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The good, the bad and the ugly in the Bengals’ loss to the Chargers

We figured it would be a sloppy game for a variety of reasons, but there are positives and negatives to take away from Week 1, if you’re a Bengals fan.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

There are few things more frustrating in sports than losing a game you felt you should have won. That has to be the attitude permeating in the Cincinnati Bengals’ locker room this week after they let the Los Angeles Chargers steal a win out from under them at Paul Brown Stadium.

There were some major frustrations on display, but also some reason for optimism. Here are the best and worst facets of the Bengals’ 16-13 Week 1 loss to the Chargers on Sunday.

The Good

Joe Burrow’s intangibles: Look, there were times that even the great Joe Burrow looked rattled on Sunday. The offensive line gave up pressure often (more on that later) causing Burrow to ad-lib—something he does well, anyway—he missed potential big plays and even threw a Gus Frerotte-ian interception on a shovel pass.

But, the kid showed the grit that makes him such an exciting prospect. All of those issues would have caused a lesser-talented rookie to crawl in their shell and allow a full collapse.

Instead, Burrow engineered a beauty of a two-minute drive at the end of the game to put the Bengals in position to win or tie. Others let him down from achieving that goal, but this was the major positive takeaway from No. 9’s first pro start. Did we mention he didn’t even have a preseason game under his belt?

Former NFL wide receiver and “Good Morning Football” contributor, Nate Burleson, liked what he saw from the rookie signal-caller:

Jonah Williams and Trey Hopkins: We were pretty sure that these guys were going to be the strong points on a patchwork offensive line and they proved as such on Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t a perfect showing by either, but there was enough seen to provide long-term optimism at center and left tackle. It was Williams’ first pro start and Hopkins is coming off of a big extension he signed in late 2019.

Hopkins’ big highlight was his second-level blocking on Joe Burrow’s touchdown run, wherein he took out a would-be tackler and pushed him into another Chargers defender to allow Burrow to scoot into the end zone. Williams’ name wasn’t called and, as far as offensive linemen go, that’s a good sign.

On some run plays, though largely unsuccessful on the day, Williams was seen pushing people out of the way on occassions. He did allow a few pressures, but no penalties and somehow had a lower Pro Football Focus score than Bobby Hart. Regardless, it was a sound first pro showing against a formidable Chargers defensive front.

Many facets of the defense: Lou Anarumo’s unit was a mess last year. Be it from injury, a bloated roster with lesser talent, or his own inexperience, the Bengals’ defense was one of the worst units in the NFL last year.

The team made significant moves this offseason to re-stock that side of the ball and it showed in Week 1. Tyrod Taylor barely hit 50 percent of his passes and just eked out 200 yards.

Big plays were held to a minimum, as tackling and coverage were far more sound than what was seen last year. Star receiver Keenan Allen had just four catches for 37 yards and Mike Williams was held under 70, while neither cracked the end zone. These numbers are a testament to the outstanding play of William Jackson, Jessie Bates, Mackensie Alexander and, at times, Darius Phillips. In fact, Bates was one of the highest-rated defensive players in the NFL for Week 1 by Pro Football Focus:

Germaine Pratt was omnipresent with 12 total tackles, while Carl Lawson had a sack and a couple of pressures. Even though Charger backs combined for over 100 rushing yards, it was a much more palatable performance from that unit than what we routinely saw in 2019. And, a solid portion of the positive running plays for Los Angeles came when D.J. Reader left the game with cramps.

A.J. Green: From a sentimental side, seeing Green out there grabbing passes and being a key contributor is a “good” in itself after he’s suffered so many major injures over the past few seasons. He only netted five catches for 51 yards (team leader), but the “old A.J.” seemed to be there.

Truth be told, Green could/should/would have had a monster first game back with two touchdown grabs to his name. Burrow overthrew him when he was wide open for a touchdown on one occasion and many believe the offensive pass interference penalty called against him at the end of the game was ticky-tack and he deserved the game-winner.

As Burrow continues to mature, we look forward to seeing more from Green in 2020.

The Bad

The overall offensive line play—particularly in the first half: Yes, Williams and Hopkins were bright spots, but the play at guard and right tackle were roller coasters. Things settled down in the second half, but pressure was prevalent and running room was sparse.

