The Bengals Are Back Down in a Seesaw Season

Two ugly losses in a row have dampened Cincinnati’s early season fortunes, and now the team and fans have a bye week to stew about it.

The Browns are kryptonite to the Bengals. At the moment, we just have to accept that, in the Battle for Ohio, Cincinnati has been forced to retreat across the river to Kentucky.

For years (years!) the Bengals owned the Browns, as Cleveland struggled to find its path toward fielding an actual NFL team (and even as the Brownies gave Pittsburgh fits with many of those same teams). Cincinnati won seven straight before the Baker Mayfield era dawned, and 21 of 27 dating back to 2004. So we shouldn’t make too much of the recent dominance by the brown and orange over the black and orange. The Bengals even won 9 of 12 against the Steelers back in the early 1980s, so anything is possible over a (relatively) short stretch.

Nevertheless, it’s worrying how much Cincinnati continues to struggle with certain elements of Cleveland’s approach, especially their power running game, use of multiple tight ends, and deep shots built off the threat of that rushing attack. They have yet to be able to tackle Nick Chubb. DPJ (Donovan Peoples-Jones) has burned the Bengals far more often than OBJ (Odell Beckham Jr.) ever did. Defensively, Joe Haden was generally a thorn in the side of Bengals’ top wideouts, and now Denzel Ward has seized that mantle.

Sunday’s 41-16 loss was a new low for the Bengals in one respect: Even while struggling to stop Cleveland’s offense, Cincinnati could always put up points on the Browns. They averaged just under 30 points per game in the 1-5 stretch since Mayfield became the quarterback. Early in Sunday’s encounter, it seemed a shootout loomed again.

But self-inflicted errors ended any chance at victory. Ward’s 99-yard pick-six essentially flipped the game script and left the Bengals scrambling for the remainder. To their credit, the offense went right down the field and tied it up, but from there turnovers, dropped passes, and missed tackles handed the game to the Browns on a platter.

Remember just two short weeks ago, when Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase were an unstoppable duo and toast of the NFL? Last Sunday was a jarring reminder that the league is a harsh mistress and that Chase is just nine games into his career, Burrow just 18 1/2 into his. Numero Uno in particular had a game to forget, with a dropped touchdown, another drop on a bomb that would have been either a TD or a huge play into the red zone, and a key fumble that allowed the Browns to take a commanding lead.

Meanwhile, Burrow actually played well, for the most part, considering the situation and the pounding he took when his team was way down and they had to abandon the run. But the interceptions are a worrying aspect of his otherwise sterling start. He has 11 now, and the two on Sunday were bad, not just in the result (although pick-sixes are always killer) but in the placement of the throws. At least once a game Joey B. makes a head-scratching toss. That’s not always a bad thing—with playmaking quarterbacks you have to live with the bad decisions and the ones that get away. Burrow isn’t Brett Favre in that regard yet. But right now his extreme confidence is getting him in trouble in spots, and on Sunday it hurt the team.

But he wasn’t the reason the Bengals lost. For the second straight week, the culprit was the defense, a top five unit through seven games that suddenly forgot how to tackle. Pessimists will say that the strong start to the season was a mirage, that the deep but starless group was playing over their collective heads, and a regression was inevitable. That’s fair to a point, but the 2019-20 levels of shoddy play on display against the Jets and Browns is more than mere slippage. The fundamentals broke down again and again. The Lou Anarumo Apologia Tour has been cancelled for now, as he struggles to get his guys into the proper positions. For the last eight quarters, they’ve been polenta-level soft.

So now what? A well-timed bye week, that’s what. At least, from the team perspective it is well-timed; for the fans, it’s awful. A week off to scan the league from the sofa while anxiety-free about Cincinnati is nice after a win or two, but enduring it while on a losing streak is torture. My fear from last week’s column has come to fruition: The next chance to be happy won’t come until November 21 in Las Vegas, nearly a full month from the last time the Bengals won (in Baltimore).

The Raiders won’t be an easy out, despite the carnage that’s gone on in the desert with the l’affaires Jon Gruden and Henry Ruggs. Derek Carr is a substantially underrated quarterback, and barring a sea change in the bye week you have to figure the Raiders will put up points.

The key will be Cincinnati’s offense, and therein lies the rub. The Bengals’ O at the halfway point is a strange mixture of electrifying and stultifying. On a play-by-play basis, they aren’t good—just 22nd in offensive DVOA and 29th in first downs per game. But overall they’re getting the job done, thanks to the big plays (ninth in points per game and likewise ninth in yards per play). Burrow’s stats mirror the offense as a whole. His efficiency has been poor—one spot below Tua Tagavailoa in DVOA, for goodness sake—but he’s obviously been explosive, with 20 passing touchdowns, good for third in the league (tied with Patrick Mahomes). Joe Mixon has also been a boom or bust back. He’s fourth in the NFL in rushing yards, and only three players have more touchdowns from scrimmage. But he’s just 18th in DYAR and 22nd in DVOA, meaning his down-to-down efficiency is lagging behind his overall effectiveness.

Going forward, to Sin City and beyond, the Bengals need to clean up this chasm and to stop relying on the home run balls that will become harder to hit as defenses adjust to Chase’s game-breaking ability and the weather turns nasty. An offense more equipped to sustain drives can overcome a defense that’s just mediocre, not superb, which seems like their natural level.

Overall, though it doesn’t feel like it after the 5-2 start, back in September we all probably would have signed for a 5-4 mark at this point. Given the AFC’s morass of muddle, anything remains possible. A fortnight ago, Cincinnati was the No. 1 seed in the conference; today, they’re No. 10 and out of the playoffs.

The good news is that situation can seesaw back upwards just as quickly. But the Bengals will have to show that the last two games were an aberration for it to happen.

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.

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