The Cincinnati Bengals got off to another hot start, driving right down the field and scoring a touchdown against the Houston Texans on Sunday afternoon. The home crowd roared, high-fives were given all around, and all was right in the world.
A few short hours later, the sky fell.
The Bengals lost 30-27 at home just four days before they travel to Baltimore to face the Ravens in a huge AFC North game. By losing, not only did they hurt their chances of winning the AFC North, but they could have jeopardized their chances of getting into the playoffs at all.
Here’s the deal. Losing this game did hurt, but the sky hasn’t fallen. Not yet, anyway. The Bengals still control their destiny, meaning they don’t need help to get into the playoffs. If they win out, they’ll likely win the division with a 13-4 record and possibly finish with the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC.
Can it happen? Sure. Will it? Doubt it.
Instead of a few things I noticed about the game on Sunday, here are a few things that are fundamentally wrong with this team now that the cracks are really starting to show.
- The Bengals have (had?) a good pass rush, but there is a serious lack of depth along the defensive line. Trey Hendrickson has been having an All-Pro season, but he may have gone down with an injury on Sunday (as of writing this, I haven’t heard the prognosis), but without Sam Hubbard and with Hendrickson locked up with Laremy Tunsil throughout much of the game, the Bengals generated almost no pass rush, allowing C.J. Stroud to shred the secondary. If Hendrickson misses significant time, I’m not sure if there is someone on the roster capable of filling his shoes.
- Fearing the Bengals' pass rush, the Texans' offense utilized their run game and play-action pass to slow down Hendrickson and company. The Bengals did none of those things. They only ran the ball 15 times, and only 11 of those runs came from Joe Mixon. The others were from Burrow. Mixon averaged more than four yards per carry on Sunday, but the Bengals just don’t like to run the ball for one reason or another. That needs to change.
- I like Dax Hill, and I think he’s going to be a very good defensive back for the Bengals. Actually, I think he already is. However, I’m not really sure the Bengals replaced Jessie Bates III with Hill. Hill is used like a Swiss army knife, but he’s not the center fielder that Bates is. Right now, the Bengals don’t have a guy like that, and it definitely isn’t Nick Scott.
- At the very beginning of each of the last few games, the Bengals have come out on fire, scoring touchdowns on each of their first drives and most of their second drives, but then the offense, in each of those games, went into a lull. Here’s what is happening. Those drives were pre-planned, or at least heavily influenced by the overall offensive game plan, which worked right away, until the defense made adjustments. When the defense adjusts, the Bengals haven’t been able to re-adjust, which has been very frustrating. I thought one of the strengths of this coaching staff was their ability to adjust their game plan. Now, I’m concerned about it.
The Bengals turn around on a short week, facing the Baltimore Ravens on the road on Thursday Night Football. Here’s what to watch out for.
- The Ravens are a very good football team, but they’re not unbeatable. The key is limiting Lamar Jackson’s ability to create. However, they can’t allow him to sit in the pocket and pick them apart either. The defense needs to be able to keep him in the pocket but then close that pocket like a net quickly.
- The offense just needs to get it together. The play-calling needs to be better. The pass blocking needs to improve. The Bengals need to run the ball, even if it isn’t working all the time. Hopefully, Tee Higgins is capable of playing, but if he can’t, Burrow still needs to spread the ball around.
- The Bengals offense lacks identity. They like to try to be a passing team, but the passing game will go through a large portion of the game not working. The Bengals punted five drives in a row on Sunday. There aren’t many teams that can win like that.
- The Ravens won’t hide what they’re going to try to do: they’re going to dare the Bengals to stop them. This will be a physical AFC North slugfest, and both teams are coming off a loss. The Ravens are fighting for a chance at the No. 1 seed right, while the Bengals are fighting for their lives. If the Bengals win, they’ll mitigate some of the damage caused by losing to the Texans. If they lose, well, it could be time to start getting nervous.
Here are a few more random thoughts on the loss to the Texans:
- C.J. Stroud is going to be good. He is already good. Not many rookie quarterbacks can carve up a professional defense the way Stroud did on Sunday. Don’t be surprised if the Texans make some noise in the playoffs.
- I don’t care if your corners are Deion Sanders clones and your safeties are Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, no secondary can cover professional wide receivers for five or six seconds before someone gets open.
- It doesn’t help that the Bengals refused to play man-to-man for some reason.
- On one particular play to the opposite side, Joseph Ossai chased the ball unblocked down the line of scrimmage. The reason he was unblocked is because it was a reverse, and they were hoping he’d get sucked in. He did. They teach defensive ends to stay home in junior high football.
- I liked Burrow’s archer touchdown celebration. I would have liked a win more.
- I really like the new game plan with the tight ends, getting them all involved. Irv Smith Jr., Tanner Hudson, and Drew Sample all had receptions, and even Mitchell Wilcox had a target. If there can’t be one really good tight end, I’ll take one good tight end by committee.
- Tyler Boyd’s end zone drop was heartbreaking, not only that it happened, but that it happened to him.
- The Bengals' defense made Devin Singletary and Noah Brown absolutely shred them to the tune of 322 yards between the two of them (rushing and receiving yards combined).
It’s times like these I like to look to Lord of the Rings, the greatest film trilogy in the history of cinema and the greatest fantasy story ever written.
“The quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little, and it fails, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while the company is true.”
The future of the 2023 season will be decided in the next couple of weeks. If the Bengals want a third straight shot at the Super Bowl things have to change between today and Thursday night.