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Bengals’ thirst for pass rush coincides with trade deadline

The Jets exposed an issue that could continue hurting the Bengals this year.

Cincinnati Bengals v New York Jets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Mike White shredding the Bengals’ defense makes a lot more sense when you factor in how much time he had to do so.

The Jets’ backup quarterback had a day throwing short passes against the fifth-best defense in the NFL coming into Sunday. Approximately two-thirds of his 405 passing yardage came via his receivers making plays after the catch. Judging by his Next Gen Stats passing chart, only seven of his 37 completed passes went beyond 10 yards past the line of scrimmage.

It’s obvious how White diced up a defense that had been authoritative for the previous seven weeks. The story doesn’t end there, though.

The biggest difference between this defense and last year’s unit has been the pass rush. They’ve been finishing their pressures at a significantly higher rate, which is how they were able to eclipse their 2020 sack total (17) in just seven games this year. The additions of Trey Hendrickson, Larry Ogunjobi, and B.J. Hill compounded with the return of D.J. Reader have made an impact that boosted the defense beyond expectations.

That pass rush was almost completely stifled in the Meadowlands, inexplicably.

Outside of a Hendrickson sack that forced a field goal early in the fourth quarter, a vaunted Bengals pass rush was rendered useless against an inexperienced quarterback and an embattled offensive line. The Jets were down to their third-string left tackle—Chuma Edoga—after George Fant injured his ankle before halftime. Edoga went on to play 30 nearly flawless reps in pass protection.

Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur reached into his bag and helped White out with short passes and trick plays, but when White dropped back with the intent of letting routes develop, he was rarely pressured. The gimmicks will work more times than not when the opposition isn’t expecting them. When the meat and potatoes of the offense is operating without any resistance, that’s a problem you can’t have against inferior talent.

And it’s fair to say LaFleur has the Bengals’ number. When he was coordinating the 49ers’ passing game back in 2019, he oversaw Jimmy Garoppolo torch Lou Anarumo’s defense in the Bengals’ home opener with very similar passing concepts. Garoppolo, like White on Sunday, was barely touched in that game.

Anarumo’s squad looked like they didn’t know what to expect from White, the quarterback who played in his first career game just a week prior. LaFleur deployed all of his tricks and White executed very well, but when the talent Anarumo amassed over the last two years had opportunities to strike back their way, they faltered hard.

This came on the week that second-year defensive end Khalid Kareem returned to the defense. Kareem had missed the first seven games with a shoulder injury he suffered in the preseason finale and only played in 12 snaps. No one expected him to have the game of his life in his first game back, but his return will not be enough to keep days like Sunday from happening again.

Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, Cam Sample, and Kareem are an edge rushing quartet that’s missing some dynamism. Admittedly, the Bengals knew this when they took Joesph Ossai in this year’s NFL Draft, but no one can predict which players will succumb to injuries. Ossai’s absence didn’t hurt the Bengals as much when Hendrickson was winning consistently, but the pass rush as a whole has been underwhelming outside of him this year. Losses tend to extenuate flaws.

The Bengals are now staring at this problem coming off a disappointing loss, but timing is everything. This week happens to be a good week to feel aggressive.

The NFL trade deadline is set for Tuesday afternoon at 4:00 p.m. EST. You shouldn’t expect the Bengals to pull off what the Rams did in trading for Von Miller, but you have to wonder if this is the year for them to actively seek out a player-for-draft pick deal. The opportunity to secure a short-term pass-rushing boost is something they need to consider before this problem becomes even more persistent.

Ultimately, I don’t expect the Bengals to pursue anything over the next two days. They’re not the team to panic and sacrifice future assets so impulsively. What the Rams think about draft picks is opposite of what the Bengals think. You’ll get draft picks from the Bengals when you pry them from their cold dead paws. Operating in a true “win-now” mode doesn’t change that philosophy.

Whether they make a move or not, this will likely be a turning point in the year. Cincinnati’s defense was exposed by an offense that didn’t know its left from right in the first seven weeks of the season. How they respond can be the difference between their playoff hopes being buried or kept alive.