The Bengals Enter a Winnable Stretch

A close win in New Orleans sets up Cincinnati to re-emerge as a title contender by dominating its next three opponents.

Well, the 30-26 comeback win over New Orleans on Sunday wasn’t pretty, but at least we didn’t lose to Andy Dalton. And there is no truth to the rumor that Joe Burreaux and Ja’Marr Chase have petitioned the NFL to move all Bengals home games to Louisiana.

Cincinnati’s victory in the Superdome was a key moment in the nascent 2022 season. First and foremost, it got the Bengals back to .500 and first place in the AFC North. Secondly, and as important, the offense clicked as promised for the first time in 2022. Burrow played almost exclusively in shotgun, as opposed to mixing in a healthy dose of under center snaps, and the difference was stark. He was his normal highly accurate self in the intermediate passing game, and when that’s working the big plays we all want to see are just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the run game worked in balance with the passing game thanks in part to the switch away from the wide zone scheme to the power gap style we discussed last week. There is a misconception that an effective run game means piling up 150-plus yards. In Cincinnati’s case, it more commonly means running effectively as a secondary part of the offense.

For the second straight game the team averaged around five and a half yards per carry, and they had twice as many completed passes as runs. That’s a recipe for success when Joe Burrow is throwing darts to Chase, Tee Higgins, and (at last) Tyler Boyd.

Of course, the Saints featured a traditional “effective run game,” and it almost proved enough to win. Playing without their top wideouts, New Orleans played a collegiate style, running 34 times with a variety of formations and tricks. They gained 228 yards, but the limitations of such a gameplan were apparent as well.

Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was quick to mention that the bulk of New Orleans’ rushing total came on three consecutive big plays in the first half, including a 44-yard jet sweep touchdown, a wildcat run by Taysom Hill, and a long jaunt by Alvin Kamara. Three carries for 99 yards, with the common denominator being missed tackles. That’s an area where the Bengals have been solid all season and one that’s easiest to correct. It isn’t as though the run fits or gap control or communication were the issue. Kamara and Hill are tough guys to bring down, and they made some defenders miss. It happens, but you certainly don’t want to make a habit of it.

The good news is that the tackling improved as the game went on, and the Saints run game stopped gashing the Bengals, mainly from the time Eli Apple, of all players, walloped Hill on another wildcat keeper late in the half. The Cincinnati defense seemed to take energy from that play and played closer to its standard thereafter. This will be important, as the schedule is in a crazy run against top rushing teams—Cincinnati is in the midst of facing the best four clubs by run DVOA: Atlanta, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Cleveland. This comes as elite run stuffer D.J. Reader is sidelined with a knee injury and Reader’s backup at the nose, Josh Tupuo, is also hurt. (Logan Wilson appears to have avoided severe injury, thankfully, but his availability may be proscribed.) The rest of the guys will be severely tested by the Falcons this coming Sunday and the Browns the following weekend.

The good news is that in one area, red zone defense, Cincinnati continues to play extremely well. Four different times the Saints were forced to settle for field goals after moving into the red zone, and that’s where the limitations of relying totally on a run game hurt, alongside having Andy D. as your QB1. Needless to say, those four-point swings were key to the final result.

The Bengals are third in the NFL at preventing TDs in the red zone. And of course you’re probably familiar with another important (and amazing) stat; Cincinnati has yet to surrender a second-half touchdown this season. That’s why Burrow is able to lead comebacks seemingly every week and is a testament to the situational excellence Anarumo and the players have displayed. It isn’t sustainable, obviously, but if a team can be great at any single phase of the game, preventing second half scoring by the opposition is right there at the top.

Some more good underlying numbers: Cincinnati is now sixth in the league in point differential, third in net points per drive, and 12th in DVOA. All are strong efficiency stats that belie the 3-3 record and are good indicators for future success. So all of you screaming to “Fire Zac Taylor” and despairing that the team isn’t winning every week 41-3, let’s r-e-l-a-x.

The Falcons always play like the Saints were forced to last Sunday. So far, it’s been effective. Atlanta is a surprise 3-3 and has covered the point spread in all six games. Even without leading rusher Cordarelle Patterson, they’re committed to the run game so thoroughly that Kyle Pitts, Human Mismatch, caught his first TD pass of the season (and just the second of his career) on Sunday. Quarterback Marcus Mariota has hurt opponents with his legs as much or more than his arm. Cincinnati has often struggled against running quarterbacks, with Lamar Jackson being the most obvious example. But the last two weeks have provided some good practice for Atlanta’s style. The Falcons are playing like the service academies do in college football, relying on opponents not being able to adjust in a short amount of time. Here’s hoping Cincinnati’s schedule precludes that issue.

Meanwhile, the Falcons are 29th in the NFL in defensive DVOA and could be down both starting cornerbacks (including superstar A.J. Terrell) on Sunday. We could see a rerun of the Saints game with both teams piling up points. An early lead will be nice to see, to force Mariota to throw more than the 14 times he did last weekend and get the Falcons away from their strength in the running game.

The next trio of games, as Burrow himself pointed out, will be critical in determining the season’s trajectory for Cincinnati. After Atlanta come winnable games against Cleveland and Carolina. Do well in this stretch, and the team will have a nice cushion for when the schedule stiffens in the second half of the year. Scuffle, and the possibility of being touched out for a playoff berth becomes more likely.

Cincinnati has the opportunity now to get to where we all believed it should before the season began.

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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