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The good, the bad and the ugly in Bengals’ 41-16 loss to Browns

Unlike many other weeks in 2021, there wasn’t much to cheer about in Week 9 against the Browns.

Well, that was less than ideal.

The Cincinnati Bengals had an opportunity to regain traction in the AFC playoff picture and largely take their bitter rivals out of it on Sunday. Instead, their blowout loss to the Cleveland Browns muddied the conference bracket, with a slew of teams sitting at five wins around the midway point of the season.

The good

Joe Mixon:

It was actually a really wise move to get the team’s star running back involved. Zac Taylor and Brian Callahan figured they could sustain drives and keep the Browns’ own rushing attack at bay with methodical, chain-moving chunk plays from No. 28.

He responded well, even in a blowout that limited his touches as the game wore on. He had 110 scrimmage yards, two rushing touchdowns and made quality plays through the air and on the ground.

Ability to move the ball:

Thanks to Mixon’s performance and an otherwise effect day from Joe Burrow outside of the two interception throws, Cincinnati was actually able to move the ball on the Browns’ defense. This was evident on the Bengals’ second drive wherein they marched back down the field after the pick-six and punched it in the end zone.

The offensive line was getting push in the run game, while Tee Higgins and the tight ends were factors to varying degrees. It was the Bengals that were their own worst enemy on Sunday.

There is a yin-yang relationship in different ways between the offense and defense. The latter may not have held up to provide an opportunity for a win, but we’ll never really know because of the numerous times the offense put them in precarious positions.

The timing of the 2021 bye week:

We’re taking a negative, from a big picture perspective, and turning it into a positive. Based on where the team is at overall and what has transpired the past two weeks, this break in the middle of the season couldn’t have come at a better time.

They get time to regroup, heal up, take a break from football, while simultaneously studying up on how to get to the postseason. They have the Raiders on tap, who are sneaky competitive, but are also facing an unbelievable month of off-field distractions.

If Cincinnati finishes at or even slightly above .500 the rest of the way, they should be in the playoff picture.

The bad

Inconsistencies along the defensive line:

Sam Hubbard had a nice day with a sack, three quarterback hits and four tackles on the line and Trey Hendrickson had a sack. However, the lack of others pitching in—which was a key to the early-season success—was obvious.

Cincinnati isn’t getting the push from the interior guys that were part-and-parcel of the defense’s rise to prominence through the first seven games. Additionally, the lack of additional rotational pass-rushers (get well soon, Joseph Ossai) is crippling the unit.

It’s an odd dichotomy because Hendrickson and Hubbard are having two of the best seasons in their respective careers, but we’ve also seen some dry spells there. D.J. Reader and B.J. Hill have graded well by Pro Football Focus metrics this year, but again, inconsistencies on the interior have been prevalent.

And, then, there is one of my favorite free agency additions in recent years with Larry Ogunjobi. He’s been an overall force, but my colleague, John Sheeran, had an amazing analogy, as it goes with his 2021 performance.

Trae Waynes’ absence becomes more painful and an overall lack of turnovers:

In the first few weeks, the Bengals were able to mask Waynes’ absence from the lineup. Then, they got him back for the Jacksonville game, although he was a minimal factor.

Still, Cincinnati is struggling getting interceptions and recovering fumbles for game-changing plays. Eli Apple had a few nice weeks after a rough start, but he was targeted again for a deep touchdown to Donovan Peoples-Jones.

He’s not the only one, though. For how well Chidobe Awuzie has played overall this year, he has just one interception, while Jessie Bates III also just has one to his name. Cincinnati’s seven interceptions are middle-of-the-pack, in terms of NFL standings and most of those have come from Logan Wilson. Did we mention he hasn’t had one since Week 6 in Detroit?

And, even while being tied for sixth in the NFL in quarterback sacks with 23, they aren’t getting those coveted sack-fumbles. With just seven forced fumbles, the Bengals have a paltry two recoveries.

