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Bengals vs. Rams Preview: Locking Horns Under the Lights

The Bengals enter a must-win primetime game against a foe they rarely see yet have strong ties with in many facets.

Coaching trees exist all over the NFL. For instance, Bill Belichick’s thumbprint is all over the NFL and college ranks, as is that of Andy Reid.

For how young Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay is (37), the amount of success and limbs extended from his own coaching tree is quite staggering. Aside from two Super Bowl appearances with one win, head coaches who’ve been under McVay’s tutelage litter the league.

Kevin O’Connell heads up the Vikings, Matt LaFleur has had some big success with the Packers and while Brandon Staley has been on the hot seat with the Chargers, he, too, is part of the “playoff appearance club.”

Oh, yeah. There’s also this guy named Zac Taylor, who heads up the Cincinnati Bengals. In conjunction with Joe Burrow, the duo has broken through decades-long stumbling blocks within the franchise, slaying long-standing postseason demons in four short years together.

Taylor was previously an NFL offensive coordinator, albeit on an interim status, back in 2015 after the Dolphins fired Bill Lazor. Remember him? The NFL truly is a flat circle.

After a stint with the same title with the Cincinnati Bearcats, Taylor linked up with McVay in Los Angeles. Taylor manned up positional coaching posts and became a hot head coaching name in the 2019 offseason.

The Bengals pounced on Taylor, and he immediately brought an intoxicating blend of hard work and uber-affable “aw shucks” Midwestern mentalities, as well as mixing in the L.A. flash and sizzle that he and McVay cooked up out west. It’s probably why he and the Rams’ head man worked so well together, as the now-California-engrained McVay has Ohio roots himself.

Their relationship as head coaching foes first came to a head in London back in 2019, with McVay besting the rebuilding Bengals, 24-10. It was an important game in the history of the Bengals, as it served as an important barometer for where they were as a team and what was needed for a massive rebuild. And, for a variety of reasons, this game meant far less than their next clash.

In one of the better Super Bowls in NFL history, the Bengals and Rams went toe-to-toe, with Cincinnati losing in the final seconds. McVay and his Rams celebrated on the field of their newly-built west coast monument, while the images of disappointed faces peering through raining blue and yellow confetti on the Bengals’ sideline has been burned into the mind’s eye of Who Dey Nation.

That’s enough for the history lesson. Monday night is here and now, and the time for the Bengals to turn things around is also at the present.

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For the second straight season, the Bengals are off to an 0-2 start, and while there are some similarities to the respective struggles, there are also stark differences. The biggest, of course, is the health of Joe Burrow entering Week 3.

It seemed as if his strained calf was a thing of the past with five weeks of rest. But, at the end of Week 2, Burrow re-injured it, putting his status for this critical game up in the air. He’s officially questionable to play on the final injury report.

For Burrow, if it’s strictly about pain management, my gut feeling is that he’ll play—even if said pain teeters on the severe. If the medical staff told him that there is a significant risk of an additional and more serious issue popping up from playing, then it’s probably more rest.

Cincinnati’s Week 1 performance was an absolute debacle. The offense couldn’t sustain any drives, put up just three points, and was a total mess. A lethal combination of rust, bad weather, and Burrow’s calf probably not being 100% all played a part.

The first two quarters against the Ravens the following week brought much of the same, with the team’s first touchdown coming in the second quarter and it being on special teams. That alone should point out the overall ineffectiveness of the Cincinnati offense this year.

The Cincinnati defense has allowed the third-most rushing yards in the NFL through three games at 414 (would you believe the Steelers are actually the second-worst of all teams?), while also allowing an average of 25 points per game. It’s not a formula for success, but how much of that blame resides in the Bengals’ offense.

Through the first 22 drives of the Bengals’ season, Cincinnati’s offense has mustered a staggering 10 three-and-outs. This has put the defense in the precarious position of taking too many snaps and on too quick of a turnaround time.

An important player on defense for the Bengals this week could be Joseph Ossai. For the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain in the preseason, Ossai had two full practices to end the week. With the pass-rush suffering a bit from a high volume of snaps from the starters, having an effective rotator like Ossai should provide a big boost.

The last time these two teams faced off, the storyline was in how the then-battered Bengals’ offensive line got owned by Aaron Donald and his Rams linemates. While that’s still an obvious key this week, Cincinnati’s offensive line is in MUCH better shape than they were in Super Bowl LVI and are playing above-average by league standards.

That makes the running game for each team will be an interesting facet on Monday night. Joe Mixon has arguably the most consistent player on the entire Bengals team, while the Rams are committing to Kyren Williams after shipping Cam Akers to the Vikings this week.

Mixon is averaging 4.4 yards per carry through the first two games, while Williams is a Swiss Army Knife of a player for Los Angeles. With Father Time potentially catching up with the great Matthew Stafford, Burrow’s calf-heard-round-the-world, and Donald patrolling the interior of the defense, it might be a running back show under the Monday night lights.

Much has been made on No. 9’s status this week. Burrow was seen in helmet and pads both on Thursday (didn’t practice) and went limited in practice on Friday, with some light warm-up throwing being seen beforehand.

As we sit here on the weekend, I’m going with the stance that he suits up for a critical primetime clash (even with recent quarterback developments in Cincinnati).

And, as mentioned before, I’m leaning on the signs of optimism we saw in the second half of last week. Foundational building blocks of progress were laid, and offensive rhythm was visible.

And, when the chips are down, you need a win, and things look bleak, Burrow is the guy you want on your sideline. We’ve seen in 2019, 2021, and last year after an 0-2 start. It feels like there’s a little bit of “been there, done that” with Cincinnati’s cast of characters, even with old-school Queen City pessimism starting to seep into the walls of Paycor Stadium.

It won’t be pretty, but this Monday night will be another step in progress and in the march towards the postseason.

Bengals 24, Rams 20