The Cincinnati Bengals are down. Their franchise quarterback, Joe Burrow, is out for the season with a torn ligament in his right wrist.
There is a core group of players who will ultimately determine whether the Bengals can get back up again.
Here is who needs to step up for the Bengals to keep their season alive and stay in the hunt for the NFL Playoffs.
QB Jake Browning
Tops on that list, of course, is quarterback Jake Browning, who took over as the signal-caller Thursday evening in Baltimore and turned in a solid, if unspectacular effort in the loss. Browning went 8/14 for 68 yards and a touchdown pass to Ja’Marr Chase.
Prior to Thursday night, Browning had thrown exactly one pass, an incompletion in Cincinnati’s opening-day loss to the Cleveland Browns. But that’s not to say that the fifth-year pro is not without experience.
Browning had an outstanding career at the University of Washington, where he was the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2016. He finished his career as the Huskies’ all-time leading passer, finishing with 12,296 yards passing, 94 touchdowns, and only 34 interceptions. He joined the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2019 and was signed to the Bengals’ practice squad in September of 2021.
The Entire Offensive Line
And, no matter how much talent Browning may have, it’s not going to mean a lot if his offensive line can’t protect him. We know that left guard Cordell Volson is a liability. But left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. was supposed to help with that. Instead, Brown has proven to be just as much of a liability himself - at least of late.
Brown surrendered a sack and at least five pressures against the Ravens and didn’t do much better in last week’s loss to the Houston Texans. But Brown and Volson are not the only ones who are struggling.
Right guard Alex Cappa, who the Bengals signed away from Tampa Bay last year, has posted a 21.0 pass-blocking grade over the past two weeks, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranks 169th out of 171 offensive linemen over that span.
Defensive Lineman Other Than Trey Hendrickson
It doesn’t matter how good Trey Hendrickson is. He cannot do it by himself. And that is virtually what has been happening since battery-mate Sam Hubbard was lost to an ankle injury three weeks ago against the Buffalo Bills. Thankfully, Hubbard will return this week vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers.
DJ Reader, who had been such a stalwart run defender for the Bengals since his free-agent signing over three years ago, has struggled in the last couple of weeks. He was credited with one tackle against the Ravens Thursday night and had two in the loss to Houston the week before.
Cincinnati is going to need players such as Myles Murphy, Zach Carter, Cam Sample, and Joseph Ossai to step up and be counted.
The Whole Secondary
Cincinnati’s secondary has been shredded over the last two weeks. Against Houston, the Bengals allowed seven plays of 20-plus yards. The Ravens torched Cincinnati for three pass plays of over 30 yards, including a 51-yard reception by Odell Beckham, Jr., while running backs Gus Edwards and Keaton Mitchell both had runs of over 20 yards.
In addition, the Bengals’ defense is fourth-worst in the league against tight ends, who have averaged six catches, 67 yards, and .4 touchdowns per game.
Making matters worse is Cam Taylor-Britt has a quad injury and will miss the Steelers game. That means the entire secondary is going to have to bring their A+ game to keep from getting diced up yet again.
While there are no easy answers, the coaching staff and the players need to figure this one out in a hurry before things get really bad.
Saying this, it really starts up front. The more pressure Cincinnati’s front four can bring on opposing quarterbacks, the better things will look in the back end.
Things looked bad after the loss to the Texans. Things look a whole lot worse now. But there is still a lot of season left to play, and these last seven games will separate the wheat from the chaff.