I don’t know who needs to hear this, but the Bengals were never going to Super Bowl LV.
The Bengals suffered a heart-breaking loss on Sunday, but everything is still fine. Joe Burrow is still a rookie, A.J. Green is seeing his first action in a year and a half, and Jonah Williams was in his first ever NFL game.
It would be easy to blame Randy Bullock, but keep in mind that the Bengals offense only scored 13 points in the first 59:55 of the game. If your defense can keep the opponents to only 16 points, you should have a good chance of winning.
There’s a lot to learn about the Bengals after having limited looks in training camp and no preseason. Week 1 was our first chance to see Burrow, Williams, and Green in action. There were a lot of things we could only speculate about.
There are more than five things we can learn, but I had to cap this list somewhere, so I picked the most interesting things from the first game.
After one game and one narrow loss, here’s what we learned.
Joe Burrow is still a rookie...
This was Burrow’s first ever NFL action, and that was painfully clear. For the first 50 minutes of the game, he looked like a rookie.
Part of the reason Burrow didn’t explode in his debut was some conservative playcalling early on. Zac Taylor didn’t ask him to do much and put too much on Joe Mixon to make things happen.
But later in the game, that changed, which we’ll get into later.
Burrow made his fair share of mistakes. For instance, on his first sack he tried to escape the pocket when he should have just stepped up. His two shovel passes, one of which was nearly a turnover and the second of which was an interception, should never have happened.
No matter how good SEC defenses are, they don’t compare to the NFL. This is Burrow’s first time seeing an NFL defense at 100 percent. He’s going to make mistakes. That’s okay.
He looked like a rookie in his first 50 minutes, but his last 10 minutes were a different story.
...but he showed why he was the first overall pick
On the last two drives of the game, when the Bengals needed him most, he showed up.
Taylor said that one thing that impressed him was Burrow’s command of the huddle. That was evident as he moved the offense down the field in the fourth quarter.
In the first three quarters, Burrow took three sacks, completed 61 percent of his passes, and gained 103 yards.
In crunch time, Burrow completed nine of thirteen passing attempts (69 percent) for 90 yards.
This is the reason why Burrow was a much needed upgrade at quarterback. For as mellow as his first 50 minutes of play were, he showed the potential that the Bengals fell in love with before the draft.
A.J. Green is back
Was this the ideal return for Green? Of course not. But in the context of what the offense was able to do, Green emerged as one of the best players of the game. Burrow did not target or complete more passes to anyone than Green.
Green only had five catches and 51 yards, but when offense was sparse Green was the biggest factor. Not only did he lead the team in targets, receptions and yards, but he also average more yards per reception than any wide receiver. Only C.J. Uzomah had a higher average.
Green’s not quite 100% of what he was, but the last time he played a full season, Burrow was at Ohio State backing up J.T. Barrett. He’s allowed a slow start too.
Linebackers all have specific roles
One question many had going into this season was, “How are all of these linebackers going to get snaps?”
The Bengals added Josh Bynes, drafted three linebackers, signed some undrafted free agents in the offseason. Taylor had to get rid of many talented linebackers to get the roster down to 53.
How was Taylor work with Germaine Pratt, Bynes, and a slew of rookies?
Every linebacker that the Bengals added this offseason was added for a specific reason, and each were given a specific job.
Lou Anarumo sent out Pratt and Bynes as their base package, but Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither were brought in for their coverage abilities. Davis-Gaither is also a great blitzer, so he and Wilson were brought in for third-and-medium-to-long plays.
Wilson and Jordan Evans made valuable contributions on special teams as well. Wilson had a great special teams tackle in the first half on kick coverage.
The defense has been upgraded all around
The Defense is clearly upgraded at all three levels.
On the defensive line, the depth was concerning as Mike Daniels and Christian Covington probably played more snaps than Anarumo originally planned. The line was clearly fatigued in the fourth quarter. But at full strength, the line will be solid.
The linebackers were the biggest area of need, and arguably the biggest area of improvement over the offseason. Bynes looked like a Pro Bowler, Pratt looked as good as he’s ever looked, and even the rookies had their moments.
The only defensive back that didn’t have a great game was Darius Phillips. His performance was a mixed bag, but he did well overall. William Jackson and Jessie Bates both played extremely well, and Bates was the highest rated safety in the NFL in Week 1, according to Pro Football Focus. Mackenzie Alexander and Vonn Bell didn’t play at that level, but still were upgrades to the secondary from last year.
All in all, the defense only gave up 16 points. Los Angeles only converted 38 percent of their third downs, and were zero for two on fourth down. The Bengals gave up one touchdown in three red zone attempts, all of which ended on goal-to-go situations.
The Bengals defense was a liability last season. This year, they showed that they have greatly improved.
The Bengals sank hundreds of millions of dollars into the defense this offseason and it showed.