The Cincinnati Bengals are in a state of disarray right now, to say the least. Three losses to start the first month of the year is not the way you want to get towards the bye with teams like the Bills, 49ers, Ravens, Steelers (twice), and Chiefs around the bend.
Here are the best and worst facets of the Bengals’ 27-3 loss to the Titans.
Joe Mixon on limited touches:
Mixon hit that vaunted low-teens mark on carries with 14 in this one (13 in each of the first two games) and once again had success. His 4.8 yards per carry showed the team was having some success on the ground, particularly on the opening drive.
With Cincinnati largely operating out of shotgun again, Mixon’s bigger gains were on RPO and delay runs. We know that the run game is secondary in this offensive system, playing second fiddle to Joe Burrow and the talented wideouts. But, with Burrow’s calf still being an issue, Tee Higgins nursing a fractured rib, and seeing the overall effectiveness of the run game, you’d think Mixon needs to get closer to 20 carries a game to find rhythm.
The young kicker continues to be a weapon and a main source of points for the Bengals’ offense. He hit a field goal in the opening drive to give Cincinnati an early lead, which quickly evaporated.
McPherson has two misses already this season, but they’re both from 50-plus yards—one from 56. It shows just how much the team has been leaning on him and how many struggles the offense is facing in moving the football.
Cincinnati pass-rush and Myles Murphy’s Welcome to the League:
The Bengals are tied for the fifth-most sacks in the league with 12, thanks to a three-sack performance by the defense. Trey Hendrickson continues to flash dominance with a half-sack on Sunday.
It was also nice to see the rookie Murphy get his first of what hopes to be a promising career. Unfortunately, this was about the only facet of the defense that showed any positivity this week.
The first drive:
If the Bengals had scored a touchdown, that drive would have gone down as one of the better ones we’ve seen in some time. It was a master class on balance, with the script being worked to perfection until the field greatly shortened down by the end zone.
This phrase could be taken in a number of contexts. One that sticks out to me the most is the Bengals’ performances off of burnt timeouts.
In the first quarter, Cincinnati’s offense called a timeout with a third-and-goal from the Titans’ 6-yard line. They came out of the break with a run that netted just three yards.
Now, while it’s a play to be critical of, I understand how that contradicts what I said above about the run game, so here’s another instance for you. Cincinnati’s defense called a timeout when the Titans came out in a wonky formation with Derrick Henry at wildcat and Jeffery Simmons out on offense. They called a timeout, Tennessee brought out the same personnel and promptly scored on a play to Josh Whyle.
Lastly is the total lack of awareness and/or being in the right place on a play that had no right being a positive one by the Titans. With Cincinnati down 10-3 in the second quarter, the Titans dialed up a pitch to Tyjae Spears.
The ball was fumbled, yet Spears not only scooped it up but rambled for 26 yards. It was an omen for how the rest of the day would play out for the Bengals.
This might be the most frustrating play of the day. Not sure how you give up an explosive run when it was fumbled on the pitch. pic.twitter.com/hHSpVycKSQ— mike (@bengals_sans) October 2, 2023
To go for it or not to go for it?
The Bengals were marching through the Titans on their first drive, giving hope to everyone that things on offense were back on track. Staring at a fourth-and-goal from the Titans’ 3-yard line, Cincinnati opted for the sure points and to live another day.
Except...they never even came close for another crack at it. So, questions on not going for it linger. Was that too big of a momentum hit early in the game? Did it show a lack of confidence in the offense and Burrow’s calf?
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but getting that touchdown would have been a big boost.
Titans running their style of play to perfection:
Tennessee’s identity since the combination of Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry joined forces has been clear: run the ball, use play-action, and be physical on defense. Cincinnati had done well in bottling up Henry through this last 3-0 stretch versus the Titans, with him netting just over 70 rushing yards and less than a touchdown per game. It doesn’t sound great on the surface, but it’s all you can really ask for against The King.
Well, that was just what the Bengals didn’t do this week. Henry cracked the 100-yard mark and was responsible for two touchdowns (one rushing, one passing), while the Titans worked up effective gadget and play-action plays. Tennessee’s defense also played inspired, making big hits and shutting down Cincinnati’s passing attack via three sacks.
