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The good, the bad and the ugly from Bengals vs. Eagles

The 2020 Cincinnati Bengals are still making baby steps with an overturned roster. Positives are being seen, but long-term questions continue to linger.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Five quarters of football and no real decision. It’s a shame, but in some ways, Sunday’s 23-23 result against the Eagles showed baby steps by the Bengals.

Here are some of the best and worst facets by Cincinnati versus Philadelphia this week.

The good

Joe Burrow:

There have been missed opportunities, some of the taken sacks are on him and other rookie growing pains, but No. 9 has come every bit of advertised out of LSU—if not more so.

For the second time in two contests, Burrow threw for over 300 yards and didn’t lob an interception. He has five touchdowns to zero interceptions the past two weeks, with only two total turnovers surrendered in 2020.

Did we mention he also set an NFL record for completions by a rookie signal-caller in his first three games? All of this while being pummeled numerous times per game and sacked 14 times thus far.

Cincinnati just needs to keep him upright and hope he maintains that trademark mental fortitude through the mess in front of him because it appears they have the next great one under center.

Other receivers stepping up, as A.J. Green grinds:

Tyler Boyd had a great game with 10 catches for 125 yards, while Giovani Bernard added three grabs for 55 yards and rookie Tee Higgins snagged his first two career touchdowns against the Eagles. It’s great to still see high production from pass-catchers when C.J. Uzomah went down for the year and Green still finding his groove.

To the latter point, this particular writer doesn’t think No. 18 is “done”, by any means. Regardless of where your stance is on Green though, names like the ones mentioned above will need to continue to be viable threats for the Bengals’ offense to thrive.

Pass rush:

Cincinnati couldn’t get after Tyrod Taylor in Week 1 and was inconsistent with it against the Browns, but they took it to Philadelphia’s offensive line this week. Carl Lawson was the most effective this week, notching two quarterback sacks and a forced fumble of Carson Wentz. This was all while going up against future Hall of Fame tackle, Jason Peters.

Sam Hubbard notched another sack (and had one go through his grasp), while Carlos Dunlap also had his pressure felt. It’s no coincidence that with the increased pass rush (three sacks by Cincinnati this week) came an increase of turnovers.

Positive turnover differential:

Mostly because of quarterback play, Cincinnati is ahead of where they were last year in turnover differential. The Bengals were the third-worst last year in this facet and while being tied for 18th in the area right now isn’t exactly light years of improvement, it does show team progression.

To continue moving forward with this trend, Cincinnati will need to keep Burrow protected and ensure they grab every turnover opportunity that presents itself. Unfortunately, those aren’t exactly team fortes at the moment.

The bad

Feast or famine in-game performances and one phase of the game letting down the other:

If you’re the offensive-minded Zac Taylor, you can’t have your team have its first four possessions end in punts to start the game—especially against a fellow 0-2 team. You also can’t end the contest with three straight punts (draw play to end the contest notwithstanding) and expect not to have things be examined by the general public.

Really, it’s just one of the facets in a large sphere of issues that surrounds the team. In something that is so familiar to Bengals fans, it seems that once one phase of the team steps up, another completely trips over its own feet to cripple the team’s chances. Some examples from Sunday’s tie against the Eagles:

  • D.J. Reader and Logan Wilson team up for a huge first quarter interception, giving the ball to the Bengals’ offense at their own 44-yard line. Cincinnati squanders the opportunity with a three-play, 8-yard drive and subsequently punts from the Eagles’ 48-yard line (more on that later).
  • Cincinnati scores a huge second quarter touchdown to take their first lead of the game, 10-6. On the ensuing kickoff, Randy Bullock kicks it out of bounds, giving Philadelphia the ball at their own 40. They drive down and score.
  • The Bengals’ offense and Bullock create three big points to give the Bengals a touchdown lead with just over three minutes to play. After immediately creating a 2nd-and-12, the Bengals’ defense gives up two pass interference penalties netting 28 yards and two automatic first downs for the Eagles in a span of three plays. They ultimately drive for the game-tying score.

Someone needs to get the snowball moving downhill on the opponent when big opportunities are created.

The run game:

After inking Joe Mixon to a big offseason deal, he has yet to hit the 70 rushing yards mark in 2020. It’s not really his fault, though as few running lanes have presented themselves.

On multiple occasions again on Sunday, Mixon was forced to elude defenders already penetrating the backfield upon his receipt of a handoff or pitch. Cincinnati’s game of musical chairs on the offensive line continues since its inception in 2018, so we may have to expect that things improve in this are during the latter half of the season once again.

