Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Cincinnati Bengals started the season slow.
They finally got a win against the Los Angeles Rams, but followed it up with a dud against the Tennessee Titans. Before the bye week, the Bengals were able to fight back to .500 with wins over the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.
3-3 at the bye week isn’t ideal, but the rest of the season is still right in front of them, and with improvements, they could still capture their third straight AFC North title. For that to happen, what does the team need?
Burrow has started to look more like himself in recent weeks after looking like a shell of himself the first month of the season. He was virtually unable to evade any pressure, looked off on routine throws, and to be honest, he was a bottom-five quarterback to start the season.
With the calf injury looking to impact his game less and a bye week to rest and get treatment, all signs point to Burrow getting back to himself sooner or later. For the sake of the rest of the season, it needs to be sooner. When Burrow is confident, he’s as good as any quarterback in the NFL. Hopefully, the week off did him well, and he will be back to form next week.
I’ve tried to explain away some of Volson’s faults, but he needs to be better. Yes, he is a second-year player from an FCS school. Yes, he has played some tough competition this year in the likes of Aaron Donald and Jeffrey Simmons. That can’t matter anymore. The Bengals have nothing short of Super Bowl aspirations and a roster capable of doing it. It is time for Volson to up his game.
Through six weeks, Volson has been charged with three sacks allowed and checks in with a very low 48.2 grade per PFF. Simply put, Volson has been one of the worst starting guards in the entire NFL. He has many of the tools to improve his game, and we need to see those in action immediately.
When offensive coordinator Brian Callahan said the offense needed plays from players not named Ja’Marr Chase, he was absolutely right. Tee Higgins is working his way back from a rib fracture, and it is a safe bet to assume he will be much better than we’ve seen this year. Tyler Boyd, while not stuffing the stat sheet, has been the consistent presence in the slot we’ve grown to know and love.
The receivers should be fine, but the tight end room has made virtually no impact this season. Irv Smith Jr. (6), Drew Sample (3), Mitchell Wilcox (3), and Tanner Hudson (4) have combined for just 16 catches and no touchdowns. If the Bengal offense is going to find its groove, someone in the tight end room needs to step up.
The saving grace in the “ugly” wins against the Rams and Seahawks has been the Bengal pass rush. Trey Hendrickson has already racked up seven sacks, Sam Hubbard has three, and rookie Myles Murphy has added one.
While it is reasonable to think Hendrickson can keep up his pace and continue having a great year, more pass rushers contributing could take the defense to the next level. If Joseph Ossai can come in and make an impact in his snaps, it would not only help the defense, but it could get Hendrickson a breather without the threat of pressure virtually disappearing. The pass rush needs to keep its current pace, but improvement could go a long way.
When Chase had his breakout game and scored three touchdowns in Arizona, the Bengals did the cliché “scheme him open,” and it worked. Chase moved around from the X receiver to the Z receiver and even made plays from the slot. We’ve seen Chase line up in the backfield as well.
Creativity like that gets the ball in your best player’s hands, which is never a bad thing. What the Bengals need is more of it. You will see a game like in Arizona where Chase has his way with a defense, and then you see the Titans game and see essentially no creativity.
It isn’t just Chase, either. Getting Joe Mixon more involved is key, and creativity may be needed in the run game. Callahan mentioned getting under center more, which will depend on Burrow’s calf, if I had to guess. Some of the Bengals’ run concepts out of shotgun have seemed vanilla and predictable. Finding ways to get Mixon moving with a full head of steam could go a long way.
If the Bengals are able to make improvements in those five areas, a postseason berth seems likely. If the offense continues to sputter and rely on the defense for bailouts, we might not see the Bengals fighting through the playoffs in pursuit of the elusive Lombardi Trophy.