CINCINNATI — The frustrating part of watching the Bengals for fans right now is that they know this is not 2019 or 2020. For all the jokes about the same old Bengals, these are most certainly NOT the same old Bengals.
This is a very talented group, a group that is deeper and more accomplished than the one that came so close to hoisting a Vince Lombardi trophy in Inglewood, Calif. last February.
Nothing has changed from when I penned my “Believe in the Personnel” column after the Week 1 loss to the Steelers.
But now, following a 20-17 stumble in Dallas, there’s a lot of concern about how that personnel is being used.
That concern materialized in some frustration after the game in Dallas with Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd both stressing that the Bengals need to start doing the little things at the line of scrimmage that will allow their star quarterback to “take shots” down the field.
Everyone inside and outside of Paycor Stadium is searching for answers right now to avoid what would be a cataclysmic 0-3 start to the roll call of the Steelers, Cowboys and Jets.
The Bengals are already playing with a tinge of desperation this Sunday against a Jets team that just erased a 30-17 hole in the final 100 seconds against the Browns in Cleveland to earn their first win.
The Bengals have not held a lead in 130 minutes of football. That’s a long, long time, even for really bad teams. An early lead against the Jets feels very necessary this week so that the walls don’t close in even further.
We’re here to help. Seven ways the Bengals can shake their 0-2 doldrums:
Any offensive coach will tell you that if you want to keep pass rushers honest, start running the ball at them, either by using their leverage against them or just running to the spot they vacated. But to do that, you need to be consistently physical. You need to show that you’re not running the ball every fifth down because you’re trying to show them you can run it. The Bengals are winning precious few battles along the line. That’s got to change even before the pass protection improves.
“I think game day operations are always unique,” Ted Karras said. “You want to see how someone responds on game day. So, we’re two in, 0-2. I think we learned a lot. I think we can handle adversity, pretty well. We don’t need to put ourselves in ‘got to have it’ situations, but we’ve pretty much lived in ‘got to have it’ for the last two weeks. So that’s hard to do. And, we’ve been in position to win ball games and then haven’t. So now it’s going to come down to finishing and we don’t need to live that way. So we need to do better early on.”
The lion is on the prowl ? @MicahhParsons11
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) September 18, 2022
The Bengals need to come out and stop getting punched in the mouth and start dictating terms along the offensive line with the kind of crushing zone blocks that right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La’el Collins were brought in to provide. One reason Collins has struggled early is that they’re asking him to pass protect too much. This may sound ridiculous to suggest but allow Collins to start crushing people in run blocks and get his confidence going and he will literally get his feet under him. Bengals aren’t going to give up on their free agent right tackle so they have to find ways to make it work. Any offensive linemen will tell you it’s a lot easier to pass protect when there’s even a hint of doubt between run and pass. Mix in something different. Instead of zone blocking, occasionally have Collins just pick out one or two defenders and have him blow them out and have Mixon run behind him. Give Collins some good juju to work with. Mixon has two explosive runs in two games, 31 yards and 10 yards.
Crown him the ?! @MicahhParsons11 with another sack!
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) September 18, 2022
The Bengals offensive line has been guilty, more than anything in the first two games, of shooting itself in the foot. Every coach will tell you that once you start falling behind the chains and getting into second-and-long and third-and-long, you’re making it nearly impossible for the quarterback to sit back and allow plays to develop the way they need to. The Bengals were guilty of that on multiple occasions Sunday, killing any chance of sticking with a power run game, as mentioned above.
Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd are right. The Bengals were designed to be a vertical offensive team. Having Chase, Boyd and Higgins on your roster and not stretching the field is like taking a horse to an IndyCar race. What’s the point? Watching film of the first two games, it’s painfully obvious the Bengals are not setting the tone on the offensive line. This is what’s leading to teams “pinning their ears back” and just playing kill the quarterback. Until that stops, Joe Burrow isn’t going to have the time to take those shots down the field that Ja’Marr Chase was rightfully complaining about after Sunday’s loss in Dallas. To compensate, Burrow has been holding onto the ball to try and buy the time to get those shots down field, taking the sacks and hard hits just for the chance of getting the ball up in the air and down the field. Rolling the pocket is one possibility. Designed quarterback keepers is another, better screens and delays. Again, don’t fall into second-and-long and you avoid this.
“That’s part of who he is to some degree where he’s trying to make something happen down the field,” OC Brian Callahan said. “Was that necessarily the case in all the parts of the game? No. When you’re playing teams that are hell bent on keeping things in front of them your trying to get routes to develop down the field some and it takes time and we weren’t really afforded much of that at certain points of the game. Part of that was because we were in 2nd-and-10 plus far too often and that’s an easy pass rush down for the defense. There are times when he is looking to make a play that he feels like he might be able to make and he made a few with his feet that were pretty impressive.
