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The good, the bad and the ugly in Bengals’ loss to 49ers

Cincinnati learned more hard lessons on Sunday, as they continue to both grow and crawl towards a possible postseason berth.

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The Bengals had a golden opportunity to propel themselves back into the postseason conversation Sunday, but let another winnable game slip through their fingers. The loss does provide some of those oh-so-sour moral victories and other takeaways, as the team sits at 7-6.

Here are the best and worst facets from the Bengals’ 26-23 overtime loss to the 49ers.

The good

Joseph Lee Burrow:

Aside from a sluggish start from the offense in general, No. 9 was masterful down the stretch. Based on his Pro Football Focus score of 90.6 and his nomination as PFF’s Quarterback of the Week, this losing effort against San Francisco could be coined as his best performance as a pro.

Burrow finished the game with a 71% completion rate (25-of-34) with 348 passing yards, two touchdowns, zero turnovers and a 125.6 rating. On most any other home contest, that type of quarterback performance gets a win at home.

Furthermore, Burrow’s moxie, unwillingness to relent in the face of constant pressure (more on that later) and reviving the Bengals back from the dead to seemingly steal a win was great to see—both for short-term and long-term prospects. The no quit shown below is the stuff that inspires a team:

The Dr. Jekyll Ja’Marr Chase:

Jekyll was the good guy in Stevenson’s novel, wasn’t he? When Chase is on and he doesn’t have a case of the bobbles, a very strong case can be made that he is the scariest receiver in the NFL right now...just 13 games into a professional career.

The incredible footwork he showed on his first touchdown grab was out-of-this-world and his sluggo route showcasing that trademark last-second separation to tie it was marvelous. While there have been misses and forced balls at times this year, the Burrow-Chase connection is alive and well at the NFL level.

Harkening back to an earlier point: what’s scary is that “Uno” isn’t even close to being a finished product. The guy didn’t even play football in 2020. He has to clean up those concentration drops and can always fine-tune other aspects of his craft (as all great receivers continually do), but even so, he’s ascending himself as a top wideout in the league right now.

Receiving options galore:

With his two big plays, most folks on the outside looking in would have automatically pegged Chase as the leading receiver on Sunday without looking at the box score. However, Tee Higgins co-led the team in catches with Chase (five), but had the yardage crown with 114. He has three straight 100-yard receiving games and is oh-so-close to a 1,000-yard season.

Seven receivers made catches, with five of them netting at least four grabs and four cracking 50-plus yards. We know there are a lot of threats to opposing defenses on this roster, but it’s nice to see it come to fruition—particularly in a game wherein the Bengals clawed their way back into this game.

The big dudes manning the interior defensive line:

While none of the defensive linemen were in the top-five PFF performers on the team this week, they had their impact felt. D.J. Reader, Larry Ogunjobi and B.J. Hill combined for three sacks, four tackles for loss and 11 tackles in total.

This was a particularly important aspect of the Bengals’ defensive effort, given that Trey Hendrickson left the game early with back spasms. Also, a shout-out to Sam Hubbard, who was seen doing a number of different things, schematically-speaking, as a way to help out the defense and mask personnel vacancies.

Continued pressures, hits and sacks of Jimmy Garoppolo:

In all, the Bengals had five sacks, six quarterback hits and six total tackles for loss on the day. “Jimmy G” made plays, but Cincinnati’s defense frustrated him. Cincinnati’s defense didn’t come through in the clutch, but did keep the score manageable while the offense struggled early and special teams gaffes littered the day.

Coming back from the dead:

San Francisco had control of this game by the end of the third quarter. Cincinnati was down 20-6, moved into field goal range, but Evan McPherson pushed it, seemingly putting this one out of reach.

Yet, the heroics from Burrow, timely stops from the defense and overall momentum going on their side made this a quality contest. Despite the unfavorable result, Sunday was a reminder that the Bengals won’t be out of any game with Burrow under center and this new-look 2021 roster.

The bad

Inconsistencies in the run game:

While the late-game fireworks via Burrow’s arm were exciting, the high-profile passing attack the past two weeks haven’t translated to wins. Coming out of the bye week, Cincinnati was able to ride Joe Mixon on the ground, en route to balanced wins.

Unfortunately, injuries to Riley Reiff and Trey Hopkins have affected the run game the past two weeks, as has defensive game-planning from opposing defenses. Mixon had just 58 yards on 18 carries, while the entire Bengals team plodded to a 3.3-yard per carry average as a team.

A lot has been made about Zac Taylor tightening the leash on Burrow and the offense late in this game, and for good reason. And, while this team will largely ride-or-die on Burrow’s performances, regaining some semblance of offensive balance will be necessary down the stretch.

