One of the most annually futile yet entertaining exercises we all conduct in the late spring and early summer months is predicting wins and losses by a particular team for the football season ahead. With free agency and a new draft class (both internally and those of the opponents on the schedule) as reference points for a prediction, arbitrary expectations are set.
When we took a look at Cincinnati’s 2023 set of opponents in May, some felt the team could be poised for a one or two-loss start going into their Week 7 bye, if not an undefeated one. But that’s the thing with early predictions such as these: unpredictable factors undoubtedly pop up to alter preconceived expectations.
For the Cincinnati Bengals, there have been a few of those since May—the biggest of which has been the calf injury heard ‘round the world. After everyone assumed Joe Burrow was finally set to have a normal, full training camp and preseason, that dream was shattered in just the second practice of the summer when he crumpled to the ground grasping his leg.
What ensued was five weeks of missed time by the team’s invaluable signal-caller, as well as the lack of building chemistry with surrounding pieces, new and old. And, while the former has been the focal talking point to the team’s disappointing 2-3 start, the latter has definitely contributed to the issues we’ve seen.
Take new guy Irv Smith, Jr. for instance. The Bengals took a flyer on his talent with a one-year deal, with both sides hoping he could have a nice career renaissance with Burrow as his quarterback, a la Hayden Hurst last year and longtime Bengal tight end C.J. Uzomah experiencing it in 2021 himself.
Instead, a combination of familiar injuries and his unfortunate need to play ultra-fast catch-up on the chemistry missed during Burrow’s hiatus has led to just five catches for 27 yards in three games played. The hope is he’ll be a valuable contributor down the stretch, but the missed summertime connections between he and his quarterback are exhibiting the growing pains at the moment.
Of course, the calf has hindered Burrow’s overall performance more than many would like to admit, and the defense isn’t showing prowess in some of the areas for which they’ve become known the past two years. And, in short, there’s your losing start to the season.
However, last week, albeit against just a one-win Cardinals team, Cincinnati’s offense started to look more like its old self. Burrow threw three touchdowns, with two other close opportunities, while winning the NFL’s FedEx Air Player of the Week for his performance. It was especially impressive, as the team was without the services of both Tee Higgins and Charlie Jones.
It was great timing, as the win felt like a “season-saver,” with this group of Bengals responding resoundingly to adversity, as they often do. They’re taking these good vibes from the desert southwest back home to the Midwest to host a really tough opponent—and one who isn’t being talked about nearly enough.
Pete Carroll has successfully made and re-made over the Seattle Seahawks in what seems like a half-dozen times since joining the team in 2010. From Russell Wilson and “The Legion of Boom” and a bunch of scrappy transition teams, Carroll continuously finds ways to imbed competitiveness in every roster he creates.
And, “compete” is an operative word for the 2023 Seahawks. Ageless wonders Tyler Lockett and Bobby Wagner continue to play at high levels, while quarterback Geno Smith has defied the odds and engineered a gigantic career renaissance under Carroll’s watchful eye.
His 4,282-yard, 30-touchdown 2022 Comeback Player of the Year campaign had shades of 2003 Jon Kitna all over it. But, unlike Kitna, he’s now shown this kind of steadiness in parts of two other seasons (2021, 2023), making this late-career boost akin to the mid/late-1990s resume of Vinny Testaverde.
A big key to his success is the weapons Smith has at his disposal. Lockett has been one of the best route-runners in the league since coming into it back in 2015, while DK Metcalf is a matchup problem with his blend of size, speed, and physicality.
But, much like it was during Carroll’s two Super Bowl appearances a decade ago, the running game and defense are big keys to what they do. Carroll has used two consecutive second-round picks in the last two drafts to build a two-headed rushing monster spearheaded by Kenneth Walker III and a guy from Carroll’s own Pac-12 (10) past in Zach Charbonnet.
Walker III gets the bulk of the work, but Charbonnet has been one of the more effective rotational backs in the league. Their up-and-down offensive line will also be getting a huge boost against Cincinnati with the return of tackle Charles Cross.
On the other side of the field, Seattle’s defense uses a lot of stunts, twists, and varied looks to confuse opposing offensive lines. And while the Bengals’ defense has been a little better with these this year (have they, though?), if you’re new around these parts, those moves have proven to be a big bug-a-boo for Frank Pollack’s recent groups.
Cincinnati’s defense also turned a bit of a corner last week. They allowed a whopping 142 yards on the ground but just 152 through the air, along with forcing three turnovers (one a pick-six and another a sack-fumble) and three sacks. Lou Anarumo’s group also disallowed Arizona to convert on three fourth-down tries.
As mentioned earlier, there is a noticeable difference in Anarumo’s defense, though, and it doesn’t play into their favor this week because of Seattle’s rushing attack. Cincinnati has allowed the second-most rushing yards in the NFL this year (770), so they’ll likely need to rely on the explosive plays they’ve created throughout the year to get them past this one.
I don’t want to say that it’s going to take another award-winning weekly passing performance from Burrow in this one, but they’ll definitely need to be capable, balanced, and avoid those dreaded three-and-outs. If Higgins is back, it should definitely help things, but they’ll also want similar offensive and special teams heroics from Trenton Irwin.
People have been pushing the “run the ball” agenda for the Bengals of late (was I one of them? I don’t remember...). While there is/was some wisdom with that because of Burrow’s calf limitations, there exists an odd statistical dichotomy with Joe Mixon’s 2023 rushing stats.
In the team’s three losses, Mixon’s yards per carry average sits at 4.6 per carry but is just at 3.3 in the two wins. Does correlation equal causation here, or is it more of a “move on—nothing to see here” thing?
Regardless of it all, this has the makings of a fun matchup with a lot of points being scored. While the Bengals have received much fanfare with Burrow’s arrival and their two deep playoff runs, they still fall victim to the “small market team” dialogue, as do the Seahawks, despite their hot 3-1 start.
This is a game to further propel a team into more national conversations. We’ll see if the “Ruler of the Jungle” and Who Dey Nation can withstand the “12th Man Crew”.
A win for the Bengals gets them to .500 at the bye, and feeling good about things amid a recovery week with the 49ers and Bills looming after the break. A 2-4 record with the daunting back-end stretch seems almost too much to overcome.
Backs against the wall. Get swinging.
Bengals 30, Seahawks 27