CINCINNATI — Following the 19-16 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Sept. 25 at Paycor, the Bengals quietly made their way back into the locker room. Then suddenly, DJ Reader spoke up in the hallway and declared, “back on track” to everyone within earshot.
Well, as we witnessed last Sunday, the Bengals train derailed badly in Nashville.
Now, in Arizona, the Bengals look to put the train back on its tracks for good for a long, winding road back to the playoffs.
The Bengals clearly have to correct some bad habits that have emerged in the first four weeks.
Here are the biggest ones:
This obviously begins with Burrow himself telling the coaches he’s healthy enough to play and wants to play through any lingering calf soreness. He’s looked better this week in the limited amount of time media is permitted to watch practice, which is to say warmups and individual drills. Burrow said Wednesday he’s feeling the best he’s felt following a game. Burrow has to be able to “steal a couple of first downs” with his legs, like he did on the first drive. But more to the point, he has to slide around inside the pocket and step up. This feels like a week we’ll see a better Burrow. The Bengals are banking on it for their playoff lives already in Week 5.
My ability to throw hasn’t been effected. Mainly my ability to move in the pocket, run for first downs, extend plays, find that extra second. Maybe certain plays I would have slightly extended and found a completion. We’ve done a good job of not turning the ball over. Other than that, We have a lot of room to improve. The calf will continue to get better and we’ll get back to making plays outside of the structure and continue to get better at finding lanes in the pocket to find that extra second to push the ball down the field.
“I’m still very confident in what we have. We have to be better. I mean, how many touchdowns have we scored? We’ve scored three touchdowns? That’s not near good enough. We’ve got a ways to go. But we have the guys in that room to do it. We have the coaches to do it. So we’re going to continue be getting better in practice and put our best foot forward.”
Could we see Burrow more under center? Depends on the play-action opportunities the Bengals see against this Arizona defense.
There’s no better barometer of the health of an offense than third down conversions. The Bengals are on life support at this point. They’re converting 34 percent and were 2-of-9 on Sunday in Tennessee.
Really, we weren’t good enough on third down. We were efficient on first and second down for the most part. We just weren’t nearly good enough on third downs. That was just a combination of a lot of things.
The Bengals had the ball on the Titans 10 last Sunday on the game’s first drive. They managed to get down to the 3 and settled for a 21-yard Evan McPherson field goal. That failure was a harbinger of things to come and set the tone for the rest of the game. That has to change starting this Sunday. If the Bengals get inside the 10, those chances have to turn into touchdowns. You might – might – get away with it against lesser teams like Arizona. But with San Francisco and Buffalo back-to-back in a month, that habit has to change.
Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd came into the season billed as the most productive and explosive trio in the NFL. It hasn’t played out that way. The Bengals just haven’t hit on explosive plays. There is just no threat to teams over the top, in part because opposing teams have shadowed Bengals receivers with cloud and deep zone coverage and in part, because the Bengals just haven’t been willing to take the shots. Obviously, with Burrow limited, the ability for the quarterback to extend plays and fire downfield has been severely limited. But if Burrow can move a little more this week, the Bengals have to devise ways to get these playmakers the ball in space. The Bengals started to show signs of that against the Rams with Chase. They worked on it early in Tennessee. But Higgins dropped balls vs. the Rams and got hurt early against the Titans. The receivers need to offer some separation to help out a quarterback who is still getting his legs under him.
The Bengals have been bad against the run. Downright awful. The three teams that have gashed them are power run teams with schemes designed to win gaps and allow powerful runners to take advantage. Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry certainly did. But the interesting part of that is that the Bengals were doing well containing until midway through the third quarter when it appeared the defense wore down. Something else that has been apparent on film is the Bengals have not done a good job setting the edge and have too often been caught either over pursuing or pinching inside too far. That’s OK if there’s run support behind your edge rushers. But when there’s not or the support (usually a safety) doesn’t make the tackle, you’ve got big problems. That’s what happened on Henry’s runs of 29 (touchdown vs. Germaine Pratt), 16 and 16 yards. The Bengals are giving up 157 yards a game on the ground. Only Denver (176/gm) is worse in the NFL.
