A bad first half turned frightening for the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. There’s 1:16 remaining in the second quarter. The score is 10-6, in favor of the San Francisco 49ers. Cincinnati’s offense was not getting it done, failing to capitalize on opportunities their defense was giving them, and Darius Phillips had muffed a first quarter punt that resulted in a field goal for the visitors. Phillips was about to muff a second punt here shortly, but not before a crucial third-and-15 play.
Trey Hendrickson, in his usual spot at right defensive end, took on a chip block from running back JaMycal Hasty before engaging with All-World left tackle Trent Williams. Hasty’s chip slowed Hendrickson down enough where the Bengals’ $60 million pass-rusher couldn’t get around or through Williams. All Hendrickson could do was get his hands up to potentially bat down Jimmy Garappolo’s pass. Williams shoved Hendrickson into left guard Laken Tomlinson when this happened, and Hendrickson went to the ground.
It didn’t take long for the Bengals to realize Hendrickson was hurt. The 27-year old, responsible for a third of the team’s sacks, stayed on the ground and several players surrounding him took a knee. It seemed like the medical cart (which Hendrickson declined) was brought out instantly, which only incited further panic from observers.
In this moment, it felt like the Bengals’ defense was hitting its breaking point. A year filled with ups and downs hasn’t really hindered the unit. Outside of a few hiccups in the middle of the season, they’ve been reliable and clutch. The idea of having no clear weakness at all 11 spots brought confidence in the defense making a jump, but the magnitude of said jump was not really expected. Entering this game, they were seventh in both EPA/play allowed and success rate allowed.
Losing Hendrickson would be about as bad it could get for them, because while they’ve been the epitome of stable on all three levels, much of that success has been created by a select few—Hendrickson being most responsible. You cannot play more consistently great than he has this year. If 12.5 sacks coming in 11 of a possible 13 games doesn’t spell that out, I don’t know what does. Let’s not forget he’s currently riding a nine-game streak with a quarterback takedown.
So yeah, playing without that guy would be devastating. And that’s what they had to do for two quarters and an overtime period on Sunday. Here’s how that went down, starting after Phillips gifted the 49ers a touchdown following Hendrickson leaving the game.
- Field goal
- Missed field goal
40 plays from scrimmage in the third and fourth quarter. Three points. Eventually their back did break in overtime as George Kittle was already heating up before then, but no one rightfully blames them for finally giving out undermanned.
The drives that resulted in the second and third punts are where I want to focus on this week. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase finally rekindled their magic and cut the deficit to 20-13. They needed another stop from the defense to tie the game up. They got one, but squandered their next possession and looked to the defense again. A Hendrickson-less defensive front delivered once more, and Burrow and Chase connected for more magic on the ensuing drive.
It wasn’t just one player who rose to the occasion. The Bengals’ defensive line, without their best performing player, collectively kept this game alive in the fourth quarter. Their resiliency is well showcased in these five moments:
Let’s return to the ground for a moment. This isn’t the expectation every week. Sam Hubbard, B.J. Hill, and Larry Ogunjobi are fine players, but they can’t take over games on a weekly basis. And I think that’s what makes this week all the more commendable: players stepping up when the game is on the line and performing over expectation.
Luckily, Hendrickson only suffered back spasms. I say only relative to a devastating knee injury, not to diminish how painful back spasms are. He’ll be limited in practice this week and could very well play against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
He’ll return gratefully to a defensive line that had his back when it gave out on him.