The Cincinnati Bengals are slowly getting back to their AFC championship form. Their 27-15 victory over the 3-0 Miami Dolphins last night was a big step forward and a sign that they can play with anyone.
Sure, there are some issues that haven’t gone away, like Joe Mixon’s struggles in the running game and a little bit of Joe Burrow’s rust still lingering. But there were some really encouraging things as well, so let’s get right to what we learned about the team from the game:
The o-line is coming around
Burrow was sacked just once and hit only three times against the Dolphins. But unlike the game against the New York Jets, in which he was sacked only twice, this time it was because the o-line really blocked better.
Joe Burrow went up to each of the offensive linemen and told them they “played f***ing awesome.” #Bengals— Joe Danneman (@FOX19Joe) September 30, 2022
For the first time in a very long time, Burrow had some clean pockets to throw from. Combine that with his accuracy, ability to read defenses, and explosive playmakers, and you get throws like this:
Attempt to press Ja’Marr Chase at the LOS at your own risk pic.twitter.com/GxojtOFr2W— PFF CIN Bengals (@PFF_Bengals) September 30, 2022
It’s no longer going to be easy for Ja’Marr Chase
Yes, Ja’Marr Chase had that big gain you see above. But for the most part, he was being double-teamed. Opponents are no longer going to risk Chase breaking their backs because they know that was the key to the Bengals’ offense last year. Until Cincinnati can run the ball effectively or score a ton of points without getting Chase involved, defenses will continue to frustrate Chase.
Ja'Marr Chase looks frustrated even when he's doing good things right now.— Jake Liscow (@JakeLiscow) September 30, 2022
Fortunately, the Bengals have Tee Higgins lined up across from Chase. And if Higgins continues to make teams pay, Chase may get back to his 2021 form.
Last night, Higgins led Cincinnati with seven receptions and 124 yards. And he had 93 yards against the Jets, so Higgins is definitely taking advantage of his opportunities.
And let’s not forget about Tyler Boyd, who led the Bengals with 105 yards and a 56-yard touchdown against the Jets and had another big play against Miami, a 43-yard catch in the middle of the field.
So if defenses want to focus on Chase, they’ll have to live with a couple huge plays from the Bengals’ other two star receivers.
Tyler Boyd needs to throw more
Before the 36-yard pass to Chase with under three minutes to go (see above), the biggest play for Chase came on a flea flicker and throw from Boyd.
But this play was about more than just the 23 yards gained. The Bengals had been stopped on their previous three drives. The offense was stalling. Boyd’s pass got them (especially himself) going again.
After that play, Burrow decided to go to Boyd for his first catch of the night. Then he went to him again for that 43-yard play above. The drive ended in a field goal on account of Mixon and the running game not being very successful.
So not only did this give the team some energy, but it’s entirely replicable. Boyd was involved in gadget plays in college and threw the ball well.
As you can see in the clip above, that’s no lob. Boyd split two defenders and threw with some velocity. So clearly he trusts his arm and ability to throw with accuracy.
It would be nice to show defenses this threat a bit more, perhaps from running formations as well to keep defenses honest and get Mixon and company going.
The defense can hold the fort until D.J. Reader returns
No one can replace Reader’s ability to shut down runners and blow up plays before they start. But what the rest of the defense can do is make big plays that compensate for giving up more easy yards. And that’s exactly what they did against the Dolphins.
Vonn Bell doubled his career interception total with two picks. Josh Tupou had a sack (that sadly resulted in Tua Tagovailoa suffering a very ugly injury). Jeff Gunter came through with a huge blocked field goal. And the secondary kept Tyreek Hill out of the endzone and held Jaylen Waddle to just 39 yards.
That was a very good Dolphins offense. And somehow the Bengals kept them to 15 points. Yes, Tagovailoa went out in very unfortunate fashion late in the first half, but there didn’t seem to be much dropoff with Teddy Bridgewater, who has learned to take more aggressive shots down the field under Mike McDaniel.
So while the Bengals still don’t look like a finished project (and really, we shouldn’t want them to at this point in the season), there are signs that this team can be at least as good as last year’s... once they figure out how to run the ball consistently, of course.