Just as the Cincinnati Bengals cleared one hurdle, they’ve been presented with an even greater one.
The 4-3 Bengals managed to overcome an 0-2 start amidst a myriad of troubling offensive issues. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys identified ways to put a cap on Joe Burrow’s passing game and its unconventional marriage to an under center wide zone rushing attack. Instead of staying the course, the offense forced itself to evolve, and the results have been outstanding.
In their ongoing 4-1 run, the Bengals rank first in DVOA, first EPA/drop back, second in EPA/play, and third in success rate. Such a turnaround is indicative of not just creative play-calling solutions, but talented playmakers thriving.
Ja’Marr Chase might be the most important playmaker they have, and he’ll be out for at least a few weeks with a hip fracture. The next hurdle always seems to be larger than the last one.
While Chase rests and heals the most important hip in Cincinnati, the Bengals will be tasked to keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens atop the AFC North. The reported timeline has Chase missing the next month, which includes an all-important bye week and a handful of teams under .500, like the team they’ll meet tonight in Cleveland.
There’s never an ideal time to be without a game-breaking player, but the incoming stretch of games should have Bengals fans holding back from slamming down on the panic button. Beyond that, there are a few other significant factors as to why you shouldn’t lose faith in the reigning AFC Champions just yet.
Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd still exist
In a reality where Chase doesn’t play for the Bengals, these two would still be one of the best WR duos in the NFL. Chase makes both of their lives easier, but the skills and chemistry these two have with Joe Burrow easily gets lost in the shuffle.
The Bengals believe Higgins to be a true No. 1 receiver because he is. This offense isn’t constructed to devoid Higgins of the opportunities that come with that, rather the attention Chase garners frees up Higgins with favorable matchups down the field. Increased attention on him is the consequence of Chase being sidelined, but there’s only so much opposing defenses can do to cover a 6’4” high-pointing vertical threat with shiftiness to boot.
Boyd’s role won’t change in a Chase-less offense, and it shouldn’t. The offense knows exactly who he is and how he wins. It’ll be harder for him to break free over the top now, but he can still move the chains with choice routes over the middle.
Burrow himself can be a reason on his own why this team won’t sink, but there’s no need for a full explanation.
Stabilization has found the offensive line
This will be tested heavily tonight as Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are no joke. That said, the current status of the line is what many expected it to be after an aggressive offseason. They can’t go back in time seven weeks and trot this unit out there for the start of the season, but better late than never, right?
We’ve reached a point where defenses can’t just pick out one of the five starters and say “Go after him.” The weakest link isn’t drastically different from the strongest component, and that’s not an insult on anybody. This isn’t the Larry Allen-led Cowboys of the 90s, but it’s by far the best protection Burrow has had even going back to his LSU days. (No seriously, go back and watch who that 2019 team had at left guard and right tackle. Not pretty.)
Quality protection won’t completely boost an offense that’s without their top field-stretcher, but it will keep it alive.
Will the defense ever allow a second-half touchdown again?
Probably, but that doesn’t take away what they’ve done so far.
The seven-game streak Lou Anarumo’s unit has going gets all the buzz, and while it isn’t sustainable, the level they’re playing at is what really matters. They’re third in Football Outsiders’ variance metric and fourth in strength of opposition, meaning they’re one of the three-most consistent defenses despite playing the fourth-toughest slate thus far. Only the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens can say they’re top 10 in both.
Out of the Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Tennessee Titans, only the Browns have a top-10 offense per DVOA, and that’s almost entirely due to their run game. The defense should continue to be reliable over the next month.