For all you fans who remain scarred by last season’s Monday Night Beatdown in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers had eight sacks and left Andy Dalton imprints all over the Paul Brown Stadium field, this past Sunday’s encounter in Baltimore had a sickening deja vu quality—right down to the same 27-3 final score. The Ravens blitzed Joe Burrow into oblivion, leaving the rookie looking like a rookie for the first time. The rout included seven sacks, a pair of fumbles, an interception, and the first appearance of Haunted Joe, the shell-shocked look of an overwhelmed passer with no hope of getting the ball downfield. The Bengals managed just 3.2 yards per play in an unfortunate 2019 throwback.
Burrow has now been sacked 22 times, a franchise record through five games. That number doesn’t really begin to account for the endless amount of pressure he’s faced each week, not counting the Jacksonville game. Sunday was the first time I thought he showed the happy feet and rushed field scans that are sure symptoms of a young QB under constant duress, and it scared the bejesus out of me.
I know I’ve probably brought this up far too often already, but the sight of Bill Callahan continues to nauseate me. The revered O-line coach was seemingly set to take over that position on the Cincinnati staff when Zac Taylor was hired, but instead he’s turned the Cleveland line into a machine while the Bengals are stuck with Jim “I believe in Bobby Hart, dammit!” Turner. I understand that Taylor wanted to be comfortable with his assistants in his first head coaching gig, and perhaps Old Man Callahan would have felt like a judgmental presence. But it’s clear in retrospect that the decision to go with Turner, clearly a questionable hire from the jump, was a colossal error, one that may cost Taylor his job if things don’t improve quickly or he sacrifices his buddy. You can’t take a franchise-level quarterback with the top overall pick and have him ruined not even halfway into his first season because he can’t reliably drop back to pass.
I mean, this isn’t something new. The Steelers and Ravens have been tag-team squashing Bengals QBs since at least 2016. It was one thing with Dalton in there, but Burrow was drafted to save the franchise. And they have done nothing to protect him. It’s a catastrophe that everyone saw coming a mile away, and yet nothing was done to stop it. And here we are.
Perhaps lost in the Burrow CringeWatch last Sunday was the horrible sight of D.J. Reader, the expensive free agent signing in the middle of the Bengals defensive line, getting carted off the field with a season-ending quad injury. Reader had been critical in holding the fort inside while Geno Atkins was out with his injury—he returned to play a few snaps on Sunday, still easing his way back into football condition—and his loss will be dearly felt. Indeed, the dream of Atkins at last having a playmaker alongside him at defensive tackle lasted for about a dozen plays. The defensive interior as a unit has been brutalized by injury—aside from the big two, the team is now without Mike Daniels, Renell Wren (both on injured reserve), Josh Tupuo (who opted out), and Ryan Glasgow (so injury beset he was released). At the moment the tackles are a limited Atkins and a grabbag of dudes anonymous even by defensive tackle standards.
So if you’re keeping track, the Bengals have gotten four games and change from their two big free agent splashes of the spring, Reader and corner Trae Waynes, who remains sidelined with a pectoral injury. Other free agents, including Xavier Su’a-Filo and Mackenzie Alexander, have also missed considerable time. It was this kind of non-return on investment that turned the team off to signing expensive free agents in the first place.
It’s terrible luck for sure, albeit the kind of misfortune that always seems to strike in Cincinnati. But the experienced observer of Mike Brown and his family in the ownership box won’t be surprised if the plague of injuries becomes a reason the 2020 splurge isn’t repeated any time soon. Right now, the highest paid Bengals are A.J. Green (shadow of his former self), Atkins, Carlos Dunlap (ineffective and now malcontented), Reader, and Waynes. Cincinnati will be lucky to get 10 effective games combined from that quintet. Should the Browns/Blackburns decide to reel in spending next offseason, a likely potentiality given the almost certain salary cap reduction coming, the rebuild will be greatly hindered, since recent drafts continue to disappoint (this year notwithstanding). Oh, and one of the few productive draft choices in recent seasons, Sam Hubbard, also got hurt Sunday and will be out for who knows how long.
Good times, and I haven’t even gotten to the otherwise invisible Green apparently mouthing “Just trade me” on the sidelines. I’m sure the Bengals would deal Adriel Jeremiah in a second if anyone would offer something for him. But just as no one was trading for him last year while he was on injured reserve, the list of teams eager for an old and infirm wideout is short. It’s hard to put into words how agonizing it is that Green, who we all were counting on to regain at last some of his former form, is likely finito as a weapon. On a franchise with a long list of great receivers, AJG is right there at the top. That he couldn’t even find a way to get open against the Ravens, a team he’s systematically destroyed over the years, is proof enough that his time is sadly past.
But, hey, at the least the defense played passably well! Yes, Lamar Jackson may have been at less than 100 percent, but Cincinnati held him to a mere three yards rushing and kept the Ravens offense out of the end zone in the second half. Seems the gameplan that had Dunlap carping midweek was a good one, mainly as it saw less traditional maneuvering, like using corner Darius Phillips as a highly effective blitzer. Rookie linebackers Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither played well in significant action, and the run gaps were secured far more efficiently than in the previous games. Whether this is a one-off tactical victory over a unique opponent or a true building block remains to be seen, but at least one side of the ball wasn’t a disaster.
The next quarterback up is Jackson’s polar opposite, Philip “The Statue of Limitations” Rivers, and the Indianapolis Colts. More worrying is the top-ranked (by DVOA) Colts defense, though their Adjusted Sack Rate is middle of the pack. The Indy D was undone by Callahan and the Browns last Sunday, so they will no doubt be snarling and looking forward to every pass rush’s “get right” game against the Bengals this weekend.
Let’s hope Burrow won’t have any lingering PRSD (Post Ravens Stress Disorder) effects.
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 four books, including his newest, “The Divine Miss Marble” from Penguin Random House. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.