CINCINNATI — Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan was in a somber mood Monday. Lou Anarumo’s mood was a decidedly better one.
Each had their reasons following Sunday’s 17-13 win over the Seahawks that drew the Bengals to 3-3 on the season.
Anarumo, the Bengals defensive coordinator, was expressing his gratitude for a group of linemen that have come to define his defense.
Just moments after Sam Hubbard sacked Geno Smith on fourth down to give the Bengals the ball with just over two minutes left, it appeared the Bengals defense could finally exhale.
Then the offense generates a whopping four yards in three plays and has to punt again with 1:39 left, putting the exhausted group of Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson, DJ Reader and BJ Hill back on the field.
“And I just walked over to ’em. I said, I’m not putting anybody else out there but you four and I want you for to go win the game for us,” Anarumo said. “And, you know, they just put their helmets on and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And that’s what they did. They wrecked the game at the end of the game for us. And it was great coverage and rush working together really. (Smith) really didn’t have anywhere to go with the ball. So, that was key. But, we had our best guys out there and that was great to see.”
The Bengals showed attitude on defense Sunday, the kind of attitude they showed late in the 2021 season when they took the best shot of Patrick Mahomes twice and advanced to the Super Bowl. That year, the Bengals proved their mettle in key situations. They came up big late against Denver on the road and Las Vegas in the playoffs. They came within a highly questionable call against Logan Wilson from doing it again in the Super Bowl.
Sunday, that attitude came to the surface when they needed it most. That attitude could be seen in the play of the “Core 4” linemen and it could be seen in the person of Cam Taylor-Britt, who took on DK Metcalf and rose to the occasion, taking literally his best shot and getting off the turf to hold the Seattle receiver to four catches on 10 targets for 69 yards.
If the Bengals take on the personality of their defense, they look like the Super Bowl contenders they thought they were.
Hubbard and BJ Hill met at Geno Smith on the final Seattle snap of the day to seal the win that got the Bengals back to .500.
"That's who we are as a defense. Put us in a tough situation we're gonna come out victorious and that's what we did." – BJ Hill
— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) October 17, 2023
The offense? Let’s just say they have quite the mountain to climb.
The run game couldn’t generate a yard on third-and-1 to start the fourth quarter. Joe Burrow played exceptionally well on the first two drives, resulting in touchdowns. Then his play and the play of the entire offense took a nosedive.
Callahan was definitely happy the team won the game. But he knows full well things have to change on the other side of the bye if the Bengals are to become anything close to the juggernaut they were supposed to be coming into this “Super Bowl or bust” season.
“Yeah, I’m pretty salty,” Callahan said. “I don’t know if you picked up on that, but it’s disappointing that we haven’t played to what our standard is. I have full belief that, that we will, and that we’re capable of playing to that. But sometimes you gotta tell the truth. And the truth is, we’re 3-3, and offensively we’ve not played to where we are capable of playing.”
“I just think that there needs to be more production, and offense in general, for everybody not named Ja’Marr Chase.”
Callahan had to take home highlights of a second half that saw Joe Burrow complete 6-of-13 passes for 42 yards. The Bengals achieved four first downs in the final two quarters and a grand total of 53 yards in six possessions. The Bengals scored three points because Cam Taylor-Britt returned a fourth-quarter interception to the Seattle 34. From there, the Bengals moved the ball zero yards
“I was on my couch (Sunday) night, watching it on my iPad, just fuming. We have too many good coaches, too many good players to not play to our standard that we have set for ourselves. And I think that was addressed. Everybody had a had their moment in the barrel (Monday in meetings). I think we’re all aware of what we’ve done thus far and what needs to get corrected moving forward.
“So, it’s nice to have a win. It’s nice getting to make corrections when you win, but we didn’t offensively play well enough to deserve to win that game, players know it, we know it. Our defense played a hellacious game and came up huge in big spots and we did them no favors. And, I think we’re all on the same page there.”