“He ran for that early first down, that was a good one. He ran on a 2nd-and-16 to get us into a 3rd-and-5. He scrambled out of the pocket on third down late in the game on that last (touchdown) drive to make a really great throw to Tee on the sideline for a first, and in the red zone as well when he scrambled and threw to Tee (for the touchdown). That’s sort of the give and take you play with him and I think he’s going to make a lot more plays than he isn’t. I do think there are definitely points in the game when we could have taken a quicker throw to save himself a hit or potentially a sack as well. Those are all the things he looks at every week to see where he can be better at.”
Brian Callahan and Zac Taylor are two of the brightest minds in the offensive game. There’s no doubt about that. But teams have no fear about attacking with multiple fronts or bringing a fifth man in the rush to get to the quarterback. There simply needs to be a little more delay in the Bengals play development. In other words, draws, play-actions and vertical passes to vacated spaces. You can’t defend (at least immediately) spaces behind you. How many times in the first two games has Burrow thrown to a vacated area on a blitz or heavy pressure? You can count it on one hand. Also, stop with the horizontal game. On the first play of the game, Burrow found Joe Mixon on a pass in the flat that just escaped the mitts of Micah Parsons. It was great touch from Burrow but when you’re going horizontally against defenses and you have the weapons the Bengals have, you’re doing the defense a huge favor. Start stressing defenses vertically, both run and pass, the way this offense was designed. There is no reason Hayden Hurst shouldn’t be threatening teams down field instead of 5-8 yards in the flat. Those routes are perfectly fine if you’re looking to move the chains and pick up first downs but they don’t strike fear into opposing defenses.
The first game was filled with several second-guessing moments, such as the four shots from the one after not challenging Chase’s catch that should’ve been a touchdown, not going for the two-point conversion at the end of regulation and settling for a field goal with a backup long snapper when the offense was driving against a worn out Steelers defense. Sunday, the Bengals had 4th-and-6 at the Cowboys 42 late in the first half. They punted instead of attempting a 60-yard field goal or better yet, going for it. Why go for it? Well, the Cowboys had 4th-and-2 at their own 44 in the first quarter and made it, connecting for a 17-yard pass over the middle to Noah Brown. The Bengals had third-and-3 at their 13 late in the fourth after tying the game. Burrow hit Tyler Boyd for a one-yard pass, leading to a punt that led to the game-winning Brett Maher field goal. These are critical mistakes that are preventable with better game management.
The defense has not been without blame or responsibility in the two-game skid to open the season. On the first two drives Sunday, there were breakdowns aplenty as Cooper Rush dissected the Bengals defense like Tom Brady. Receivers Noah Brown and later CeeDee Lamb found soft spots in zones and say there while Rush rolled around and easily found them downfield. In neither game did Mitch Trubisky nor Cooper Rush look hurried or uncomfortable. In each game, the Bengals had one sack and five total QB hits. That’s not going to disturb any NFL quarterback or make them think they are going to get hammered if they stare down the field too long. In other words, they don’t have the problem Joe Burrow has had in his first two games. The Bengals need to find a way to bring more pressure and starting making the opposing quarterbacks feel the heat. Until they do, opposing teams are just going to roll their quarterback out and have them look for soft landing spots for their downfield throws.
The Bengals have forced one turnover in two games. That wouldn’t be great on a team that is efficient on offense. For a team that can’t string two good drives together, it’s a death knell. When DJ Reader recovered a fumble forced by Vonn Bell in the third quarter, it stopped a Dallas drive at the Cincinnati 35. It’s been the only sudden positive change forced by the Bengals defense this year. That’s got to change this week against Joe Flacco.
Say this for Callahan and Taylor, they are open to modifying their approach if they feel there’s reasonable chance for a payoff.
“There’s never been a point where we felt like we’ve been stubborn or stuck in something,” Callahan said. “I think we’re always open to doing whatever is best for whatever the conversation may be – for the team, the unit, the staff whatever that is – we try to be open-minded and flexible and not stubborn. I think that’s one of Zac’s great strengths is that he’s not that way ever about anything. He always willing to listen and look for a solution. That’s our job. As a coach that’s what you’re paid to do is find solutions to problems. Whether you’re winning or losing you’re always doing the same thing.
“If I went into the unit meeting a couple of hours ago and I said anything different if we won this game I think that would be a disservice to our players. Everytime you go out and take the field and you win or you lose the same issues are still going to be correctable. Whether you make the play or not to win the game you want to make that play, but all the issues still remain. You still have to coach and fix and teach. You’re trying to grow and get better and improve as the year goes on so that you’re playing your best football at the end of it. I think the flexibility and open-mindedness is a big part of that.”