While this provides the big picture, Sunday was a microcosm in these areas. Mayfield has taking care of the ball relatively well this year with just five turnovers (three interceptions, two fumbles), but this unit needed big plays of its own to offset the ugly turnovers by the offense.

The ugly

Injuries to Brandon Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither:

A big part of Cincinnati’s early relative success has to do with their overall roster health. Through the first half of the season, the team has been able to keep many of their major key players healthy, which hasn’t been the pathway in Zac Taylor’s first two seasons.

Unfortunately, the bug hit the team on Sunday, causing them to lose key contributors on the defensive and special teams units, respectively. Wilson hadn’t been having the outstanding season in kickoff returns we’ve seen over the past two years, but his loss from an ACL injury leaves a void.

Davis-Gaither was cementing his status as a solid role player on defense after being one of the most improved players in preseason. His early exit undoubtedly hurt the Bengals’ ability to stop some of the Cleveland offensive attack.

Both have been placed on I.R., with Davis-Gaither getting a second look at his foot. The hope is that this will be a short-term stint, but the losses hurt, regardless.

Letting the Browns have their way at home in familiar fashion:

While the two games (both Bengals losses) in 2020 were nail-biters, the way in which Cleveland was successful was exactly how they wanted things to be drawn up. Namely, letting the offensive line pave the way for a devastating rushing attack, while minimizing Mayfield’s attempts to those in which he would be highly-successful.

The Bengals, Taylor and Anarumo know this formula now, as they’ve seen it in four contests prior to Sunday. Yet, Nick Chubb had yet another 100-yard rushing performance, complete with a trademark back-breaking 70-yard run on a two-touchdown day.

As if that wouldn’t have been obvious enough, Mayfield throwing deep downfield on play-actions should have been. The 60-yard bomb to Peoples-Jones was textbook Stefanski-Mayfield.

Yet, Cincinnati allowed this game plan to unfold...again. Despite the free agency additions on defense and the increased level of overall play, the Bengals just keep allowing “The Battle of Ohio” to go Cleveland’s way under Taylor, who is now 1-4 against the Browns.

The turnovers:

Despite what the Bengals wanted and actually were able to do on Sunday, looking back at the end results from last year would indicate that this could go the way of a shootout. That being said, taking care of the football needed to be preached as of utmost importance this week.

Instead, Cincinnati committed three of them while forcing zero, pitting the entire team in a big hole. None of them were at the level of Burrow’s red zone, 100-yard return pick-six by Denzel Ward, that ironically occurred on a second-chance third down because of an offsides penalty.

To boot, Ja’Marr Chase had an uncharacteristic fumble and, simply put, you can’t have a chance to win when your best offensive players commit multiple turnovers. For all of the great things Burrow has done in his young career, the turnovers need to stop.

He’s tied for the league-lead in interceptions right now and with games against the playoff-sniffing AFC West as well as rematches against the AFC North and a 49ers team that stomped them at home a couple of years ago with similar leadership. It’s also on the defense to mitigate these turnovers by forcing more of their own.

Urgency, or lack thereof:

In the week leading up to the game, Kevin Stefanski preached how his team was “desperate for a win” at 4-4 and heading into a divisional clash against Cincinnati. And, by George, his team played like it.

Though they didn’t say it and their 5-3 record may not have screamed it, the Bengals should have approached this game similarly. Maybe not “desperate”, but really embrace the “killer instinct”.

After all, getting to 6-3, while rebounding to an ugly loss to the Jets via a 3-0 first half record against the divisional foes? Oh, yeah.

While the Bengals came out of the gates moving the ball, they crawled in a shell when Burrow threw the pick-six. They responded with a score right away, but fell prey to familiar issues for the rest of the contest.

Maybe their mentality would have been wholly different, if not for the game-chaging play from Ward. Still, two more turnovers and a lack of improving on the basics on defense (scheme, adjustments and tackling) give pause to that optimistic “what if?”.