Things keep going from bad to worse in each passing week with the Cincinnati Bengals. The most recent embarrassment came at the hands of a divisional foe in a fashion that has been completely unfamiliar territory.
For the first time since before Marvin Lewis, the Cleveland Browns swept the Bengals in Week 16. It’s just the latest insult in a string of them that fans have had to endure in 2018.
Here are a couple of observations before we turn the page to Week 17 from the Bengals’ loss to the Browns.
Listless and lifeless
Of course, as a player on a team, knowing that some of your best players won’t be suiting up can deflate an entire squad before they even take the field. Often times, guys will still put on a brave face, but deep-down they know they are facing a death march.
With each passing week, the players Cincinnati trots out not only become less recognizable to the layman, but their general disposition is also palpable. Whether it’s in Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins disappearing in games not featuring the Oakland Raiders, or in Vontaze Burfict brushing off a trainer who was helping him off of the field, the frustration and malaise has totally set in.
Injuries, familiar big-game collapses and some downright unwatchable on-field products have been force-fed to the Who Dey faithful this year. Even when the team still had some of their stars, terrible outputs like those we all witnessed against the Chiefs and Saints are lasting memories of this season.
This week, it almost seemed as if the Bengals were somewhat-intimidated by the Browns. Cleveland had beaten Cincinnati handily at Paul Brown Stadium a few weeks earlier, and the Bengals were down their starting quarterback and Pro Bowl wide receiver, but they had the look of a team that had wished they never made the trip across the state (save for a few players).
Recently, I have publicly lauded the Bengals in their effort in Weeks 14 and 15. It’s not an easy task to travel west and almost beat a playoff-bound Chargers team and follow it up by dominating a down Raiders team in their home finale with a large number of backups.
But, among other things, this week proved that many Bengals players have their eyes set on forthcoming vacation plans. Some of the blame for the mental check-out can be placed on the coaching staff. The rest perhaps on human nature.
Really, the 4-1 start seems like an eternity ago. Think about that for a second: after shooting out to such a thrilling start, Cincinnati has lost eight of nine games over the past two and a half months.
Talk about miserable.
The swag of the Browns
In just two games, “The Battle of Ohio” has turned on its head. Cincinnati has largely dominated the series—even in subpar Bengals seasons. Even though there were the rare Browns wins in the Andy Dalton era (just three in 14 contests from 2011-2017), the Bengals marched into these weeks with the utmost confidence that they will be taking care of business.
But, as we mentioned on this week’s episode of The Orange and Black Insider, Baker Mayfield has rallied the troops against a common enemy: Hue Jackson. In the surge against their former head coach, Mayfield has brought his Sooner swagger to the Erie City and it has rubbed off on his teammates.
It isn’t just Mayfield injecting excitement into the roster, though. Gregg Williams’ tough-guy approach and the creative play-calling of Freddie Kitchens have also pumped up the beleaguered franchise.
This past Sunday, you saw it in the celebrations from Jarvis Landry after his 63-yard completion to Breshad Perriman, and, of course, in Mayfield’s stare-down of Jackson after completing the game-winning pass. They dawgs have the confidence and are doing the brash barking, whereas the Bengals have become the cowering cats hiding under the bed.
This year’s results could very well be an outlier, as some optimistic fans are proclaiming. It’s in the injuries to Dalton, A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Vontaze Burfict and others that has taken the competitiveness out of this year’s series. After all, Cincinnati did win seven straight contests against the Browns—all with at least a 13-point win differential.
However, we’ve seen recent top-flight quarterbacks be able to grab a franchise by its haunches and drag them into prominence. On Sunday night, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson showed everyone what it looks like to carry a franchise.
Additionally, one could point to either the 2010 and/or 2011 draft classes by the Bengals as ones directly responsible for their five straight postseason berths. It’s very possible that the Browns have netted such a class in 2018 with Mayfield, Nick Chubb and Genard Avery—all guys who utterly dominated the Bengals on Sunday.
Maybe, after almost 30 starting quarterbacks since 1999, the Browns finally have their guy. And, in that facet, they can continue to find confidence.
Joe Mixon’s outstanding performance in an otherwise dreadful season
Lost in the 26-18 defeat to the Bengals’ cross-state rivals was the performance by Mixon. Sure, he only had 68 rushing yards on the day, but the line was failing him greatly.
With those 68 yards, Mixon notched his first 1,000-yard rushing season, which is a feat in itself, considering the amount of personnel attrition as the year has wore on. With a game left still to play, Mixon has almost 450 more rushing yards, five more touchdowns (four rushing, one receiving), 12 more receptions and 13 more receiving years. He also has averaged 1.2 more yards per carry.
While the line has improved from last year, it hasn’t been by leaps and bounds, even though the team has trotted out four new starters throughout most of the year from that of 2017. Most of the credit is on Mixon himself, who reshaped his body this offseason and ran with the opportunity of getting more touches.
While Bill Lazor deserves a little bit of credit for designing run plays out of shotgun formations that sprang a lot of big runs by Mixon, he also deserves some blame. In Weeks 6-13, Mixon only averaged 13.4 carries per game—not coincidentally, Cincinnati went 1-6 in those contests, with the Bengals winning the only game in which he had over 20 carries (Tampa Bay).
If we want to be optimistic for 2019, it’s in the fact that the Bengals can continue to build around a trio of offensive skill position players. Boyd is coming off of his own 1,000-yard season, while Mixon’s star is ascending. Green is coming off of an injury, but he was on pace for one of his best statistical seasons before getting hurt.