When the Bengals play the teams that know them best, they look completely different, and not in a good way.
2022’s iteration of the AFC North has been a thorn in the Bengals’ side. No, that’s putting it lightly. Their divisional opponents have been a cloud of wasps waiting outside their home whenever they leave.
The Steelers capitalized on a rusty Joe Burrow not all the way back from an appendectomy and an equally rusty offensive line. The Ravens halted their progress attacking two-high coverages.
The Browns stripped them of their dignity. Again.
Cincinnati showed progress against their usual menaces last year in sweeping Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The last time they defeated Cleveland was Week 17 of 2019. Neither team looks remotely the same three years later.
It’s the enigmatic frustrating reality that weighs over this team still, but it’s not so perplexing when you truly break it down.
Is it scheme? It sure plays a role. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski loves running counters and misdirection in the run game, and when the offensive line can generate consistent movement and prevent any frontside leaks, it creates more stress on the second level to spill and fill. Play action off these concepts works right out the gate when the box is as crowded as it is to defend the run. All it takes is protection to hold up, and the routes will open up down the field.
This is precisely what happened Monday night. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett put together one of the cleanest performances in his career, finding big completion after big completion on long-developing routes against a beaten-up Bengals secondary.
That descriptor is important, because the Bengals are indeed beaten up at multiple positions of significance.
Not having D.J. Reader two-gapping against a stout interior o-line hurts. Playing two-and-a-half quarters without Chidobe Awuzie hurts even more because the players behind Awuzie on the depth chart are nowhere near his level.
For as important Awuzie is to the defense, Ja’Marr Chase carries that weight for the offense. All the Bengals had to stretch the field was Tee Higgins, and it seemed like most of his go-routes were interfered with. Myles Garrett and the Browns could sit down and be aggressive against Joe Burrow, and half times their pass-rush got through, Burrow went down to the ground.
Having your most impactful players makes the scheme viable. Players make the scheme, not the other way around.
But the Bengals weren’t completely helpless from the jump, because Sam Hubbard makes their own scheme go.
While the Browns were trying to get Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt going in the first 20 minutes of the game, Hubbard was putting his skills on full display—against one of the league’s best rushing attack nonetheless.
*Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 6*
Remember Hodor’s death scene when he held off the Army of the Dead? When Bran was controlling his mind while also back in time, which screwed up his mind and was the reason he could only say Hodor (hold the door) for the rest of his life?
That’s kinda what happened to Hubbard, minus the greenseer-mind control aspect.
Here’s how Hubbard held off the Browns’ domination for as long as he could.