What’s wrong with the Cincinnati Bengals?
Certainly, the loss of quarterback Joe Burrow to a season-ending wrist injury hurt. And the loss of run-stopping nose tackle DJ Reader to a torn quadriceps tendon only made matters worse.
But it’s more than that. The Bengals’ woes can be summed up in one word: Physicality. Or lack thereof.
“Physicality and turnovers,” said slot cornerback Mike Hilton. “You do those two things, you can definitely win this division.”
Cincinnati has done one of those two things. Coming into Saturday’s contest with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Bengals stood second in the league in forcing turnovers with 23: 15 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries.
The Steelers did not turn the ball over at all Saturday while Cincinnati’s Jake Browning threw three interceptions, and the Bengals got manhandled in an embarrassing 34-11 loss.
While Cincinnati has a record of 8-2 against the rest of the league, the loss to the Steelers dropped the Bengals to 0-5 in the AFC North with only a season-ending contest against the Cleveland Browns remaining. The loss proved that this version of the Bengals is just not tough enough to compete in a division they owned the previous two years — not against Cleveland, not against Baltimore, and certainly not against Pittsburgh.
On defense, Cincinnati is missing tackles, getting pushed around in the trenches, and continues to struggle to stop the run. Through 15 games, the Bengals’ defense stands 26th in the league against the run. And this was particularly evident in their recent losses to the Steelers and Ravens.
On offense, the Bengals’ failed 4th-and-inches pass attempt against the Steelers on Saturday only served to highlight their difficulty in imposing their will throughout this season and executing fundamental plays under pressure.
“You don’t lose those games if we were more physical,” Sam Hubbard said. “Obviously there’s something that needs to be corrected. Being the winner for the last two years, obviously, we had a target on our back.”
It is easier said than done. Whether it is due to the failure of the coaching staff to emphasize and develop the attribute of physicality, or to a lack of mental toughness and an inability to handle adversity on the part of the players, Cincinnati currently lacks what it takes to compete in the AFC North.
The last time the Bengals failed to win a game in its division was 2002. Those were the days before Marvin Lewis when the stench of the lost decade was still in the air.
Regardless of what happens in Kansas City this weekend, Cincinnati still has a chance to salvage some measure of pride and respect in the AFC North when it hosts Cleveland in Paycor Stadium on January 7. The Bengals still have time to prove that they have what it takes.