"It's a must-win game. Our season is basically on the line." Mike Hilton pic.twitter.com/3INckuz0kJ
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) October 5, 2023
In 240 minutes of action this season, the Bengals have held the lead for precisely 28 minutes, 22 seconds. That will ensure that you will never be able to dictate the terms of the game to the opponent, something the Bengals have done with regularity in the last two seasons. That number has to drastically change if they are to start to build any momentum.
Rookie Brad Robbins struggled in his first three games before booming a 61-yarder Sunday and averaging 51.1 yards on five punts Sunday in Nashville. Robbins needs to continue to improve to help the Bengals flip the field when their offense fails to get into plus-50 territory.
Though four games, there are also things the Bengals can build upon.
Joe Mixon has run with purpose and authority in the first four weeks. His back-to-back runs on the first drive last week offered the promise of a big day. Mixon is averaging 4.2 yards on 59 carries through four games, roughly 15 carries a game. He has one of the three offensive touchdowns by the Bengals this season and the only one on the ground.
The overall play from the tight ends has been above average and dependable. This is ironic since it’s been the forgotten position in the age of the three amigos in Chase, Higgins and Boyd. Tanner Hudson has filled in admirably and produced in his two games filling in for Irv Smith Jr. Drew Sample has been steady in his customary role as run blocker and even caught two passes, one of which was a key third down catch-and-run that set up Mixon’s first down run on fourth down. Mitchell Wilcox has caught three and Hudson four. Certainly not game-breaking but having tight ends who are already activated in the offense should certainly make it easier for Burrow as his mobility steadily returns.
Usually, you can tell how good your secondary is by the amount of press coverage the defensive coordinator feels comfortable calling. Lou Anarumo has been in it quite a bit and, with just a couple of exceptions, like last Sunday on third-and-7 on Tennessee’s second drive, the Bengals have looked good with Cam Taylor-Britt, Chido Awuzie and DJ Turner in coverage. Bengals holding their breath that Taylor-Britt is cleared in concussion protocol this week and Awuzie’s back issue isn’t serious.
Hendrickson has started to show signs of getting pressures and hits on quarterbacks. He leads the Bengals with 3.5 sacks and recorded several pressures in Sunday’s loss at Tennessee. Playing with the lead for more than just .5 quarters through four weeks would help that immensely.
Ja'Marr Chase says Bengals had a good practice today. "High energy" and no missed assignments pic.twitter.com/Siqgh88Y6q
— Mike Petraglia (@Trags) October 5, 2023
Ja’Marr Chase and Mike Hilton are both on board with calling Sunday’s game in Arizona a must-win if the Bengals are to entertain realistic hopes of making the playoffs.
“Yeah, 100 percent, yes,” Chase said. “Just overcoming adversity, that slow start. We got to get going. It’s just about that time of the season and be what 1-3 right now. We gotta be 2-3 by end this, so we’ll get there.”
“It’s a must-win game,” Hilton added. “Our season is basically on the line.”
Joe Mixon said it’s go-time for the Bengals. What does that mean to Chase?
“Just get ready for the game,” Chase said. “But we all got our different languages on how we might get ready for the game. He’s just telling everybody get ready to be focused, and be prepared for anything.
“We feel good. We just had a good practice today and yesterday. So, you know, I mean, we’re taking a good step forward. That’s what we want, and just being comfortable, and being comfortable being uncomfortable.”
What’s a good practice to Chase?
“Just energy-wise, chemistry. Doing what you’re supposed to do. Not having (missed assignments) and not messing up on the same MA. Small things like that.
“We’re a hungry team. We know who we are, what we’re capable of. We just gotta keep fighting. This is the League. It’s not gonna be easy and we know that. We’ve gotta go into this like a dog fight.