If there is such a thing as a storybook ending to a 2-14 NFL season, the Cincinnati Bengals probably experienced it this past Sunday. Not only did they beat their big rivals on their home turf, they did so in wha may have been a swan song for one of their most productive quarterbacks in team history.
Here are the best and worst facets of the team’s 33-23 victory against the Cleveland Browns.
Joe Mixon: Over the past month, the team’s running back set personal bests for rushing yards in a game, including the top total of 162 against the Browns. He’s been a man on a mission, putting up big numbers, despite being the opposing defense’s focal point. Mixon hit the end zone twice against Cleveland, putting his 2019 totals in “The Battle of Ohio” at 49 carries, 308 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, three rushing touchdowns, plus four catches for 54 yards.
Mixon final 8 gms of 19: 817 rushing yards, 5 TDs, 4.6 YPC, 4 100-yard gms.— Anthony Cosenza (@CJAnthonyCUI) December 30, 2019
Final 8 gms of 18: 659 rushing yds, 4 TDs, 5.0 YPC, 3 100-TD gms.
Back-back 1,100-plus yard seasons. The old argument of Mixon “getting barter w/more touches” or better when weather worsens applies. https://t.co/iYRLxJB1aR
(Editor’s note: Excuse a couple of the typos in the above tweet. Someone contact Twitter to have them add an edit button.)
Additionally, Mixon is saying all of the right things in the form of publicly wishing to stay with the Bengals, long-term. We’ll see if it happens, but it’s refreshing when one of your best young, core players makes such a proclamation.
The patchwork offensive line: With Mixon’s aforementioned record-setting day, credit has to be given to the big boys up front. We’ve been notoriously hard on Bobby Hart, but his play has improved in recent weeks, even if marginally.
John Miller returned to the lineup and provided a steady presence, while Trey Hopkins played admirably after coming off of a big contract extension. The biggest nice surprise was Fred Johnson, who played very well after committing two false start penalties against Miami.
The tight ends: The Bengals’ offense has had a recent uptick in production and it’s no coincidence that it has some with increased usage of both C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Eifert. Both were seemingly criminally underused throughout the first part of the year, but made a number of plays in recent weeks.
They combined for seven catches, 59 yards and a touchdown, helping to alleviate the absence of A.J. Green. Uzomah and Eifert have two touchdowns apiece and 37 total receptions since the bye, with the team putting forth some its best performances on that side of the ball.
Andy Dalton finishing the season (and potentially his Bengals career) the right way: The veteran signal-caller’s future is unclear, but he gutted out a tough win in what is one of the most important games on the team’s annual schedule. His rushing touchdown showed just how much grabbing a win meant in a lost season, as both fans and members of the organization lauded his effort.
Ending the season on a high note: Talk about two teams heading in different directions. The Browns lost four of their final five games and let go of their one-and-done rookie head coach, while the Bengals had two wins in their final five contests and four of their final six losses were by one possession.
Armed with a lot of salary cap space, the first pick atop each round in next year’s draft and the opportunity to coach the Senior Bowl, Cincinnati could turn things around quickly. It will take both a massive effort and leaps of big growth by the coaching staff, but it[s a much different feeling right now than it was in mid-October.
The pass-rush: The Cincinnati Bengals’ front swarmed Baker Mayfield, bringing him to the turf six times. Carlos Dunlap won AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 2.5-sack, five-tackle, forced fumble performance, as his line-mates followed suit.
Carl Lawson had two of his own, while Sam Hubbard finished off a solid second season with 1.5 more sacks to give him 8.5 on the year. It made for a very uncomfortable day for Mayfield, as the next standout area will show.
Punters and kickers are players, too: Kevin Huber capped off perhaps his best professional season with a 55.7 average on his three punts, with one landing inside the Browns’ 20-yard line and another traveling 60 yards. His counterpart, Randy Bullock, missed an extra point, but hit three others, as well as two tough, long field goals in the rain.
Turnover creation: Because of the applied pressure, some big plays by the Bengals’ secondary members and Mayfield’s own penchant for always looking for the big-play, Cincinnatii nabbed three interceptions. It was a problem for the unit all year, but they improved later in the season by picking passes off more frequently.
Low penalties: There weren’t many things to celebrate in Zac Taylor’s first season as head coach, but clean play has to be one of them. Cincinnati only had three penalties on the day, continuing their pattern as being one of the lowest-penalized teams in the league. If you only commit three fouls in a game, that’s usually a formula for winning.
Third down conversion rates: Cincinnati had its best day on offense, in terms of moving the chains on the critical downs. The success in the run game on early downs, as well as the aforementioned low penalty count presented manageable third down situations in which the offense responded positively.
John Ross’s inability to click with the offense: Whether it’s his fault, someone else’s, or both, No. 11 just can’t bring the consistent big plays the team needs. Ross couldn’t break away from bracketed coverage, wherein Dalton threw an interception on a forced ball, while also dropping another catchable pass against Cleveland.
Ross did set career-highs in receptions and yards for the season, but he failed to re-capture the spark he lit back in the first couple of weeks. Again, some of the inconsistency isn’t all of his fault, but he’s a key guy the team needs to put things together next year. He, Zac Taylor and whomever the 2020 quarterback will be all need to get on the same page.
Other ancillary weapons: Giovani Bernard was once again put into precarious positions because of predictable play calls, netting just four yards on three carries, while also failing to nab a reception. Alex Erickson averaged 0.5 yards per his two punt returns, nabbed just one catch for 16 yards on four targets, as well as a pedestrian five-yard run. Couple those stat lines with Ross’ issues and this team needs more production outside of the top-targeted players.
Pass defense’s allowance of yards per completion: Big plays can tend to occur in the passing game when a multiple possession deficit is on display, but some we witnessed on Sunday were utterly inexcusable. The biggest gaffe was Odell Beckham, Jr.’s fourth quarter grab over Darius Phillips.
Despite the Bengals defense nabbing three interceptions, Mayfield still averaged 23.3 yards per his 12 completions on the afternoon. Those plays tend to come with guys like Beckham and Jarvis Landry on a roster, but that’s pretty poor, regardless of the personnel.