A painful reminder of roster arrogance:
When Whyle grabbed a touchdown, it was a bit of a groin kick to the Bengals. The local kid was a draft darling for some Bengals fans, so seeing him score at their expense was a bittersweet feeling.
With Irv Smith, Jr. sidelined with an injury, the Bengals were reminded of how thin they are at the position. Drew Sample flashed with some nice blocking on the first drive, and there are things to like about Tanner Hudson.
But with the offense sputtering, Burrow looking all kinds of uncomfortable, and “Swiftce Mania” taking over the NFL, one is reminded of the use of a big mismatch of a weapon. Cincinnati had a number of chances in each of the last two draft classes with talented tight ends and didn’t pounce.
Smith still can make a solid season for himself, but Cincinnati could use a big chain-mover and red-zone threat in this mold right now.
Joe Burrow doesn’t look like Joe Burrow:
It’s not just the calf. Sure, it seems to limit his ability to evade pressure to the level he’s accustomed to, but there’s more.
Sunday afternoon showed some troubling signs of his lack of recognizing pressure and/or simply not caring and trying to force a play that isn’t there. This was evident on the first sack allowed in the game, wherein a blitzing player came off the edge. Did he not see him, or did he just want to take the hit and try for the big play?
We will be talking about plays like this on “The Aftermath” tonight at 630 pic.twitter.com/mLcXll4N25— Orange&Black Insider (@BengalsOBI) October 2, 2023
Whichever you think happened here, it ain’t a good trend.
What’s it gonna be, play-callers?
As we know by now, in any stretch of tough games, it’s going to be Zac Taylor in the sights of the angry. He’s a major part of the offensive play-calling braintrust, also comprised of Brian Callahan and input from Burrow.
Yes, we know it’s a passing league, and, as we pointed out before, the offense runs through Burrow and the passing game. But, it appears that a reality check and full assessment of things needs to take place.
So, the feeling is that a less-than-100%-healthy Burrow provides the team a better chance to win over Jake Browning, Reid Sennett (newly released from the practice squad), and/or AJ McCarron. Fine.
But a full assessment of what Burrow can(‘t) do is needed. And, when you look at the success of the run game through the first month, you may want to lean on it a little harder, until it starts to lose potency.
That’s not to say to “take the ball out of Burrow’s hands” or “become a run-first” team by any stretch. But man—look at the balance and effectiveness of that first drive and make adjustments from there. Especially if you know your star signal-caller is physically limited for the time being.
Mark Schlereth pointed out the two-deep looks the Bengals were getting (a theme since last year), and obviously, fewer guys in the box means more running room for Mixon. And, while it’s harder to run play-action out of the shotgun formations they love, it becomes more feasible of a sell on an RPO from that set, thus creating easier passing situations for a hobbled Burrow.
The good news is that this offense has reinvented itself a couple of times over the past couple of seasons, so they should be able to make the necessary tweaks—even if temporary.
The fallout and locker room vibe:
One of the biggest feathers in Taylor’s cap as the Bengals’ head coach is the culture he’s created in the locker room. Bringing in the right guys in free agency and the draft has been the source of leadership and camaraderie.
However, after this loss, it’s been one of the worst stretches this group of stars has faced as collective Bengals players, and the anger is palpable.
This has a feeling of a crossroads moment for the Bengals’ 2023 season and maybe even in a couple of years ahead. They can channel this frustration and turn it into focus and eventual wins, or things can spiral out of control.
We’re inclined to believe it will be the former, given said culture and overall talent on the team. It all needs to turn around quickly, though.
A 1990s brand of unwatchable football:
The losses are one thing, but scoring just three points twice? The Bengals haven’t scored a first-half touchdown and only have three offensive touchdowns scored all year.
The offense’s ineffectiveness subsequently leaves the defense out to dry, forcing them out there for too many snaps. The result? Shoddy tackling and currently the second-worst run-defending unit in the league.
It’s just a weird mix of things right now. Cincinnati’s defense is getting to the quarterback, forcing turnovers, and mostly taking care of the football on offense, but they can’t do anything with the football. Then, the house of cards falls around the second or third quarter.
Worst of all, it’s just bland and boring to watch. It’s a statement you’d never think to make with all the firepower at their disposal.