Xavier Su’a-Filo and Billy Price tag-teamed right guard (Su’a-Filo left with an ankle injury) to mixed results and the same could be said for the young left guard, Michael Jordan. However, it was Bobby Hart’s performance that once again came under the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

It wasn’t going to easy for the line going up against the formidable front comprised of Linval Joseph, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram and Jerry Tillery and others, but the first two quarters were a mess for the Bengals’ line and Burrow was taking way too many hits—particularly big ones.

On one particular second quarter drive, Hart committed a false start and allowed a sack to Bosa in just a handful of plays. Uchenna Nwosu grabbed a sack of Burrow on the same drive.

The question as to why the Bengals feel they are bound to Hart as their starter remains unclear, but they are obviously uncomfortable supplanting him with Fred Johnson or Hakeem Adeniji. The line play must get better if the team wants to be competitive and if they want Burrow is to properly progress in his rookie year.

Zac Taylor and game management: With all of the chatter about the Green OPI call at the end of the game, little is being mentioned about the fact that Cincinnati lacked any timeouts on the final drive. This wasn’t because they used them a couple of minutes prior on another late-game drive, but rather because they were burned by the midway point of the fourth quarter.

A similar issue occurred in first half. For the final drive, it may not seem like a big deal because Burrow navigated the drive to near-perfection, however, if the team had even one, it’s conceivable the team would have had a few more seconds on the clock and could have taken one or two more end zone shots before trotting out Randy Bullock with seven seconds left.

Speaking of that, is there not a play in the Taylor’s supposed offensive genius mind that takes a shot into the end zone, while only burning 5-6 seconds of game clock? Options are limited and it’s easy to second guess given the outcome, but taking the ball out of your franchise quarterback’s hands on a conservative call that backfired is breeding fan questions.

There were also early drives that pulled A.J. Green and/or Tyler Boyd off of the field on third down, which led to questions. Where were Auden Tate and Tee Higgins? Wouldn’t their size be good matchups against the Chargers’ physical and savvy defensive backs?

More questions remain: Burrow is the guy and he’ll play even better going forward, but a lot of questions surround the Bengals. How much stock should we take in a Week 1 loss—especially one from a preseason-less summer?

On the flip side, remember Week 1 last year when the Bengals nearly beat the Seahawks in Seattle? We all thought great things were on the way in 2019, but it was one of the worst in franchise history.

Is Zac Taylor the head coach to pair with Burrow? Time will tell and this Thursday night in a divisional road game against the Browns should tell us a lot about this team’s short-term outlook.

Inconsistent officiating: You never want to blame a loss on the referees and we aren’t doing that here, but pass interference calls were largely made in favor of L.A. The Green OPI call at the end of the game would have made sense if it was overly-egregious, but it was borderline and literally dictated the outcome of the game. NFL referees didn’t have a preseason of prep either, so we figured some of these things would occur.

The Ugly

Turnover margin: The Bengals were the third-worst team in the NFL, by turnover margin standards, with a minus-14 number last year. Ironically, the Chargers were the worst team in the league by that metric last year.

Well, L.A. snagged a fumble and interception by the Bengals, while Cincinnati’s defense couldn’t make a tide-turning play on their home turf. Unfortunately, the turnovers the Bengals committed came from two of their most important players on offense—Burrow and Joe Mixon.

If the Bengals want to win some games and even make a postseason push, they cannot continue to be behind the eight ball in this statistic.

Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes—largely by usual suspects: Mixon’s fumble isn’t excused, by any means, but the guy hasn’t lost a fumble since 2017, so there may be a little bit of a pass. However, guys like Hart, John Ross III and Randy Bullock all continue to hold the team back.

We’ve already banged on Hart, so we won’t beat that dead horse and those who watch Bengals games can see the issues. However, much has been made about the supposed progress of Ross and how he can be a factor this year.

Unfortunately, Ross had a would-be touchdown go through his fingertips (was it overthrown?) and dropped another one on the sideline during the final drive that nearly killed the comeback. That drop was preceded by a false start penalty on the drive.

It’s easy to come down hard on Bullock because he failed at what should have been an easy task to complete within the scope of his primary job. If he injured himself during the kick, which appeared to be the case, then the shank is understandable, but no less frustrating. But, with missed touchdown passes and other errors, it really shouldn’t have come down to such a dire situation at the end of the game like that.

And, for the familiar players making repeated mistakes, that’s on the coaching staff. Either they aren’t mentally preparing these players to step up in big moments and learn from their past mistakes, or they’re blinded to their affection for these players, the back-breaking errors that come with them and are unwilling to make a change for the betterment of the team.