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Bengals at Cardinals Preview: High Heat

The Bengals’ urgency is as high as the desert temperatures with yet another early season “must-win” opportunity staring them in the face this Sunday.

How does one best create a sizable shift in momentum? Is it with a singular, gigantic moment or a collection of small ones leading to a goal being achieved?

We’ve seen examples of both personal and professional experiences. And, while the game of football is an intense combination of the physical and mental, emotions also greatly play into the sport.

Solid plays lead to more stacking on top of each other, as does winning begetting winning. However, as was the case with the Cincinnati Bengals throughout the 1990s, continuous losing leads to a “when is the other shoe going to drop?” mentality and a mindset of “here we go again” at the first hint of things not going well.

Speaking of the “Lost Decade” and Bengals football, we’ve seen a similar brand of football being played through the first month of the 2023 season. By now, you’ve probably heard some of the horror stories from this year: second-most rushing yards allowed entering Week 5, just three offensive touchdowns scored in four games, and zero of them coming in the first half of games.

Joe Burrow, who entered the season with the highest completion percentage and owner of the fourth-highest single-game passing yards in NFL history, has been channeling his inner Jay Schroeder, throwing just two touchdowns and as many interceptions in four games to start the year. Not coincidentally, the Bengals sit at an uber-disappointing 1-3.

The foe they face this weekend isn’t overly familiar, but the Arizona Cardinals sport an identical losing record. However, that contingent seems to be encouraged with things, as they’ve shown much more spunk than originally thought while not having Kyler Murray under center.

Fill-in journeyman, Joshua Dobbs, has been a pleasant surprise, throwing four touchdowns and zero interceptions with a 99.4 rating this year. He’s also only been sacked six times (compared to Burrow’s eight), which is pretty solid for a guy who likes to move around in the pocket and scramble.

He has put the ball on the turf in the form of four fumbles, though, providing a semblance of opportunity for a Bengals defense that has been somewhat opportunistic this year (five forced turnovers in four games). Making Dobbs uncomfortable and forcing a rare turnover from him is just one of the keys to this battle.

One could say that James Conner has had one of the quietest solid NFL careers of nearly any running back in recent years. After being diagnosed and admirably beating a 2015 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis, Conner went on to make a Pro Bowl with both the Steelers (2018) and Cardinals (2021).

He’s racked up 44 career rushing touchdowns as a starter who gets rotated out somewhat often and a respectable 4.2 average per rush over the course of six-plus seasons. He’s sporting a lofty 5.1 average this year, so he provides a problem against a tired Bengals defense that has had trouble defending the run in 2023.

When we previewed the game with former NFL tight end Ed Smith who covers the Cardinals for the BLEAV network this week (Irv, Sr.’s brother and Irv, Jr.’s uncle), even he noted this Arizona roster is a cast of unknown characters. They’ve shown more than expected and have definitely not exhibited quit this year.

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The Cardinals are taking a walk of some kind this week—and whether that’s one in the park or straight into a buzzsaw is anyone’s guess.

When you’ve seen the offensive inefficiencies this year, it’s easy to point to the former. Scoring 12.25 points per game isn’t scary to any squad, be it a 1-3 or 3-1 club. Throw in some animated press conference quotes after the rough loss against the Titans, and it’s an easy thought about this thing coming off of the rails in Cincinnati.

But, there are signs that the crossroads they face will lead them in the intended direction. First and foremost, Burrow says the calf feels about the best it has since the “strain heard ‘round the world.” On Wednesday, wide receiver Tyler Boyd quipped about the masses rejoining the Bengals bandwagon in December when the team will be in playoff contention.

Burrow is always professional and focused, but that seems to be particularly emphasized this week. “Yes,” Burrow emphatically said about a “must-win” situation in Arizona this weekend before the reporter could even fully finish asking the question.

Cue the big-eyes emoji.

Former Bengals quarterback and YouTube QB School channel host J.T. O’Sullivan provided a blend of frustration, optimism, and confusion in the breakdown of Burrow and the offense against Tennessee this week. In his opinion, a blend of Burrow’s calf, poor play-calling, and a lack of focus/execution doomed the Bengals vs. the Titans and has been a bit of a theme throughout the year.

And while O’Sullivan readily admits that he defaults to defending Burrow and quarterbacks in general, he also noted Burrow’s play. And, of course, the disclaimer that it was/is affected by the calf was also noted. Regardless, watch for a great breakdown.

We can talk about the defense needing to shut down Conner and emulating an output similar to the dominant Monday night one against the Rams all day long. But, in reality, it’s about the offense being FAR more efficient and potent to not only win this game.

Easier said than done.

Burrow hasn’t been himself—be it from calf effects or not. The pass protection has been improved from macro and even some run-blocking perspectives, but failures to protect extra blitzing players doomed them last week. Sprinkle in the occasional questionable play call and stars not always responding when called upon, and there’s your 1-3.

If the offense picks it up, even in the form of occasional, sustained drives that even net zero points in lieu of the crushing three-and-outs, this makes this game far easier for Cincinnati. “It takes a village,” they say.

For picking this game, I’m tired of having yolk on my face for believing in the talent the Bengals have amassed, only to see them continuously underachieve. Maybe my actual, underwhelming presence in this game will provide a different result, but I’m doubtful that will have any impact whatsoever.

Again, as important as the “X’s and O’s” and raw physical talent are in this game, emotion and momentum are also important components. If Cincinnati even feels they’re close to some of the better single-game offensive performances we’ve seen in 2021 and 2022, look out. It’s the football equivalent of tapping the shoulder of a napping giant.

Burrow doesn’t address the team in an animated fashion often, be it in one of those “player-only meetings”, or otherwise. But, when he does, it resonates with his teammates. That apparently occurred in an all-hands-on-deck effort to get things back on track.

I think we see elements of the old Bengals, but it will still be rough without Charlie Jones and possibly Tee Higgins. So, if it is a win, it’s probably a slogging one, with a “meh” end score.

Bengals 20, Cardinals 17

A win is a win.