CINCINNATI — The Bengals are a hard group to figure right now.
Last week in Arizona, their quarterback looks like he is back close to full strength and throwing the ball all over the field to his star receiver, setting new team records.
Sunday, the offense looked as if it were going to continue riding the momentum as Joe Burrow couldn’t miss early. He completed 17 of his first 19 passes, including 15 straight at one point. He threw touchdown passes to Tyler Boyd and rookie birthday boy Andrei Iosivas.
One look into Burrow’s eyes and it appeared the Bengals were going to get behind their franchise quarterback and roll to its second straight win.
Well, they did win, 17-13 against the hard-nosed Seattle Seahawks. But it was not their quarterback that led the way in the second half. It was their rock solid defense that stopped Seattle from scoring touchdowns on four different second half possessions inside the Bengals 10.
The Bengals had 10 defensive snaps in the second half inside their 12 yard line. That’s an amazing accomplishment in today’s NFL.
They allowed five yards and three points over four possessions. That is a stunningly good number. The Bengals won’t make a living like that on most days but thanks to a group of playmakers like Cam Taylor-Britt and pass rushers Sam Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson, DJ Reader and BJ Hill, they lived to tell about it.
“Yeah. It’s actually crazy. I was guarding DK (Metcalf) on one of them — I think it was a back line route — and they threw the ball to him and it was altered because Sam or Trey got back there,” Taylor-Britt told me. “But I knew the ball got altered because I heard the crowd, so I looked and the ball was coming and I was like ‘Oh!’ But it does give me little tips here and there.”
Mike Hilton picked off a Geno Smith pass for Jaxon Smith-Njigba at the Bengals 3 on Seattle’s first drive of the second half. It came after a bad Joe Burrow pass for Ja’Marr Chase was intercepted at the Seattle 31. That was just one of several examples Sunday of the defense picking up the offense.
Later in the third quarter, the Seahawks had again driven to the Bengals 5, Cam Taylor-Britt trailed Tyler Lockett in the end zone and was careful not to draw a pass interference call. As Smith targeted Lockett for the touchdown, Taylor-Britt knocked the ball away, saving four points as Seattle settled for a field goal.
Back to Burrow, he was not pleased with the way things turned out. His short answers and body language reflected the enormous frustration the offense was feeling after scoring touchdowns the first two times they touched the ball.
“Our defense stepped up big in the second half,” Burrow told me after. “Offense was really good in the first half; we were horrible in the second half. So, we just have to be able to put together a complete game.”
What changed after those first two drives?
“We’ll watch the tape and see,” Burrow said.
The film will provide Burrow, Zac Taylor and Brian Callahan the roadmap of what happened. The stats tell a hard truth. The Bengals couldn’t pass or run for final 30 minutes.
Even when the other birthday boy Cam Taylor-Britt played Superman and flew threw the air to pick off a Geno Smith fourth-quarter pass and returned it to the Seattle 34, the Bengals didn’t move the ball a single yard. They settled for a 52-yard Evan McPherson field goal.
Burrow was 18-for-22 for 143 yards in the first half. He was just 6-for-13 for 42 yards in the second half. The running game was again absent. Last week, the Bengals couldn’t score twice from the one in the first half on a pair of Joe Mixon runs.
“We’ll have to watch it and see because (we) felt like we had some opportunities,” Zac Taylor said. “(We) felt that we weren’t in a great flow, but it’s really hard for me to put my thumb on it and I’ll have to check it out. And the good news is we found a way to (win).
“I walked off the field and I had I texted Steve Specht yesterday, the St. (Xavier) coach. They had a win on the road and that’s a great job. He said it’s better to win ugly than to lose pretty. And that was the first thing that hit me when I walked off the field today. At times it felt ugly, especially on offense. But again, our defense stepped up and made some big plays for us. It allowed us to get out of there.”
On Sunday, the fourth quarter opened with Mixon getting nowhere on third-and-one at the Bengals 44. The Bengals offense was riding the coattails of the defense on this day.
On Seattle’s final two possessions within the final three minutes, the Bengals front put pressure on Smith to keep him out of the end zone, thanks to a sack from Sam Hubbard to end one possession and up-the-middle pressure from BJ Hill, DJ Reader and Logan Wilson on the final possession to end the game.
“I know they were going to make a play, but at the same time, I knew we had opportunities on offense to put it away and we didn’t,” lamented Burrow.
Chase and Burrow were not on the same page Sunday in the second half. Both stars were muted in their enthusiasm after the win because of it.
“Defense is going to win a championship for us,” Chase declared. “They keep playing like that, it’s going to be a great season for us.”
Chase isn’t wrong. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo deserves a shoutout for the effort Sunday. He received one Sunday postgame as the entire defense received a game ball for helping the Bengals get back to .500 in the ultra-competitive AFC North.
Burrow insisted like he did after the New England escape last Christmas Eve said he was never going to apologize for a win. And he shouldn’t. Chase echoed Burrow’s sentiments.
“It’s not disappointing — we just hold ourselves to a standard and we’ve got to execute,” Chase said. “As good of an offense as we have, we just have to stay on top of that and not have mental errors like we did today. I think we had a couple of those. I know I had one today. Simple things like that will take us a long way.”
At 3-3, the Bengals have plenty of time to figure things out, with San Francisco on the road coming out of the bye on Oct. 29. And given the Bengals track record over the last two seasons with Burrow and Zac Taylor, there’s reason to believe they will.
Understand that the Seahawks are a Top 10 defense with a young and aggressive secondary with edge rushers and the best run defense in the NFL. The Seahawks were going to make adjustments when Burrow lit them up over the first two drives. The Bengals had communication breakdowns with their best players when they tried to make their adjustments.
Sunday showed that the Bengals could beat a very physical and mentally tough team like Seattle. DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Kenneth Walker had their explosive plays. But aside from a one-yard TD plunge from Walker on the first drive of the game, the defense held up their end of the bargain. The Bengals won a game that championship teams win, beating a high caliber team when you don’t play up to your standard.
Sometimes high school coaches can offer the best perspective. Steve Specht gave that to Zac Taylor. The Bengals won with an ugly offense. There’s no shame in that. It certainly beats the alternative.
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