Burrow Is Banged Up, Sure, but What’s Up With the Bengals’ Defense?

The D-line got dominated by Baltimore’s backups. Monday Night Football already feels like a must-win game.
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The air finally has a little nip to it, so that must mean it’s mock draft season! Who do we want in Cincinnati next season: tight end mismatch weapon Brock Bowers or edge rusher deluxe Jared Verse? Perhaps we can reprise 2021 and have a Marvin Harrison Jr./Olu Fashanu wideout-vs.-offensive-tackle debate. Or, given Joe Burrow’s health issues, do we grab Caleb Williams or Michael Penix to replace him?

Yes, at 0-2 we might as well tank the season and grab that high draft pick, right? After all, to listen to the panicked Bengals fandom and the national media, 2023 is already a lost year, a “season from Hell” in the words of one (Chiefs-worshipping) pundit.

This is all nonsense, of course. As we all know, the Bengals were 0-2 last year, then 4-4, and ripped off 10 straight wins, including a pair in the postseason. Yes, no team has ever done it twice in row—but then no historical teams operated in the current 17-game, seven-playoff-team universe either. Anyway, how many times does Burrow have to rewrite history before it becomes the expectation?

Well, there’s the rub: The main difference between last season and this is Joey’s calf, which he tweaked at the end of Sunday’s frustrating 27-24 loss to a shorthanded but well-coached bunch of Ravens. Even before that, the leg was clearly bugging him, although he seemed to improve as the game went along. Now we’re in Burrow-limbo, which is not a fun party game but a place of terrible uncertainty, where even if Burrow plays Monday night against the Rams we can never be sure if the leg will be 100 percent but a condition that will likely exist throughout this campaign.

Maybe Ja’Marr Chase was right when he said back in the summer he thought Burrow should sit half the season to make sure he was healthy. We all giggled, Nice idea, Uno, but Joey’s fine. Turns out, maybe JB’s best buddy knew better. Of course, punting on four to eight games at the beginning of the year isn’t tenable either, so we just need to cross our fingers and hope the calf doesn’t deteriorate or lead to a worse injury a la Aaron Rodgers or Kevin Durant.

Other than Burrow’s leg, of course, there were a couple of other areas of concern Sunday, primarily on defense. Chidobe Awuzie, unsurprisingly, has yet to return to the All-Pro level he was playing at before his torn ACL last Halloween. The team recognizes that, and he isn’t following enemy No. 1 wideouts or anything. But being beaten for a touchdown by Nelson Agholor is a low moment for any corner. Yes, it took a superb throw by Lamar Jackson, but, still, we’re talking about this guy. We need Chido to get back to where he was for the secondary to be elite.

The secondary overall played much better (especially safety Dax Hill, who showed off the explosiveness and playmaking that made him a first-round pick) than the front six. In what can only be described as a disaster, the Ravens game was a throwback to the days when Lamar’s speed and elusiveness forced Cincinnati to build a roster in order to combat him. Said roster did very little. There was no pass rush at all, the run fronts were consistently shredded or out-leveraged, and the linebackers (mainly Logan Wilson) took poor angles and got caught up in the wash far too often. This despite the fact that Baltimore played without left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Tyler Linderbaum. Their modest O-line dominated our richly paid sextet.

Jackson thus was able to stand in the pocket and unhurriedly choose his targets or tiptoe out of trouble for backbreaking gains on the ground, while the running backs (none of whom were J.K. Dobbins, remember) piled up 178 yards on nearly five yards per carry. The Ravens were especially efficient on first down, setting themselves up for four quarters of third and manageable, going 8-9 on third and four or fewer (they were 1-5 on third and 5+). When your offense is struggling, it needs a huge balancing act from the defense, which has happened so often over the Bengals’ magical last two seasons. That most decidedly did not happen Sunday. Cincinnati got pushed around, and that can’t be repeated if the team is to accomplish anything this season.

There was some optimism to gleaned, however, especially when the offense began to move the ball in the second half. Cincinnati averaged 5.46 yds per play in their last five drives, which resulted in a field goal, two TDs, a goal line pick, and a 3-and-out. That level of production is top five in the league stuff. The Bengals continue to be last in the league in that metric, thanks to the horror show in Cleveland (2.6 YPP) and the first couple of nothingburger drives on Sunday. But the tide turned, in a similar fashion as it did in the second half of the Week 2 Dallas game a year ago, another three-point loss that had the chattering classes writing off the Bengals then as well.

Will they turn it around this time? As with everything in the NFL, it’s all on the quarterback. The line for Monday’s game has shifted, with Cincinnati dropping from 6.5 point favorites against the L.A. Rams to just 2 in some places, meaning Vegas, like us, is concerned with Burrow’s availability. It surely would be nice to gain some measure of revenge for that game from February 2022 against the Rams, who scarcely resemble the crew that denied us a deserved title—though they look surprisingly spry for a team left for dead.

Can the Bengals win without Burrow? Way back in 2020, Cincinnati whomped the heavily favored Steelers with their third-string quarterback on Monday Night Football, a game forever remembered as the night Vonn Bell knocked JuJu Smith-Schuster into next week. For one magical evening, when the Ring of Honor grows and the fans are a force, it’s possible to see Jake Browning leading the Bengals to a primetime win.

But of course that isn’t sustainable long-term. Besides, with this injury Burrow could sit a week, a fortnight, or a month and then come back and immediately retweak the calf. Or he could play every game and be fine.

I wish I had more answers, but short of turning all medical decisions over to Ja’Marr we’ll just have to wait and see. It’s a tough way to tiptoe through the minefield that is an NFL season, but that’s life with a dinged-up franchise quarterback.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein. Listen to him on Mo Egger’s show on 1530AM every Thursday at 5:20 p.m.

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