. They literally thought they could show up and beat a team that was down to its third-string quarterback in Ryan Finley. Hard to blame them but when JuJu Smith-Schuster was TikTokking before the game about his Corvette, Vonn Bell promptly reminded that he should have his feet grounded and head on a swivel across the middle, even against the Bengals. The best part of this game wasn’t the 17-0 halftime lead. It was the way the Bengals responded when the Steelers had all the momentum in the third quarter and closed the lead to 17-10. The Bengals answered found a way to put the game away.

Lesson learned: Punch a bully in the mouth on your home turf and watch the bully run the other way.

  • Week 16:

This game turned into a shootout that the Bengals and Brandon Allen managed to win, 37-31, at Houston. Brandon Allen returned and threw for an incredible 371 yards and two TDs (no interceptions) on 29-of-37 passing. Remarkable considering it was the best passing performance of any Bengals QB in 2020. It would be the last highlight of the season. This was one of the more entertaining games the Bengals turned in for the season and should go down as the career highlight film when Brandon Allen tells his grandkids that he played in the NFL once upon a time. It also marked the first road win for Zac Taylor in 16 tries. Career, Taylor is 1-14-1 away from Paul Brown Stadium.

Lesson learned: A win on the road makes for a nice flight home.

  • Week 17:

This was a mail-in, even by Bengals standards. Actually, in years past, had made a reputation of winning games like this to remind everyone of the unfulfilled promise of their roster. There was no such mistaking that on this day. The Ravens, out to make a point about their viability deep in the playoffs, obliterated the Bengals, 38-3. The Ravens would take both games in the season series by a combined 65-6 score, with Cincinnati failing to reach the end zone. John Harbaugh’s bunch was not going to be humiliated and stunned like they were at the end of the 2018 season (Marvin Lewis’ last game) when Andy Dalton and the Bengals shocked Baltimore on the final drive with a touchdown to Tyler Boyd on fourth down, eliminating the Ravens from contention.

Lesson learned: The Bengals desperately need to feel butt-hurt over getting outclassed and humiliated by a team in their own division on their home turf. This embarrassment should be used as an example of how the Browns, Steelers and Ravens view them in the division. That alone should motivate this franchise to prove a point in 2021. You’re not going to go 16-0 but you should never get humiliated as much as you were in 2020.