Well, that could have gone better. As mentioned last week, I was in attendance this past Sunday at Soldier Field to witness our beloved Bengals go down rather tamely to the homestanding Chicagoans, 20-17. The score was flattering to Cincinnati, who scored two touchdowns in one minute of game action late in the fourth quarter to shockingly put the outcome in doubt. It all happened so fast while I was gazing out at the cerulean blue of Lake Michigan visible from our seats high atop the action and contemplating leaving the stadium to go for a walk—then suddenly I was thrust back into the action.
And then Trey Hendrickson, the Bengals’ $14 million man, couldn’t bring down Justin Fields on an all-important third and nine, and the comeback was aborted. I for one have little doubt that, given the opportunity, Joe Burrow would have thrown his third touchdown pass of the quarter to go with the three interceptions he threw earlier. The symmetry was just too perfect. Alas. Amazingly enough, Burrow had gone 200 straight attempts without a pick, the longest such streak in the NFL, before getting intercepted on three straight throws, a statistical oddity I would have greatly enjoyed had it happened to anyone else.
So what went wrong? After all the optimism stemming from the opening win over the Vikings, the Bengals laid an egg for most of the game in ChiTown, much to the delight of the sellout crowd. After a 2020 with no fans allowed at Soldier Field, Bears fans were pent up and dying for a win, a karma unquantifiable by stats but relevant nonetheless. I should note that Bengals fans were surprisingly legion in the stands.
In brief, the offense couldn’t do anything. For the 24th time in Zac Taylor’s 34 games as coach, the Bengals scored two touchdowns or fewer. During his tenure, only the punchless Jets and Jaguars have scored fewer points. The Bears looked one step ahead on defense the entire game and came up with key plays when needed (punching the ball from Tee Higgins, sacking Burrow out of field goal range on the first drive, stopping them on fourth and short). Cincinnati’s defense did much the same to Chicago’s offense, especially once old pal Andy Dalton was lost to a knee injury, but it wasn’t quite enough. Had Logan Wilson managed to scoop up a Fields fumble and score in the third quarter, maybe the Bengals win the slugfest. But Fields made a great play to get the ball back, and the moment was gone.
Much was made postgame about Cincinnati’s failure to utilize the deep passing attack until the game was (apparently) out of reach. There is some truth to that, but of more importance was the failure to punish Chicago for sitting back in its base two-deep zone. The Bears dared the Bengals to make hay on the ground with no safeties up in run support, and it worked. Joe Mixon, after a tremendous game against the Vikes, could not go anywhere despite the light boxes he faced. Chicago was thus free to play deep safeties and have their corners squat on the short stuff.
It made for a tough afternoon for Burrow, even before the picks. He still isn’t quite right, as anyone can see—the arm is fine, but the magical elusiveness in the pocket and play extension unsurprisingly isn’t back yet. With free runners and stunts continuing to bedevil his blockers, Burrow is feeling the heat and is unable to bail out his linemen with agility, especially in the empty sets he and Taylor love but are ineffective thus far. I wasn’t really worried by the interceptions—one was a tremendous play by an All-Pro, Roquan Smith, one a crappy read, and the other more of a fumble caused by a pass rusher hitting Burrow—but I was bothered by a long throw to Ja’Marr Chase that sailed hopelessly out of bounds in Daltonesque fashion.
“We’ve broken him!” I cried out.
“Who?” my girlfriend replied.
But then two plays later, Burrow hooked up with Chase on a TD bomb to the other side, and I calmed down (a bit).
We will get a better feel for how Joey B. has bounced back this Sunday. Yes, it’s Steelers Week, that dreaded seven days that comes twice every fall to remind us of how far the team has to go, last season’s miracle win behind Ryan Finley notwithstanding (that was more about how far Pittsburgh had fallen). Blitzburgh’s dizzying number of pass rushers always seem to come in hot and angry when they see Bengals stripes in front of them, like the toro and the red cape. T.J. Watt may be bruised (he dinged up his groin last Sunday), but he’s dangerous even at three-quarters speed, as are Cameron Heyward, Melvin Ingram, and the rest of the Steelers rush unit, which is on a 75-game sack streak entering this weekend.
Beyond Watt, Joe Haden and Devin Bush were out for last week’s Steelers loss to Las Vegas, and Tyson Alualu busted his leg in the game. Meanwhile, Ben Roethlisberger is claiming another owwee, this one a chest injury. As we all know, Roethlisberger’s claims of injury aren’t worth the X-ray paper they’re printed on.
I’m more encouraged by Pittsburgh’s lack of offense over the first two weeks, especially in the run game. Incredibly, the game’s biggest mismatch might be Cincinnati’s run defense against their running offense—it’s actually in our favor! After two games, only Carolina has a better run defense DVOA than the Bengals, and the overhauled tackle rotation of Larry Ogunjobi, D.J. Reader, Josh Tupou, and B.J. Hill has been the best position group on the team. The ends and linebackers, especially Wilson, have stepped up as well. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh’s run game is 28th in DVOA, despite the addition of first-round pick Najee Harris. As we know all too well, a top back is useless unless the line opens things up for him, and so far the Steelers’ reworked O-line has yet to cohere.
The game probably comes down to which maligned set of blockers has the better afternoon. As the Raiders showed, Pittsburgh can be beaten by big pass plays if they have the time to develop. Chase has caught two long ones in as many weeks and figures to be a key figure in Sunday’s game plan. An early display of deep firepower would help immensely, though the Bengals will still need to take advantage if they can force Pittsburgh to back off and play a two-deep shell, giving Cincinnati numbers in the run game. That will no doubt be an area of work in practice.
One thing that perhaps will be different about this Bengals-Steelers encounter (14 of the last 16 having been won by the black and gold) is the elimination of the “here we go again” feeling that usually pervades Cincinnati’s sideline. While they fell short of a miracle in Chicago, it was notable that the Bengals didn’t roll over and go away meekly when the world caved in during the four-turnovers-in-four-drives stretch. Burrow is always going to keep coming, and that seems to have extended to the rest of the team. They may not win on Sunday, but they’re certain to keep fighting until the end.
And I won’t be traveling to witness this one in person, so good things can certainly happen.