Zac Taylor happy he can make adjustments during bye week to improve offense pic.twitter.com/tv0rHAywJw
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) October 16, 2023
Here are a few areas that need to change out of the bye week:
- Running back production:
The Bengals must find a way to get a yard (or two) when they need it late in games or in the second half. This is something that has haunted them going back to Super Bowl LVI. The Bengals couldn’t pick up a yard against Tennessee in the first half and the offense collapsed. They couldn’t pick up a yard against Arizona twice at the Cardinals 1 and were bailed out by a Cam Taylor-Britt pick-6. They couldn’t gain a yard against Seattle Sunday to open the fourth quarter.
- Tight end production:
The tight end position has never been one that has stuck out in this Joe Burrow offense. But it makes you wonder why we haven’t seen more downfield opportunities like we saw when Tanner Hudson ran a perfect seam route against the Rams in the Monday night win. Burrow clearly doesn’t feel comfortable looking to the tight end, whether a first option or a fourth. The tight end should be a release valve and it’s stuck. The quartet of Irv Smith Jr. (6), Tanner Hudson (4), Mitchell Wilcox (3) and Drew Sample (3) have 16 receptions. Hayden Hurst has 14 for Carolina. This would not be an issue if Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd were putting up big numbers and the Bengals had a ground attack.
Callahan hinted at it Monday. The Bengals may have Burrow go up under center to see if they can kick-start their run game, which is averaging just 3.46 yards per carry. This will also provide play-action opportunities, offering Burrow the chance to do something he specializes in, deceiving the defense. What the RPO is to shotgun, the traditional under-center formation can be to play-action. The Bengals need to be less predictable from one running back, one tight end formations (11). They’ve shown ’10’ formations. Yes, the Bengals don’t have a great running game or tight end presence right now, but they have the most important piece in a franchise quarterback. Time is now to find different ways to arm and deploy that weapon.
- Tee Higgins:
Playing through bruised ribs, Higgins had two catches on four targets for just 20 yards Sunday. He’s had one breakout game in five. He opened with eight targets and no catches against Cleveland. He had eight catches in 12 targets for 89 yards against Baltimore with two touchdowns. Overall, 14 catches in 36 targets for 149 yards with two scores isn’t going to cut it. If the Bengals can ignite Higgins, that will go a long, long way to returning the offense to the standard that fans have grown accustomed over the last two seasons. No one will ever doubt Higgins’ toughness or desire to play but bigger and better numbers are needed to make everyone feel like he can threaten defenses deep.
- Joe Burrow:
Consistency. That’s the thing the Bengals need most from their franchise quarterback. The first two drives were brilliant against Seattle. He was 17-of-19, including 15 straight completions. The last eight possessions, not so much. Burrow doesn’t have to be spectacular all the time. He just needs to convert third downs when they need it late in the game and not rely on the defense to bail them out. Burrow has proven that he is one of the game’s best at manipulating and reading defenses. He needs to get into a comfort zone where he’s trusting his weapons more to help him deconstruct and dismantle the defenses in front of him. Obviously, he was limited early by his calf injury. But now that he’s moving about and has the bye week to rest even more, Burrow should be able to come out for the final 11 games proving his immense value to the Bengals and that’s he’s capable of leading the franchise to its first Super Bowl title.
The devil is in the details and the lack of executing the details on critical plays has led to hellish results for the offense. Take 3rd-and-1 on the first play of the fourth quarter Sunday. It was designed to be a simple run for Joe Mixon for a first down. Instead, he gets stuffed and the Bengals have to punt, protecting a 14-13 lead.
“It was multiple things that happened,” Callahan offered. “Jonah (Williams) doesn’t come off on the combination (block) on Jordan Brooks and Jordan Brooks is unblocked right in the middle of the hole. And that’s not at all what’s supposed to happen. But even if he does do it, Andrei (Iosivas) is too wide and doesn’t cut, he doesn’t seal off the backside and Jamal Adams is ripping through there. So even if the ball does cut back there, we got a problem on that side too.
“So you’ve got two glaring issues on a play. That’s a critical play in a game on third-and-1, top of the fourth quarter to keep a drive alive. We don’t do it. Things like that, just detailed things, execution things, that has held us back. And so I wish it was one thing. It’s a lot easier to, to address if it’s one particular thing that’s a problem. We’ve just had too many inconsistencies, too much lack of execution, not coached well enough on our end. So, just not in a good place end of the day. So that’s unfortunate. It’s not where we want to be.”