The Cincinnati Bengals made a valiant effort on Sunday, but it was ultimately too little, too late. They have a huge hole from which they need to climb and do so expediently.
Here are the best and worst facets from the Bengals’ 24-27 loss to the Ravens on Sunday.
Never say die, and the second half comeback:
If we’re looking for moral victories, then I suppose this is as good of a place as any to start. Speaking to the character of this team, it could have crawled into a shell at halftime, especially when looking back at the 21-point loss the week prior.
But that would have been a characteristic of Bengals teams from yesteryear. Instead, they made adjustments and fired off two touchdown drives, sparking a comeback and the potential for what would have been one of the better recent wins if they pulled it off.
Some semblance of a rhythm in the passing game:
In that comeback, we finally saw what looked like comfort and confidence in the passing game for the first time in the 2023 season. It took six quarters, but the Bengals’ aerial attack looked to be hitting its stride.
After failing to log a single reception on eight targets in Week 1, Tee Higgins made a splash. He had the team’s two offensive touchdowns, finishing with eight catches for 89 yards. There is still work to be done, but progress has come, and in a bit more than baby steps.
Joe Mixon and improvements in offensive line play:
Through the first two games, one could say that Joe Mixon has been the Bengals’ most consistent player (in the positive sense, of course). Though he’s had just 13 carries in each game, Mixon has been running hard, breaking first-contact opportunities while utilizing his overall physical style of play.
He’s averaging a respectable 4.4 yards per carry while pitching in with a 7.6 yards per reception average. With the passing game finally clicking at a higher efficiency, having Mixon already running well is a big plus.
Additionally, while they haven’t been a perfect unit, the offensive line is playing much better in this 0-2 stretch than the group from last year. Sacks (while not just an offensive line statistic) have dramatically dropped from 13 given up in the first two games last year to just three this year.
These two facets bode well for a potentially quick turnaround by the team.
Jones’ punt return touchdown was the first since Adam Jones popped one back in 2012, proving just how much the Bengals have been missing big plays from the special teams unit. His distinction of being the Bengals’ first touchdown scored as a rookie cements it as a special moment and the hopeful start of a trend for Jones in his career.
Too many snaps for the defense:
The offense’s inefficiency has caused a problem for the defense. As we examined on the postgame shows this week, it’s not just in the lack of points being scored. The quick, three-and-out drives pushing the unit back out there—often after they just came off of defending a long drive by the opposition—have been debilitating. Even Jones’ punt return score pushing them right back out there didn’t do them a favor.
On a more micro level, veterans are also being relied upon for a high volume of snaps because of current inexperience, injuries, and questions on reserve effectiveness. The high snap count has been an issue the past couple of years with long playoff runs and the same concerns on the rotation, and it’s showing its warts in these first two games.
The most damning evidence could be the inability to tackle well and get the ball back late in this one.
The punting game:
Drafting Brad Robbins was the team’s remedy from the last couple of seasons' worth of mediocre-at-best punting. And while the rookie has a lot of promise, things aren’t going well in the field position department through the first two games.
Cincinnati is dead-last in the NFL in punt average (40.7) while co-leading the league in total punts (13). Yet, only three of those NFL-leading punts have been in the opposition’s 20-yard line—though a lack of yards gained in drives contributes to that number, as well.
This area has to improve, especially if the offense continues to sputter.
The optimists tell you that the team is capable of overcoming such a poor start, as they did just last year. There were signs of the offense coming alive and most figured (this guy included) the AFC North games would be split this year, so that prediction just got an earlier start than expected.
The pessimist would point to Joe Burrow’s calf, a defense that’s on the field far too often, and the free agency attrition that finally occurred this spring is showing the once-unseen roster cracks.
As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The good news is that this team and its coaching staff have shown the propensity to quickly improve upon certain facets (as evidenced last year), so that might be underway.
Still, 0-2 overall and in the division...yikes.
Questions lingering about Joe Burrow’s health:
This is the big wild card for the determination of the rest of the Bengals’ season. Without having any formal medical training, this seems to be an injury that will nag Burrow, likely popping up here and there at various times—often unexpectedly.
As they are examining the “re-tweak” of the injury this week, finding out if this injury and playing through it can lead to other severe ones has to be calculated. If there isn’t a risk of a tear, Achilles injury, or other major issue aside from the calf strain itself, my gut tells me Burrow will grit through it and continue playing. If there’s a risk of something severe, Cincinnati will need to rest No. 9 and figure out an alternative to keep things afloat.