While it wasn’t visually appealing, this was a good effort by the Bengals, all-in-all, Cincinnati really earned a win that they sorely needed. It showed a lot of character, but also some concerning areas.
Here are the best and worst facets to the Bengals’ 15-10 win over the Broncos this past Sunday.
A theme that fans are clinging to this week is that scoring just 15 points, 249 total yards and just 12 first downs is “ugly”. Worse yet, it may even be an indictment for the Bengals’ lack of viability should they even make the postseason.
While there’s truth to that sentiment, there is also a more optimistic way to look at things. The old cliche of “finding ways to win” is also applicable here. The fact that Cincinnati responded with a touchdown to recapture the lead, once Denver scored one of its own, could also point to grit and other intangible, immeasurable traits.
Look, this one wasn’t going to be easy. Denver is a hostile venue, particularly on a December evening (though the weather was actually surprisingly mild), and the Broncos defense has been stout against the pass all year.
In any given week, one of the three-headed Bengals receiving monsters can step up with a big game. In the first half of the year, it was Ja’Marr Chase, who was the runaway favorite as the Offensive Rookie of the Year by the midway point.
After the Bengals’ bye week, Tee Higgins stepped up with three-straight 100-yard games, including a personal-best against the Chargers. Boyd’s had a couple of big games, but he’s largely taken a back seat to the two young(er) guns.
Boyd was crucial to this week’s victory, though. He led the team with five catches for 95 yards and a 56-yard touchdown grab. The stat line also included a few first down catches, as No. 83 showcased his strength as a guy to get the offense in rhythm when few things seemed to be working.
Special teams redemption:
It was an awful evening for Darrin Simmons last Sunday against the 49ers. His unit combined for one missed field goal, three fumbles on kickoffs/punts (a fourth was overturned as down by contact) and an overall mess for returns in a game that was decided in overtime by just three points.
This week, rookie kicker Evan McPherson kicked a franchise-record 58-yard field goal, while also notching 10 total conversions of over 50 yards. Additionally, Trent Taylor was a hero for simply fielding clean punts, much less a 7.3 yard per punt return average.
McPherson almost doubled up the offense’s accrued points by himself, while his counterpart, Kevin Huber, had a solid day, as well. His seven punts netted 368 yards (52.6 yards per punt average) and three were in the Broncos’ 20-yard line.
The defensive line:
Zac Taylor gave the interior defensive linemen a collective game ball after the win and for good reason. The group combined for 1.5 sacks and 16 total tackles and was a dominant force on Sunday.
Additionally, defensive line swing guy, Khalid Kareem, had immense production on just 13 snaps, including a pressure, tackle for loss, a forced fumble and recovery. Finally, Trey Hendrickson is proving he is one of the best free agency signings in the history of the Bengals.
He had a half-sack, five pressures and two holding penalties against him. All three levels of the Bengals’ defense is playing well, but it all goes with the big guys up front.
Reserves stepping up in bigger roles:
As is the case with many teams this time of year, injuries and covid absences are forcing coaches to make tough decisions. It’s no secret that an issue to the Bengals’ recent seasons and the success of 2021 reside in their overall roster health.
Even so, before and during this week’s game, Cincinnati lost their top two right tackles (Riley Reiff and Isaiah Prince), as well as a slew of linebackers. Joe Bachie, who was filling in for Logan Wilson, ended up tearing his ACL in this contest.
Fred Johnson came in and responded with the team’s second-best Pro Football Focus score on the afternoon, posting an 82.8 overall. Markus Bailey came in and had five tackles, a half-sack and a pass defended in his increased duty.
This isn’t accounting for Eli Apple, Tre Flowers, Jackson Carman and others who were pressed into increased roles. Kudos to the coaches and players for stepping up with their numbers called.
Current AFC North control:
To begin the day, the Pittsburgh Steelers pulled out a miracle against the Tennessee Titans to breathe just a little more postseason life into their season. The team that won’t go away sits at 7-6-1 after their unlikely win.
The Bengals then took care of their own business and waited on the results of two other important divisional games. Baltimore rallied back against the Green Bay Packers, but lost a heartbreaker on a failed two-point conversion, putting them in a record tie with Cincinnati.
Then, on a Monday afternoon rescheduled contest, a Browns team littered with injuries and covid absences, hosted the up-and-down Raiders. Las Vegas barely beat Cleveland on their home turf, sending the Browns to last place in the division.
All of this allowed the Bengals to temporarily regain control of the AFC North. They’re largely in the driver’s seat now, with three tough games—including one apiece against the Ravens and Browns—remaining on the schedule.
Run game inconsistency:
This seemed like a stereotypical game wherein the Bengals would “impose their will” and balance things out. Cincinnati had been turning the ball over with frequency the past two weeks and with Denver sporting a solid pass defense, it seemed like prime Joe Mixon time.
Unfortunately, Mixon only mustered a 3.4-yard per carry average on Sunday. Samaje Perine fared better with a 7.5 average, but 22 of his 30 rushing yards came on one play.
Oddly enough, Burrow’s scrambling ability was the one of the best options in the ground game. He converted a couple of first downs with some big runs on broken plays.
A plodding offensive performance:
While we can laud the Bengals for their ability to stay the course and grind out a tough win, questions linger. Grinding out a close and low-scoring win over a team that had issues on offense and was clinging to playoff life has its merits, but what happens in late January and February?
Scoring fifteen points on the road isn’t overly-inspiring, as it goes with postseason potential. Cincinnati is probably looking at a road game (or more than one), should they get into the playoff dance, so this up-and-down nature on offense is concerning.
We’re getting ahead ourselves here, too. Even when looking at the remaining three games on the regular season schedule, scoring points will be the name of the game. In short, these types of wins can come here and there, but relying on them for sustainable success is a dangerous plan.
An unanswered offensive coaching approach issue:
First of all, the coaching staff deserves some credit for getting the guys ready to play and for grabbing what was essentially a must-win on Sunday. However, for the second consecutive week, questions have surfaced on the late-game management of the offense.
Against San Francisco, Taylor took heat for not putting the ball in his young quarterback’s hands, as he rallied the team to an improbable comeback. It was a decision he labeled as one that would keep him up at night.
Yet, a week later, a similar issue occurred in a one-score game with the result hanging in the balance. While Cincinnati had seven runs per their 12 offensive plays on the final two drives (kneel down to end it notwithstanding) and some of the passes were conservative (dump-offs to running backs), it was a slightly-confusing end to the game.
Look, this week provided a different set of scenarios than that against the 49ers. If you’re a believer in momentum, the San Francisco game provides a bunch of arguments for those that believe Taylor should have left the ball in Burrow’s hands.
This week, the Bengals’ offense wasn’t gaining any consistency, their defense was rolling and they were facing a backup quarterback (albeit one of the better ones in the league). Oh, and they wanted Denver to burn through their timeouts.
I’m no saying it was a perfect plan (hence its placement on this list), but it makes sense given the variables in this one—to an extent. These are tenuous situations as you come down the stretch of the regular season and potentially the playoffs.