Generally speaking, there is a big difference between being 5-5 and 6-4 in the NFL. It’s particularly important this season and in this currently-tight AFC playoff race.
Fortunately for the Bengals, they presently fall into the latter record category and not the former. Cincinnati took care of the Raiders on their home turf in a huge conference matchup last Sunday.
Here are the best and worst facets from the team in that contest:
The defensive line:
It isn’t always consistent from a drive-to-drive basis, but the Bengals’ line has vastly improved its pass-rush from a year ago. Trey Hendrickson is the big reason why, as he’s closing in on double-digit sacks (9.5, to be exact) with seven games to play.
Sam Hubbard is having what looks like his best season as a pro, benefitting from Hendrickson’s arrival and the solid rotation throughout the interior of the line. Speaking of which, D.J. Reader is quietly putting together a really nice season, as he is the highest-rated player in Pro Football Focus’ metrics through 10 games this season.
Throw in the occasional solid plays from B.J. Hill and Larry Ogunjobi, and the Bengals’ defense is playing well, overall. While the offense made plays at critical times, this win over the Raiders was more via strong defense and sound special teams play.
Nice legs there, special teams:
This may end up being of one of the more impressive rookie seasons from an NFL kicker. After notching two game-winners to his name early this season, Evan McPherson entered the NFL record books (tied) with three 50-plus-yard field goals made in one game (51, 53 and 54 yards).
He added another 47-yarder and two extra points for good measure. Meanwhile, Kevin Huber had two punts for 105 yards—a 52.5-yard per punt average. A good day from “the third phase”.
The run defense:
Josh Jacobs is a talented back, but the Bengals largely held him and the Las Vegas rushing attack at bay. Lou Anarumo’s group held the Raiders to just 72 rushing yards on 18 carries, with Jacobs accounting for just 37 of those yards.
His 18-yard scamper was the long run of the day, as Cincinnati is one of the top overall teams against the run this year:
Updated #Bengals rankings:— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonATH) November 23, 2021
Total O: 14
Rush O: 22
Pass O: 12
Scoring O: 9
Total D: 15t
Rush D: 5
Pass D: 26
Scoring D: 9
Turnover +/-: 21t
Run game statements:
Throughout the offseason, the Bengals made multiple moves and public statements to point out their commitment to the run game. Whether it was re-hiring Frank Pollack and designating him the run game coordinator, adding Quinton Spain, Riley Reiff and three offensive linemen as picks in the draft, their words weren’t hollow.
It’s paid off as Mixon is the league’s fourth-leading rusher, in terms of yards, and he was the catalyst on offense against the Raiders. He had 123 rushing yards and two scores, while we also witnessed guys like Spain and even wide receiver Stanley Morgan (who was one of our Unsung Hero nominees earlier this week) springing big blocks for Mixon.
The passing game wasn’t clicking for a variety of reasons (more on that in a minute), and Zac Taylor remained vigilant in the team’s effort to pound the rock. In ideal AFC North fashion, defense and the run game wore down the Raiders towards the end of the contest, as Cincinnati imposed its will.
Stepping on throats:
It was a tight contest throughout the better part of three and a half quarters and midway through the fourth quarter, the Bengals needed a statement drive to ice the game. After grinding through ups and downs on offense, Joe Burrow took command and the Bengals methodically moved down the field for a clinching touchdown pass on a 12-play drive.
It’s no secret that Taylor’s teams have had trouble closing out close games in his tenure. The fact that these Bengals stepped up in a huge way during an essential must-win game and rapidly turned it into a blowout made everyone feel better about the direction of the team.
Lack of penalties and team discipline:
The Bengals had one penalty for five yards in this contest. By contrast, Las Vegas had seven penalties for 77 yards, as this was one of the team statistics that weighed heavily in the Bengals’ favor.
Ever since Taylor took control of the Bengals, he has intentionally crafted a roster filled with high-character players—many of which have held team captain designations at varying times in their football careers. Upper-level football I.Q. and highly-disciplined are adjectives to describe many of the players are on this roster.
Grabbing a much-needed, post-bye, road victory against a quality team:
The fact that the Raiders are/were in the playoff hunt also shouldn’t be lost in translation with everything being considered. Cincinnati hasn’t traditionally been that great out of the bye and, truth be told, they didn’t get off to a great start in this one in some regards, either.
Still, they stayed the course, hit big plays in all three phases when needed and secured a true team win. This is another one of those building block games in a season filled with a bunch of them.
Shocking wide receiver issues:
In the two losses prior to the bye week, we saw the talented Bengals receivers either dropping catchable passes, failing to come down with contested catches and/or struggling to get open. While the latter two issues were minimal on Sunday afternoon, the latter one was still observable.
After the game, Burrow talked about the coverage the Raiders continued to throw at them to limit the deep coverage damage and “take the easy completions”. Still, there were some plays wherein the Bengals’ receivers couldn’t open on longer-developing plays.
Additionally, Tyler Boyd led the team with just six catches and 49 yards, with Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins combining for just five catches for 47 yards, though Chase did have the game-clinching touchdown. Obviously, this isn’t as big of a deal with the huge game from Mixon, but Cincinnati needs to start hitting more big passing plays and the uber-talented wideouts have to come down with more contested catches.
Hits and sacks on Joe Burrow:
Unfortunately, one of the issues mentioned above—sporadic issues of receivers creating separation—is leading to hits and sacks on Joe Burrow. However, that’s just one of a small handful of variables causing No. 9 to engage in more defensive contact than is ideal.
Burrow himself is a guy who likes to maneuver the pocket and rarely bails out of a play. This has led to hits, sacks and the uptick in interceptions, but it’s not something the staff likely doesn’t want to rein in too much, as more positive big plays have come of it than not.
There are still some inconsistencies in pass protection on the line, though it’s far improved than in recent seasons. These combination of factors, as well as the Raiders having formidable edge defenders led to Burrow taking five total hits and three sacks—one of which led to his first lost fumble of the season.
The opening drive result:
Cincinnati was moving the ball a little bit to open the game, but as mentioned above, it ended in a lost fumble. The defense fortunately held very strong to only allow a field goal with great field position for Las Vegas, but it was an inauspicious start for a team coming out of their bye week on what was likely a largely-scripted and well-practiced sequence of plays.