Annnnnnddddd…. Ker-splat. Any optimism Cincinnati took home from the Pacific Northwest after the tough loss to Seattle in Week 1 dissipated in the heat by halftime in the home opener Sunday. Historically the 49ers break the Bengals’ hearts in excruciating fashion. This was an old-fashioned ass-kicking, 41-17, and it wasn’t that close.
Lou Anarumo is a new coordinator for the Bengals, and it was never plausible there wouldn’t be some growing pains as the players learned his defense. Sunday was like being stretched out on the rack. Sam Hubbard, who dominated in Seattle a week ago but was quiet against the Niners, was optimistic after the game. “There was no bad attitude or screaming at each other on the field,” he said. “It was better than the hostility we had last year.”
Maybe, but from what I saw, a little hostility—or some Pacman Jones–style dogassing—was warranted. It wasn’t the blown coverages and miscommunication that troubled me so much as the lack of effort on many of the San Francisco runs, with the associated atrocious tackling. The Niners rolled up tons of yards after the catch on pass plays as well. That wasn’t Roger Craig and Ricky Watters out there, either. The Bengals acted like they’d never seen misdirection or screen passes before.
The back seven is so easily blocked it hurts. Forget David Fulcher; no current Bengals defender brings it half as hard as Madieu Williams or Reggie Nelson. Football success often boils down to who wants it more: runner or tackler, receiver or defender, blocker or lineman. There are hundreds of individual battles every game that determine the outcome. In Week 1 against Seattle, the Bengals won many if not most of those battles. Against San Francisco, they barely competed. And that—not how many snaps featured Bear fronts or whose responsibility it was to cover Marquise Goodwin—was what counted.
Meanwhile, the running game, or rather the lack of it, is a disaster that threatens to undo anything and everything head coach Zac Taylor wants to accomplish. As devoted readers know, play-action football doesn’t require a team to “establish the run” to be effective, but you have to be able to take a handoff occasionally without immediately trying to dodge a tackler. Much as in 2017, Joe Mixon and his compatriots have zero chance from the outset.
Through two weeks, Cincinnati averages the least amount of time before running backs are contacted, leading to a hard-to-fathom 1.8 YPC, also last in the NFL. On Sunday, the Niners had a slanting D-lineman in the backfield at the snap on seemingly every play. The line was scarcely passable with Cordy Glenn in at left tackle, but they’re horrendous in his absence. (Glenn remains in the concussion protocol as of this writing, and the longer it lingers the less likely it is that he returns this season, if ever.)
Rookie left guard Michael Jordan, who’s looked good at times and overmatched at others, was carted off the field Sunday and will probably miss at least a week. Of the other linemen, only right guard John Miller played well. It’s worth remembering that the Rams invested heavily in their offensive line (including signing a certain left tackle and locker room leader away from the cheapskate Bengals) before successfully implementing most of Sean McVay’s program, which of course produced Taylor. The Bengals’ offensive game plan Sunday wasn’t bad overall, but it’s hard to accomplish any of it when the plays are blown up before they develop.
And when Bad Andy Dalton shows up. One week after a stunning 418-yard performance in rainy Seattle, his decision-making and inaccuracy issues that have kept him mired in the “average” tier of signal-callers league-wide returned with a vengeance. After all this time in the league, we can’t be surprised when Dalton follows a good game with a shoddy one. That’s who he is, and that’s why the term “DaltonCoaster” was coined. When it gets rolling downhill, he can really look bad. Despite his terrible interception at the end of the first half, one that essentially ended the game, he wasn’t completely awful Sunday, but he wasn’t good by any metric. At least we know he has the capacity to bounce back; indeed, it’s his M.O.
Now come the caveats. Yes, it was just one game. Yes, it’s totally unfair to judge anything by the second game of a coach’s career. Yes, the Niners may just be good, and as we said last week Kyle Shanahan’s play designs can make any defense look bad. Yes, at least the Steelers are reeling.
This week’s game against the Bills will be fascinating for those of us who bleed black and orange. Buffalo took ownership of MetLife Stadium by besting the Jets and Jints in consecutive weeks, though there isn’t a ton to be gleaned from those results. If there is a defense worse than Cincinnati’s, it is the New York Giants. The Bills are tough and well-coached and make you earn everything, even if they aren’t especially talented at multiple positions. This will be their home opener, and while that sounds daunting (and usually Cincinnati doesn’t play well in Buffalo), Josh Allen and Co. will spend all week hearing how good they are and how 3-0 will be a layup before the real test the following week, when they host the Patriots.
In other words, this is the classic NFL scenario for confounding experts, all of whom will be on the Bills—just as the chattering classes expected Cincinnati to rout the Niners in its home opener. Call it a trap game or regression to the mean or just the nature of the league, but a Bengals rebound/Bills whiff would be completely fitting.
That’s where we see if Taylor is truly an NFL-caliber head coach. He can design plays and instill a bro-hug culture, but can he lead his men out from the canyon while hostiles are shooting down from the rims? If he can, then the long-term prognosis remains positive.
A lot to ask of a brand-new hire? Yep. Reality of life in the NFL? Believe it.
Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and authored three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.