Questionable offensive play-calling:

As mentioned above, questions have surfaced about the plan of attack by the Bengals has come under scrutiny. Taylor said the conservative overtime approach would “keep him up at night”, as the team seemingly played for the tie instead of the win.

But, another pivotal drive earlier in the game is being overlooked. Coming out at halftime, the Bengals received the football and promptly ran for six yards on first down. Playing with house money on 2nd-and-4, Cincinnati ran it twice more, netting just three yards, forcing the Bengals to punt.

Three plays, nine yards and a punt to start the second half. And, this was while the Bengals were already down 11 points at the time.

Further torpedoing of playoff seeding:

The Browns helped the Bengals out immensely by barely beating the Ravens, while Buffalo losing to Tampa Bay also set Cincinnati up nicely. If the Bengals beat the 49ers, they would have temporary control of the division and push them within the top-four in the playoff bracket.

Instead, Cincinnati’s loss pushed them out of current eligibility. The Bengals have had two straight games at home and lost them both. Not ideal for a team facing a daunting stretch of games coming out of their bye week.

No home field advantage:

Of the team’s seven wins this year, just three have come at home (Vikings, Jaguars, Steelers). Of the remaining eight games on the schedule, Cincinnati has/had five at home and have already dropped two of them. With the Ravens and Chiefs comprising the final two at Paul Brown Stadium, it presents a significant challenge.

It’s an odd dichotomy, really. Cincinnati’s ownership has done a great job at rehabbing the in-game and in-stadium experience, complete with a “Rule the Jungle” slogan. Yet, Cincinnati currently has a losing record at home (3-4) and none of the teams they have beaten on their turf currently sports a winning record.

Getting an extra one at home with the expanded schedule was a bit of a gift, but the Bengals are squandering that opportunity.

The ugly

The Mr. Hyde Ja’Marr Chase:

Hyde was Jekyll’s alter-ego and from game-to-game, or even quarter-to-quarter, we’re seeing different versions of the rookie wide receiver. It’s to be expected a bit from a particularly young rookie wide receiver, but for as many positive game-changing plays Chase has provided this year, he’s had a share of tide-turning mistakes.

The ultimate point-swap play was against Los Angeles last week, but Chase had a couple of big drops on Sunday, too. The Bengals faced a 3rd-and-13 on the opening drive and Chase dropped a throw that would have converted it. Then, there was the heartbreaking, albeit difficult would-be touchdown catch he bobbled.

If even some of these crushing plays were made, it may have pushed the Bengals at least one or two notches up in the win column. Then again, if not for his 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season already, we may not even be talking about playoff contention, so....

Special teams:

Good Lord. Darrin Simmons is one of the most well-respected coaches in the league, but this had to be the worst day his unit has had.

There were four fumbles/muffs on punts and kickoffs—two from Darius Phillips and two from Stanley Morgan. One of Morgan’s ended up being overturned, but you get the point.

And, to make matters worse, Simmons’ star rookie kicker missed an important one in the third quarter. The return game has been pretty awful this year, but was especially putrid on Sunday, with the kickoffs netting 13.3 yards per return and punts netting 4.2 yards per return.

Can someone guard a tight end, please?

It seems to be an annual tradition wherein a talented tight end gashes the Bengals. With so many defensive additions in free agency the past two seasons, it has been far less frequent this year, but came to a head again on Sunday.

George Kittle was PFF’s Offensive Player of the Week with his 91.1 score. Kittle had 13 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, torching the Bengals.

We knew Kittle would get his to some extent, and the Bengals were without Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither as aiding linebackers in pass coverage, but his production was ridiculous. It’s especially concerning with Noah Fant, Mark Andrews and Travis Kelce on deck.

Continued pressures, hits and sacks of Joe Burrow:

If we’re going to praise the Bengals’ defense for their hits on Garoppolo, we have to express equal concern for the hits on Burrow. The Bengals’ star quarterback had a similar stat line, in taking five sacks and six hits on Sunday.

Reiff left the game early, which didn’t help, but the pressure rate was absurd. We know that sacks can be attributed to other factors outside of just poor offensive line play, but for the sake of Burrow’s health and the productivity of the team, this has to be at least slightly remedied.

Self-inflicted wounds in uber-important games:

Special teams killed the Bengals this week and, as it goes with developing teams, it always seems to be something of their own doing that dooms them in the losses. We mentioned the Chase bobble turned-pick against the Chargers last week, the kick return issues this week and others, but at some point, the team has to stop these silly mistakes in important games with playoff implications.

We can even talk about Vonn Bell’s pointing that was taunting that ended up being a four-point swing this Sunday, even though, yes, it was a weak call. To Taylor’s credit, Cincinnati has been the lowest-penalized team this year and they largely seem to learn from these mistakes, but it just seems like someone new and something inexplicable is occurring weekly. These have to stop if the Bengals are to make a postseason push and subsequent run.