Third down efficiency:

Cincinnati was 44 percent on third downs against Cleveland in Week 2 and 5-of-5 on fourth down tries against the Browns. It was a different story this week, as the Bengals were successful on just 23 percent of their third down tries.

When you look at the team’s aforementioned drives to start and end the game, that pretty much was the tale of the tape.

The ugly

A lack of doing the little things correctly:

Nine penalties. Eight sacks allowed (though that’s a big thing, right?). A lack of bringing quarterbacks or other ball-carriers down upon initial contact to allow positive plays.

How about kicking the ball out of bounds following a critical touchdown drive? Or, does burning timeouts early in halves play more to your taste?

These are all things we’ve been witnessing since the end of the Marvin Lewis era and into the first 19 games of the Zac Taylor regime. Not coincidentally, the team is 8-26-1 since the start of the 2018 season.

We’ve all made the excuses of two immensely tough offseasons for Taylor and Co. for very different reasons, the ongoing injuries to important players and the fact that three of the team’s major coaches are operating in positions to which they are pretty much brand new.

Sooner or later (the former), the excuse well runs dry and repeated mistakes become frustrating—even with a huge roster turnover.

Who’s coming up clutch besides Burrow?

One of the things that personally excited me about Burrow coming to Cincinnati, aside from his obvious physical skills, was his ability to win big games and bring “the clutch gene” to the team. In the first three weeks, particularly against the Chargers and Eagles, Burrow has had his team in position to win the game.

What has happened are epic collapses by individuals or entire units. I’m still confident that Burrow is the type of player and personality type to drag this franchise out of mediocrity, but when he’s getting drilled regularly on his dropbacks and when others fail to step up after he does all he can, it’s only human nature that frustration sets in.

For most of my time watching and covering the Bengals, this team has lacked the ability to show up in big moments and in big games. Burrow brings that ability, but the team needs to back him and not be dead weight he has to shoulder.

Both staffs playing not to win:

Taylor had a few questionable in-game decisions this week, leading one to point to them as major reasons for a tie instead of a win. Not going for it in Philly territory on 4th-and-2 on their second possession after nabbing an interception, kneeling as regulation expired or dialing up a draw to end overtime were all eyebrow-raisers.

Of course, there are the devil’s advocates out there presenting some valid counter-points defending Taylor’s decisions on those occasions. Validity aside, the Cincinnati Bengals are 0-2 in 2020 and, before Sunday, 2-16 under Taylor, just invested in a franchise quarterback and the list of more counter-arguments also grows.

Fine.

Though most of you reading this aren’t Eagles fans, one also had to at least be surprised at Doug Pederson’s choice to punt the ball away at the end. An highly-unlikely field goal attempt loomed, but it just seemed like both coaches were playing to avoid the dreaded 0-3 start for a “half-win”, didn’t it?

The offensive line, of course:

Another G, B, U and another week of pointing out the deficiencies in one of the most critical areas of a football team. For a franchise that boasts the best offensive lineman to ever don a pro uniform and many other great ones not named Anthony Munoz, they sure have made a number of huge mistakes with decisions up front for, really, the past decade-plus.

Choosing Nate Livings over Evan Mathis. Sticking with Russell Bodine at center, while believing more in the affordable “talent levels” of Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher to take over for Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler. And, the latest is this staff’s ornery and blind belief that this unit would even be capable for Burrow and Mixon, much less good.

Bobby Hart has surrendered a league-high 15 pressures per Pro Football Focus. The Bengals have played three right guards this year, with Billy Price and Fred Johnson yielding three penalties last Sunday against the Eagles. Jonah Williams has shown some great moments, but he allowed one of eight (EIGHT!) sacks against Burrow this week.

There were some preseason Twitter jokes about Burrow’s line having him run for his life this offseason, but most of us took it as hyperbole. Alas, Football Outsiders has Burrow’s sack rate at the third-worst in the league at 10.6%, which is simply not sustainable if you want to keep your rookie franchise quarterback physically and mentally healthy.

Adding to the troubles is the run game issues. The moment Mixon receives a pitch or handoff, he basically has to elude a defender in the backfield, limiting his potential for any semblance of a decent gain.

The organization and coaching staff backing this group while telling us we were crazy for questioning its viability need to take accountability. Especially when the team invests so heavily in franchise players at quarterback and running back.